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Visit Houston’s Instagram launch put up goal-shattering numbers, earning two Bulldog Bronzes

Inspiring visits to one of the South’s largest and most dynamic cities, the Visit Houston brand has long had presence on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. But until June 2015, there was no Instagram account. In an effort to reach out to a new social media demographic (i.e., Millennials), and to tap an opportunity to solicit iconic Houston imagery, the Visit_Houston Instagram account was created. By November 24, 2015, Visit_Houston had reached its goal of 10,000 followers, organized a group of influencers turned brand advocates, and quickly became the leading voice of Houston travel and tourism on Instagram.

Since launching the Instagram account last summer, the initiative has seen unprecedented growth, reaching its follower goal without any budget, instead relying on user-generated content and the development of strong relationships with local influencers-turned-brand advocates. Using the #MyHouston hashtag, with over 55,000 post likes and 2,400 post comments, the campaign has shattered all of its original goals. Read on to see how this effort won a pair of Bronze Awards—in the “Best Use of Social Media” and “Best Campaign Under $10,000 Budget” categories—in Bulldog Reporter’s 2016 Not-for-Profit PR Awards.

The Challenge: Visit Houston’s primary goal is to grow the brand of the Texas city. As the fourth largest city in the country, Houston is a sought-after travel destination known for its world-class culture, culinary acclaim and southern hospitality. The goal of the Visit Houston brand is to share all that the city has to offer in the form of visual content that engages visitors and Houstonians alike.

Visit Houston Instagram page screenshot

“We had no social media budget to work with and knew any success we had would have to come organically,” says Austin Dressman, Visit Houston’s PR coordinator. “We had no social media manager or team to spearhead the campaign either. So we were truly starting from nothing.” The following goals were outlined for the Instagram campaign:

  • Reach 10,000 followers and 40,000 total post likes by December 2015.
  • Become the most followed voice of Houston attractions, events, and travel by December 2015.
  • Create relationships with key Houston Instagram influencers by August 2015.

The major challenge was that there was no dedicated budget for the Instagram initiative. The account relies solely on organic growth. “We had limited time and resources as a team already pre-occupied with other responsibilities. These challenges helped us to prioritize more effectively in the content we collected and shared,” Dressman relates. “We also used the influencers and #MyHouston branding in other projects across other social media channels.”

The team got a little help from regional attractions and events, which donated tickets for contests and features. Southwest Airlines also donated two round-trip domestic tickets for the Southwest Houston Getaway contest winner.

The Strategy: Visit Houston set three distinct objectives at the beginning of the #MyHouston Instagram campaign. “Being genuine and fun is always one of the most important things to employ with social media,” Dressman offers. “People don’t respond to a brand—they respond to a voice. Finding Houston’s voice as a destination and brand has been key in the relationships we’ve built with fans and influencers.”

In order to achieve these objectives, supporting strategies and tactics were created.

Objective 1: Reach 10,000 followers and 40,000 total post likes by December 2015.

  • Strategy 1: Through non-interactive means, collect and post pre-approved user-generated content on a daily basis.
  • Tactic: Create an Instagram account in the last week of May 2015 with a launch in the first week of June 2015.
  • Tactic: Every featured user photo must be preapproved – also creates verbal relationship with user.
  • Tactic: Organically promote Instagram account on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Tactic: Celebrate 10,000 milestone with custom post.
  • Strategy 2: Through moderately interactive means, establish #MyHouston hashtag among top Houston-themed Instagram hashtags.
  • Tactic: Add #MyHouston to every Instagram post.
  • Tactic: Like all appropriate images tagged with #MyHouston by users.
  • Tactic: Post images using relevant Houston, travel, and photography-themed hashtags (including #MyHouston).

“We created the Instagram account without much of a plan, other than reposting cool photos and videos of Houston that I came across. I quickly realized this would not encourage any kind of engagement or brand-building,” says Dressman. “After a few weeks we started branding posts with #MyHouston, planned themed weekly posts, and started to develop relationships with local influencers.”

Objective 2: Become the most followed voice of Houston attractions, events and travel by December 2015.

  • Strategy 1: Through non-interactive means, create distinct style guide for a signature look and feel.
  • Tactic: Repost images showcasing the best of Houston photography.
  • Tactic: Post exclusive archival images of Houston history for #TBT to attract older demographics and showcase the city’s rich past.
  • Tactic: Use themed posts such as #FreeFriday, #TBT, #SundayFunday to add personality to content.
  • Strategy 2: Through highly interactive means, post Visit Houston contests for Houston getaways and ticket prizes – promoting new follower growth and engagement.
  • Tactic: Work with local attractions, venues, and events to give away free tickets to followers participating on contest posts. Establish brand for “Chat with Visit Houston” contest with Houston icons like local sports stars, NASA astronauts, and performers from the arts.
  • Tactic: Work with Southwest Airlines to host Houston getaway contest requiring user engagement.

“We made sure we always asked photographers for their permission before reposting photos with their credit,” Dressman relates. “We invited them to exclusive media meet and greet events and encouraged them to post photos we would later repost. We also planned frequent Instagram takeovers and video chat contests that garnered a great deal of engagement.”

Objective 3: Create relationships with key Houston Instagram influencers by August 2015.

  • Strategy 1: Through highly interactive means, track most influential Instagram users from Houston and comment and repost their content regularly.
  • Tactic: Keep ongoing dialogue with influencers on and off of Instagram by pitching them events and opportunities.
  • Strategy 2: Through highly interactive means, work with influencers to become photographer brand ambassadors in exchange for VIP entry to Houston events.
  • Tactic: Pitch Instagram Takeover’s with influencer photographers on the Visit Houston account.
  • Tactic: To bolster excitement and attendance for the first annual HUE Mural Festival, we worked with some of the most popular Houston-based Instagram users. The festival involved the city being covered in wall murals but acclaimed graffiti artists. We planned to invite influencers to cover the festival as VIP guests – reposting their content with creative credit.
  • Tactic: Give behind-the-scenes access to city events such as Freedom Over Texas and city holiday decorations/celebrations.

“Once we established a voice, we went with it and grew exponentially,” offers Dressman. “Each project we’ve planned on our Instagram has grown in engagement more than the last.”

The Execution: “One big challenge was finding enough quality images to share that created a voice for our brand,” says Dressman. “Once we started making connections and maintaining relationships, this process got much easier. It was also difficult to make the time to follow up on every influencer relationship at times.”

To achieve the first objective, through non-interactive means, Visit Houston collected and posted pre-approved user-generated content on a daily basis through December 2015. A detailed log of user agreements to reposted content was kept. In addition, Facebook and Twitter posts organically promoted the launch of the Instagram account, and when the goal of 10,000 followers was reached on November 24, 2015, a celebratory image was posted.

Through moderately interactive means, “#MyHouston” was established among top Houston-themed Instagram hashtags. #MyHouston was used on every Instagram post, and the Visit_Houston account liked and commented on all relevant #MyHouston-tagged content. Additional hashtags were used on all posted photos to reach out to other audiences.

To meet the second objective, through non-interactive means, a style guide and best practices document was created. Themed images were regularly posted on corresponding days/holidays. As a result, countless Houston photography posts on Visit_Houston have gone viral and been reposted by local news outlets and influencers.

Through more interactive means, Visit Houston hosted contests for Houston getaways and ticket prizes—promoting new follower growth and engagement. The team ran a Video Chat contest promotion calling for follower questions for Houston celebrities, followed by a video with their answered questions and contest winners. They also brokered a partnership with Southwest Airlines for the Houston Getaway campaign contest requiring follower engagement.

Turning to the campaign’s third objective, the most influential Instagram users from Houston were tracked and regularly corresponded with. The campaign team kept ongoing dialogue with influencers on and off of Instagram by pitching events and opportunities. This resulted in increased coverage and images featured on the Visit_Houston account.

Influencers attended signature Houston events as VIPs acting as brand ambassadors and sharing their photos with Visit_Houston. One Instagram Takeover occurred with Budget Travel, and two more were planned for December and Spring with acclaimed Texas photographer @whateveryouare. Also, influencers covered Houston’s HUE Mural Fest along with other city holidays and celebrations. The team reposted their content with creative credit and engaged with their audiences.

The Results: “Our goals were far surpassed in the rapid growth we experienced,” Dressman reports. “We nearly doubled our goal of 10,000 followers to nearly 20k as of this summer (1 year later). We far surpassed our goal of over 40k post likes as well.”

The Visit_Houston Instagram account reached 10,000 followers on November 24, 2015, and as of December 11, the account had 11,452 followers and an average engagement of 241.5 likes and 9.29 comments per post (in the last 14 posts). Since June, Visit_Houston’s Instagram following has grown substantially. Visit_Houston has also seen a dramatic rise in user engagement via likes and comments.
Visit_Houston also surpassed its main competitors in followers and engagement over the span of October – November 2015, making the brand’s Instagram account the definitive voice of travel and tourism in Houston.

Contesting on Visit_Houston has also been extremely successful. The brand ran five different Video Chats with ticket giveaways and call for questions, collecting over 150 individual fan questions and 1036 likes—and each “Chat” gets bigger engagement than the last. Houston icons like Astros baseball star George Springer, NASA Astronaut Clayton Anderson, and the Sugar Plum Fairy lead ballerina of the Houston Ballet were interviewed with user-submitted questions.

The team’s influencer objective was also met and exceeded—Visit_Houston now works with a team of influencers regularly on upcoming Houston happenings. Influencers such as @wvtrmrk (10.4k followers), @jaybun3030 (8,221 followers), @lance_childers (777 followers), and @andrew dao (1,727 followers) have all attended Visit Houston events and promoted Visit_Houston on their personal accounts. The team continues to engage with and repost their images.

The HUE Mural Fest and other city events covered by influencers led to some of our most popular Instagram posts. The influencers also experience great engagement on their accounts.

The team also learned a valuable lesson in the process. “In hindsight, I would like to have spent more time planning for a more effective launch,” Dressman offers. “It’s so crucial to find the voice of your brand. We wasted some time coming to realize that on our Instagram with the #MyHouston campaign.”

Secrets of Success: Dressman provides the following takeaway tips to help your next social media campaign achieve similar results—and showcases why this effort was awarded two Bronzes in Bulldog’s 2016 Not-for-Profit Awards:

  • Be consistent.
  • Be personable and genuine in your voice.
  • Make use of user-generated content no matter what you do.
  • Be organized and get appropriate permissions.

“Visit_Houston has its sights set on 20,000 followers and even more engagement with potential visitors and those who love all things Houston as much as we do,” adds Dressman.

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