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How to sell South Dakota tourism: State homes in on advertising, social efforts

FNS Photo by Sean Ryan Travelers stop and walk the ground at the Chamberlain, S.D., rest area Thursday afternoon.

MITCHELL, S.D. — Nearly 500 miles from South Dakota’s border, the Rushmore State was shown in prime position.

It was behind home plate at Major League Baseball stadium Miller Park in Milwaukee, as the Brewers took on their rivals, the Chicago Cubs. On the padding behind home plate during an April early season series, a banner displayed Mount Rushmore, with “South Dakota” written in cursive script.

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The promotional banner was visible on TV more than 850 times during the three-game weekend series, accounting for more than two hours of television time. The advertising campaign during the three-game series cost about $35,000. It also included a booth in the stadium’s concourse to provide travel information and a 30-second advertisement on the video board before the game.

To some, the banner may have seemed out of place. It’s not every day a banner at an MLB ballpark is viewed behind home plate, enticing onlookers to visit South Dakota’s landmarks and attractions.

But that’s right where South Dakota Secretary of Tourism Jim Hagen wants to be.

South Dakota is the fifth-smallest state in the United States by population, but has the 20th largest tourism budget in the nation, according to data from the U.S. Travel Association.

The advertising method at the ballpark was unique and direct — both of which fit the state’s strategy to get visitors from the Midwest to South Dakota and create buzz in markets that are mostly new to the state’s ad dollars in Milwaukee and Chicago.

The South Dakota Department of Tourism will spend $8.1 million on marketing in 2014. The intention is to get visitors to the main attractions of South Dakota: Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills, the Corn Palace, Sturgis, S.D., and its nationally known pheasant hunting opportunities.

Even more than the state-level marketing employees, the small-town businesses owners, the restaurants, hotels and “mom-and-pop shops” are what really make the state’s tourism efforts successful, Hagen said.

“They’re passionate about the state,” he said. “We have so much to offer and people care. They want to share what we have in South Dakota.”

Those early season advertising efforts set the stage for this time of year, because July is the state’s most common vacation month for visitors, followed by June, based on surveys of travelers taken last year at the state’s visitor centers.

The state splits the $8.1 million in a number of ways. They include television and print advertisements, social media and digital advertising, promotions, research and international marketing, including a consortium with North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming to market the region to Europe and Australia. The national advertising is found mostly in publications such as Midwest Living and Better Homes and Gardens, and targeted campaigns in National Parks Magazine and Yellowstone Journal.

And there’s proof the marketing is paying off for the state.

Almost 17 million people stayed in South Dakota in 2013, up from the 16.4 million in 2012, based on Department of Tourism Research. That number is figured based on total stays, or the number of people in a party such as a family of four and how many times they stay. A family of four that stays in the state for two nights would be counted as eight total stays.

Bird budget It’s less than 100 days until pheasant season opens in South Dakota. Any visitors to the Mitchell Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website can see that, with a large shotgun shell-shaped countdown clock ticking off the time until the new season starts in mid-October.

When summer ends, the state’s second tourism season begins in earnest to bring orange-clad hunters to the state.

CVB Marketing Director Katie Knutson said the effort to get all types of visitors never stops, but the city’s welcoming organization rolls out the “orange carpet” for hunting visitors, including delivering popcorn balls to hunters who stop in the city. On the day before the season opens, the CVB hands out items such as field kits or gun-cleaning materials.

The state plans to spend money in leading outdoors magazines, including a close relationship with Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever magazines and has a program that allows small communities to get grant funding to market themselves around hunting seasons with a “Rooster Rush” campaign.

Social connection For all the work to get a visitor into the state, the interaction doesn’t stop there. Talk about South Dakota on social media, and you’ll likely get a response from Katlyn Richter, responsible for the state’s social media accounts.

“If someone mentions South Dakota on Twitter, for example, we’ll definitely try to reach out to them and let them know that we’re happy to have them here,” she said.

If a visitor who uses social media is going on a road trip through the state and mentions a landmark or attraction, Richter will often offer suggestions on where to go next, such as stopping at Wall Drug or the Corn Palace, working like a digital customer service representative.

“It creates that one-on-one connection that we really can’t get otherwise, and really allows us to build a personal connection there,” she said.

The state is encouraging visitors to use the hashtag “#HiFromSD” while on their trip to the state, whether that’s tagging photos on Instagram or tweeting. Photos tagged on social media with that phrase show up on the state’s website of the same name,

The hashtag “#HiFromSD” has been shared 2,207 times in the last two months since the campaign started, and Richter said that’s translated to the potential of reaching 2 million users on Twitter and nearly 250,000 users on Instagram.

Richter said the department will likely implement a social media campaign for the hunting season as well.

The state also has its popular Mount Rushmore mascots. The four mascots represent the four faces of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. During the spring, the mascots made a trip to Chicago and got on local television shows for some key exposure and managed national publicity on NBC’s “Today” show, hobnobbing with Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford. Last year, the mascots visited 14 cities in eight Midwest states, most notably Omaha, Kansas City, Chicago and Milwaukee. The tourism department said it met more than 250,000 people in person with the mascots.

For all the time spent to draw visitors, Hagen said the role of selling the state is a constant process.

“We always hear two things from people when they visit South Dakota,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘We had no idea your state was so beautiful,’ and they’ll say, ‘We had no idea there was so much to see here.’ That’s a great thing for our state to be known for.”