It seems that everyone - from corporate marketers to non-profit campaigners - are talking about how important storytelling is nowadays.
In the travel and tourism context, it's not hard to imagine the positive impact of good storytelling: after all, memorable travel experiences are all about stories - stories of the local communities and their cultural traditions, stories told by the expert local guides, and stories about the travelers themselves that become part of the travel experiences.
So how can storytelling be used for destination marketing in a way that gets travelers excited about experiencing all that your destination offers?
Your Destination Does Have Stories. Find and Tell Them!
What does travel storytelling mean for destinations? Storytelling, simply, is a means of conveying and interpreting experiences in a way that engages those you’re sharing the story with. The sharing of experiences is most effectively done through characters - people with unique individual perspectives. And memorable stories have a plot that enriches the experience of the story by illustrating such story components as challenges, conflict, and change.
When you think about these key elements - engaging experiences, people with intriguing perspectives, and memorable events - storytelling for tourism destinations sounds very much like a natural part of what marketing a destination means and what's involved in promoting travel experiences in a destination.
So the first important point to recognize when thinking about the role of storytelling in destination marketing is that your destination does already have great stories, or elements of great stories. The things that make your destination attractive - the people, communities, food, nature - are the sources of your story ideas, and you just need a few key ingredients to turn those ideas into engaging, memorable stories.
Share Experiences Through Multi-Sensory Media
Let's start with how you deliver your stories and where you share them. In terms of how and where to share your stories, storytelling is probably best defined or understood through the impacts that it makes and the impressions it leaves - rather than through strict adherence to certain types of formats or medium.
As you can see, for example, in this Outbounding.org discussion forum about storytelling, there are many different approaches to travel storytelling, and the leading storytellers in our industry are making use of a variety of platforms and medium to share their experiences and inspirations.
A picture is worth a thousand words - so goes the famous saying. When it comes to travel storytelling, a picture is a powerful tool that can sometimes convey so much more than words can. As described in this excellent piece on visual storytelling ("Photography Tips; Visual Storytelling" by Ian Mallory), well captured images add meaning to the viewer's experience, and portray intriguing stories. They are "memories in digital form" that transport the photographer and the viewer to the time and place where the images were taken.
In a similar way, videos can be a great addition to your storytelling toolbox. From this interview piece on Inc. (which is focused specifically on video ads, but still relevant to other types of video storytelling), here's a useful tip on how to create videos to share online that will resonate with viewers:
"If you can allow the viewer to project him or herself into a mental state of experiencing the product and having a positive reaction, it can go a long way toward convincing them that they should take the next step toward having it. If you try to make the response to a product seem more grand or have a larger impact than people intuit what it would, it'll have an adverse effect on your brand. People don't like to be lied to" (Adam Lisagor).
What Makes Your Stories Authentic?
Authenticity is another concept that is often talked about in the context of travel storytelling and destination marketing. Increasingly, travelers are looking for authentic local experiences in the destinations and communities they visit, and this naturally translates to the type of stories that resonate with those travelers.
But when sharing your destination's stories, what does authenticity mean - to you, to the members of your community, and to the traveler? Whose perspectives should your stories represent so that you are promoting authentic experiences that resonate with travelers and respect the locals?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explores questions about authenticity and narrative perspectives in her brilliant TED talk "The danger of a single story", which reminds us that our experiences of countries and cultures are composed of many overlapping stories, and that we run the risk of fostering misunderstandings and prejudices when we learn only from a single story.
The 2014 Ebola virus epidemic has brought to light the alarming tendencies that many people have to rely on single stories: single stories built on a dangerous misconception that the vast continent of Africa is "all the same", and that what's happening in some countries in "West Africa" represents all countries of Africa. Due to the fear driven by these stories, despite being thousands of miles away from the affected areas, East and South African destinations have seen a big dent in tourist arrival numbers, impacting thousands of jobs and livelihoods.
On the other hand, many tourism industry leaders have responded with a united voice to counter the single story about "Ebola in Africa" and to get the important messages across, namely, what is needed to support those countries affected by the disease, and how we can counter the harmful stereotypes that are hurting tourism in non-affected countries.
The Unite 4 West Africa campaign is a great example of this, using the power of stories to transform single-story perspectives into multiple stories about the beauty and the current and future potentials of tourism destinations across Africa. The campaign aims to "help put the ebola outbreak into perspective and to prevent the stigmatisation of the ebola affected countries in the future."
"All these countries had an enormous potential to benefit from tourism, and now they will struggle to break the stigma of Ebola long after the actual medical crisis has been averted. This is where tourism can play such a strong role." - Jeremy Smith, WTM Responsible Tourism Blog
Share Experiences In a Human, Personal Way
Given these lessons about authenticity and diverse perspectives, what can destinations do to use storytelling in destination marketing? A key to effective and responsible storytelling is sharing experiences that appeal to emotions.
Multimedia storytelling incorporating visual elements such as photos and videos is a great tool for personalizing travel experiences, and sharing your destination’s stories without limiting travelers’ imaginations by defining their experience for them, but rather helping them discover their own stories of travel experiences in your destination.
On this point, here's another great quote on effective storytelling - about making the customer (travelers) the hero of your destination’s stories:
"Some marketers like the idea that 'the brand is the hero.' In other words, the company is the star of the show. But you're almost always better off making your customer the hero of your story." - Sonia Simone, Copyblogger Media
This video from Patagonia's "Worn Wear®" campaign, which encourages adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts to celebrate the items they already own by fixing, preparing and up-cycling rather then buying new stuff, is a great example of making the target audience (the customer, the traveler) the hero of the story, sharing interesting and intriguing personal experiences in a human way.
Good stories can help people feel as though they're sharing your experience in person, and this offers your destination an exciting opportunity to differentiate your stories from other destinations'. Make your stories about much more than just a list of must-do highlights; share emotions and feelings to help travelers build deeper connections with the people and places in your destinations.
For those involved in promoting and managing destinations, here’s a Tourism Training Live session (recorded on December 8th, 2014) that’s relevant to this topic, particularly related to responsible tourism and sustainability communications.