Do you think Instagram matters to Alaska?
It's an important question to ask, because if the answer's "No" you might as well stop reading right now. I would argue, however, that it matters deeply. Instagram is one of the most consuming social media networks around right now, and it is proven to dramatically affect consumer buying habits. Some quick statistics:
I could drown you in statistics about how half of millennials use Instagram and how it has taken over Tourism Marketing and so on and so forth but all you really need to know is that a lot of people are using it, and it is influencing how they make purchases.
What does this mean for Alaska tourism? Instagram as a platform is our opportunity to lose to promote the influx of year-round tourists. I have said on the podcast multiple times that fishing in Alaska is one of the most "Instagrammable jobs" you can have. You can extrapolate that out to the rest of the state though, because most of us are living in a literal postcard and frequently encountering wildlife on the land and sea that people all over the world save up for a lifetime to encounter on a vacation.
We can easily and cheaply promote tourism in this state by maximizing our collective use of Instagram and social media.
Alaska Isn't the Only Game in Town
However, Alaska isn't the only beautiful country in the world that straddles the Arctic Circle. Nordic countries like Norway, Finland, and Sweden and the beautiful Iceland all have picturesque views and rely heavily on tourism for their local economies. They can promote beautiful videos and photos of their destinations.
I know people who have traveled to the Nordic countries over the last few years from the Lower 48. Why would they fly halfway around the world to see beautiful mountains and waterfalls and wildlife in Europe before making a trip to Alaska? It could be a number of reasons, but one possible influence is the social media marketing.
I want to look at one facet of Instagram marketing - hashtags - and how Alaska's views are being stolen by media featuring these "competing" countries.
What are hashtags?
A hashtag is a label for content. It helps others who are interested in a certain topic quickly find content on that same topic. On Instagram, people can search and follow certain hashtags to follow certain topics. It's easy to get an idea of how popular a hashtag is based on the number of posts it contains.
What hashtags are popular for Alaska?
A quick search on Alaska shows these are the most popular Instagram hashtags:
#Alaska 7.4M posts
#Anchorage 884K posts
#AlaskaLife 518K posts
#Fairbanks 300K posts
#907 237K posts
#TheAlaskaLife 175K posts
Clearly #Alaska is almost 10x as popular as the next closest tag so I want to take a look at this hashtag as well as others that could be used to drive interest in, and tourism dollars to, our state - #NorthernLights with 1.5M posts and #DogSledding with 250K posts.
Here's where things get interesting
Instagram takes the "most popular" posts that it calculates through some secret algorithm and displays them at the top of the page when you search a certain hashtag. The ones at the very top get by far the most views/traffic because they are shown to everyone that searches that tag. For a deeper explanation of trending Instagram hashtags read this article.
But when you look up #Alaska something is broken on the top page: MOST OF THE TOP POSTS DON'T EVEN FEATURE OUR STATE! I took this screenshot 10 minutes ago and labeled the locations of all the posts.
Uh oh...some of these accounts seem to be media companies or influencer accounts like @finland, @mynorway, @nortrip, and @iceland. Who runs these? It could be a social media entrepreneur, could be a local tour company, could be a government travel organization. I don't really know.
Whoever it is, the effect is the same: people searching for the beautiful vistas and wildlife of Alaska on Instagram are getting inundated with the views and wildlife from "competing" tourism economies. These accounts are in English and are easy to navigate for the average American consumer.
They seem to have realized something that we haven't: that people who are searching for a place aren't necessarily always searching for "this place." They're searching for an experience. And so they can hijack the views of people interested in Alaska and point them towards pictures and videos of Icelandic waterfalls or Norwegian fjords.
Here are a couple screens of the hashtags some of these top posts featuring different countries are using:
So these accounts are not just getting views from #Alaska, they're using Scotland, Argentina, Germany, Russia, Canada, Iceland, and other European and Scandinavian countries for more views.
How about Alaskan activities?
A quick look at #NorthernLights and #DogSledding doesn't show Alaska in the the top posts either. You can repeat this exercise for other activities like #Glaciers #WhaleWatching and even #SalmonFishing and it's more of the same.
What we can and can't do
First let me start with what we can't do. We can't dominate every single one of these hashtags. It's not possible. Alaska's tourism is competing with a lot of players all over the world and they also have beautiful mountains and fluffy animals and expensive cameras.
What we can do is hashtag smarter and teach our businesses how to do the same. I'm going to pick on the State Tourism Office for just a second, but understand this is not some big criticism of them! Hashtagging on their Instagram account is just one component of one marketing outlet they have available. Given the trends in Alaska tourism over the last 10 years (growing incessantly) we should be grateful for the successes they've had.
That said, here are some of the most recent posts on @TravelAlaska the State of Alaska Tourism Office Instagram account:
These are two beautiful pictures posted in the last month on @TravelAlaska. The account has great engagement, great content, and a BIG following, which would give it a prime opportunity to be a top post in some of the hashtags I have been discussing, especially #Alaska. But what do we see? They only use ONE hashtag #TravelAlaska and nothing else. Instagram lets you use up to 30 per post! Using more tags, and more specific ones, is an absolutely dirt cheap, simple way for this account to further spread Alaska's tourism brand awareness across social media.
The influence of social media on people's thoughts and purchasing decisions is only growing. It's important for Alaska's state government and businesses to step up and perform well on social media in order to compete with other northern destinations as the place for consumers to spend their hard-earned money. Given the population here it is going to be challenging to compete with places like Norway, but seeing a place like Iceland, with half the population of Alaska, having content almost as successful in our own state's Instagram hashtag as Alaska is unacceptable and we can do better with smarter social media use.
If you have questions, comments, or concerns about this post please reach out to Alex at TheAlaskaShow@gmail.com or on Instagram @AlaskaShow.