Friday, April 20, 2018
Business

As RNC engages, business leaders test two online ways to pitch this market

Let the pitching begin.

The Tampa Bay business community on Monday launched a twofold Internet strategy of upbeat messaging about this area's economic potential. Its target audience? Attendees of the Republican National Convention here and online viewers, anywhere, of this major political event.

Ignoring Monday's storm threat and the postponing of the RNC kickoff, an online show called Front Row Tampa Bay began live-streaming at 9 a.m. from a studio in Tampa's Channelside district. Front Row Tampa Bay — viewable live at frontrowtampabay.com four hours each day during the RNC — started its first day as Web TV with interviews highlighting everything from the merits of Moffitt Cancer Center and area health care and manufacturing initiatives to our growing support of entrepreneurs.

No surprise, Front Row is bullish on Tampa Bay. Hired TV personalities Kathy Fountain and Frank Robertson intersperse interviews with softball questions that let business leaders give glowing testimonials about the ease of hiring quality people and the sheer quality of life here.

No question, it's a well-presented, feel-good variety show. But can it help lure more business here from afar?

On Monday, the live-streaming show garnered more than 3,800 viewers from 24 countries. That figure should grow as word spreads of Front Row and the RNC kicks back into gear today.

Stuart Rogel, CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, the regional marketing group driving Front Row, called Monday's showing a good start that will get some content tweaking before broadcasting this morning.

A second marketing operation could be found upstairs from the Front Row Tampa Bay studio (which is the Stageworks Theatre on a normal day). The "Social Media Command Center" — housed in space provided by Saint Leo University — is a first-of-its-kind effort for a national political convention to track and influence a broad swath of social media conversations from Twitter and FourSquare to Instagram and Facebook.

The center is backed by tourism marketing agency Tampa Bay & Co. The social media gurus running the center are from a Pittsburgh company called Bark­ley REI. The business, part of a larger advertising firm, uses online technology to monitor what's being said or asked on social media about the Tampa Bay area and the RNC. Its staff of 60-plus trained local volunteers offer answers to questions ("Where's a good restaurant?") or encourage upbeat responses to comments ("Yay, I just arrived in Tampa for the RNC!").

The center is run by Chris Herring, Barkley REI director of digital marketing and a former sales and marketing veteran at the weekly alternative Creative Loafing. Barkley REI also took on the high-profile assignment of handling social media management for this year's Major League Baseball All-Star Game last month in Kansas City.

Herring calls his business social CRM or "customer relationship management" — geek talk for using the Internet to make tourist and RNC attendee experiences here more pleasant. Herring's team asks people online to add "hash tags" or keywords to their tweets and other social media comments, so they can be tracked throughout their visit to the bay area.

On Monday, the command center found "weather" was a hot online topic and urged those online to use the hash tag "#rainydayRNC" to see recommendations of what to do on a stormy day.

"We hope to use this to draw more tourists here in the coming months," says Herring, whose firm has an ongoing contract with Tampa Bay & Co.

The good news is both Front Row and the command center are smart marketing experiments. That means there's a willingness and an impressive collaboration here to take some risk and try new things. That's something all of Tampa Bay should embrace.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

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