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Viral marketing encourages Floridians to 'share a little sunshine'

In leaner times, our crash-diet economy being Exhibit 1, business is keen on squeezing more from less.

A prime example is our state tourism agency. Visit Florida is engaged in uphill battles — the biggest one being a decline in Florida tourism. But there's also a shrinking budget. The ire of state legislators upset the agency outsourced work out of state. The recent dismissal of Visit Florida chief Bud Nocera. And sharper competition for tourists — even Floridians — from other states.

So it's no surprise that Visit Florida went on the hunt for fresh ideas and cost efficiency from its advertising agencies. It issued a request for proposal and eventually hooked up with a small ad/branding firm in Tampa called Spark.

Tony Miller, Spark's managing partner and business chief, recently mentioned the Visit Florida project to me, so I followed up with Spark's Lindsey Nickel-de la O.

So how does a 13-person, eight-year-old firm get picked by a hefty state agency?

Visit Florida had decided after a three-month review of 44 firms to drop its chief advertising firm of 15 years, Fahlgren of Tampa, and bring on DDB of Miami. A piece of that review was Visit Florida's hunt for a creative firm to devise an online, viral ad campaign enlisting Floridians to invite family and friends down to play tourists together in the Sunshine State.

This is economic patriotism at work! Spread the word.

Spark traveled to Tallahassee and pitched a "Flori Days" video about Floridians touring their own state. It got the firm's foot in the door. In January, Visit Florida brand manager Susannah Costello came to Spark to refine the campaign.

What emerged was Visit Florida's Share a Little Sunshine campaign (www.visitflorida.com/share). It features come-on-down videos built on feel-good themes of family, friends and romance. Floridians are supposed to e-mail the videos encouraging a visit.

Sparks tries to be fast and cost-efficient. It's a key message for any smaller business fighting bigger firms. Being so lean and mean resonated with Visit Florida.

A Spark team filmed scenes in Tampa Bay, Sarasota, Naples, Miami, Orlando and St. Augustine. But the Share a Little Sunshine segments are just a start. To go viral, the videos must proliferate on their own — catch an online buzz.

Nickel-de la O says Visit Florida and Spark will track the success of the project by counting how many e-mail invitations are sent by Floridians, by offering a weekly sweepstakes and by gauging how many tourists show up. Spark also wants compelling, real stories to tell of family reunions and romance resulting from the campaign.

It's not as if Florida's the only tourist-challenged state with a marketing plan. If you have not seen all of the Visit Michigan ads on cable TV, you're not wasting enough time in front of the tube. California's pitching ads, too. Even Vermont — hardly on the A list of tourist destinations — has a new campaign aimed solely at Floridians. You get discounts if you flash a Florida driver's license.

Vermont's simple message? It's cooler there.

Says Vermont tourism chief Bruce Hyde: "Florida is one of our key distant-domestic markets."

This year, everybody wants a piece of the tourist in us.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Viral marketing encourages Floridians to 'share a little sunshine' 05/25/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 26, 2009 3:17pm]
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