Millennials are a conundrum to marketers. • "They're almost impossible to market to because they don't want to be marketed to," said Pinellas tourism chief David Downing. "The thinking is that engagement, on their level, on their turf, is a good way to start." • Which explains all those mysterious, snarky snowmen that recently started popping up in New York City and Chicago, the ones holding signs that read "Sunshine or bust!" and "Even I've had enough!" At the bottom of those signs, a mystery URL: winterblows.com. • That's how the Pinellas tourism agency Visit St. Pete-Clearwater captured the attention of millennials this winter: with a stealth campaign launched amid the agency's traditional marketing blizzard up north.
The guerrilla marketing effort behind it started 2½ weeks ago, officials said, and the hashtag #WinterBlows has already reached 500,000 engagements on Twitter and Instagram. That's its potential social media audience. It's also gotten 40,000 engagements, which is every time someone liked, or shared or retweeted using the hashtag #WinterBlows (although to be fair, that is a common sentiment this time of year.)
Downing said he checked Wednesday night and discovered that NBA superstar LeBron James recently started following VSPC's Twitter handle @VSPC.
"He wasn't following us before," Downing said. "That's the beauty of things like this. It can go off in so many different directions that, in many ways, a traditional ad campaign can't.
"There's room for both of these platforms and both levels of messaging in promotion of this destination."
That's because VSPC's traditional winter campaign is in full swing as well: sunny, bright-hued images of people frolicking on the beach or in the water are adorning buses, subway stations and even the TV screens inside elevators.
This year's winter campaign cost about $2 million, but 90 percent of that went to traditional advertising in New York and Chicago, which are among Pinellas' strongest winter feeder markets.
"Make no mistake, the over-arching bulk of this campaign is our beach and sun and brand messaging," Downing said. "The buses, the subway trains, the elevators. We are not abandoning that. In effect, we have enhanced that.
"This is a second level. We thought it was time to take our message to a new level and start engaging a demographic we've never had a conversation with before."
VSPC hired local marketing street teams to build the snowmen in key locations like Wall Street in New York and the Navy Pier in Chicago. The edgy new campaign was profiled by local TV stations in Chicago and New York.
The winter campaign will continue through April, but tourism officials are unsure whether the stealth snowmen will continue to make appearances. That depends on the availability of snow, of course.
VSPC, however, has not targeted the Boston region, which is being buried in the stuff right now. It's not one of Pinellas' traditional northern strongholds for tourists, but it is considered a future target.
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"Boston is a little bit of a different animal for us," Downing said. "We're a traditional vacation destination for Chicago going back to Interstate 75 and everyone driving down here. New York is one of our top feeder markets."
So how does one market to a demographic that doesn't like to be marketed to? By capturing their curiosity and attention, and creating an experience they'll remember.
Those curious enough to check out winterblows.com found it littered with photos of frigid cities curated from the #WinterBlows hashtag.
Then, as visitors scrolled further down, those images were replaced with gauzy photos of warm, sunny Pinellas. It ends with a link to VSPC's traditional website.
That's how to engage millennials, Downing said. Instead of just displaying more ads, fire up the curiosity of the next generation of tourists and reel them in with a memorable experience.
"There's a huge curiosity element to this," Downing said. "Who would go out of their way to do this and why? To create that level of engagement is necessary. People who might never have been aware of our brand are not only aware of it now but they're thinking about it in a new light.
"This is kind of fun. This is kind of hip. What else you got?"
Contact Jamal Thalji at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.