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Tourism board contemplates firing web manager

jacksonEvery month, the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority shells out $2,650 to keep its website updated, get it to show up prominently in search results and analyze digital traffic.

Lately, TDA board members have been feeling they’re not getting quite enough bang for their buck on the task from the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina-based Brandon Agency, so last week the board voted unanimously to put out a call for proposals from other — hopefully more local — companies. 

“Since the reason we’re looking the website is because of performance, it would probably be challenging for Brandon to take that role on again,” said Chairman Robert Jumper. “We really would hope if we move that website portion out to another agency they would be better able to focus on some of the other things we’d enjoy them doing.” 

Things like growing the monthly visitation and adding new features — a sign-up box for a monthly e-newsletter, a blog, easier access for board members to update information like listings for lodging and events.  

For the TDA board, stubbornly unmoving visitation numbers are a big part of the motivation for switching companies. Traffic to the website, www.mountainloversnc.com, has been holding steady around 1,500 per month, but there hasn’t been much growth. 

In fact, Brandon representative Barry Sanders came under fire from the board when he came by in September to report on the agency’s marketing plan. In addition to website management, the company holds a $1,750-per-month contract as the TDA’s ad agency. Sanders’ report included an update on website traffic, and board members were not happy with the numbers. 

“We paid a lot of money for that website,” TDA member Alex Bell told Sanders in September. “I thought if you broke that out on a monthly basis and divided it out, that’s quite a lot per visit.” 

To be fair, Bell’s comment had stemmed from Sanders’ initial report that the site had gotten just 310 visits in the month of August, which Sanders later realized was incorrect — the monthly total had actually been 1,233. However, the criticism held. Even with 1,233 visits, the monthly cost of Brandon’s website management contract would make each visit worth $2.15.

“I’m concerned about our website, to be honest with you,” board member Clifford Meads said during a follow-up discussion at the TDA’s October meeting. A third-party analysis should be done, Jumper agreed at the time, giving the board a better understanding of what the numbers are and whether they’re good or bad. 

That’s what the TDA voted to do last week. In addition to publishing a request for proposals for a new website manager, the board voted to hire Chicago-based Sprout Social to deliver a monthly report breaking down “digital guests” to the website and social media accounts by metrics such as age, gender and location. The company will charge a fee of $100 per month, a price tag that TDA Director Nick Breedlove called “a nominal fee of great value.”

“With a volunteer board who has personal corporate focuses elsewhere, we can’t just rely on our occasional look at what’s going on and say, ‘That looks bad or that looks good,’” Jumper said. “We need to have some justification to say whether it’s indeed bad or good.”

In addition, Breedlove said, having the digital visitation information at its fingertips will give the TDA a better understanding of where guests are coming from and how to better target the marketing. The sample report Sprout provided to the TDA already turned up some surprises, such as the fact that more visitors to the Facebook page came from Charlotte than any other city. Breedlove said he wasn’t expecting to see that.

“With that data we can better target our message to that demographic and find where we’re falling short in reaching other demographics,” Breedlove said. 

But for now, the TDA will be paying a net lower amount for its online needs, as Breedlove will be taking $900 worth from Brandon’s $2,650 monthly contract onto his own workload, doing the work for no additional charge as part of his director’s responsibilities. The line item goes to website analytics, breaking down website traffic and showing how different visitors find it.

Turns out, that’s information that Breedlove can compile himself in an amount of time worth much less than $900. Having just taken on the role of TDA director with the start of the new year, Breedlove has been busy asking questions and making plans to figure out how the TDA can do a better job of promoting the county and making the same number of dollars do more work. 

According to Jumper, rethinking the website will be an important part of that. 

“The goal is to get more visitors to Jackson County,” Jumper said, “and we need to have a better functioning site to do that.” 

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