It was painful to watch, but Shel Israel, host of the Global Neighbourhoods “show,”
recently dedicated an “episode”
to a social media marketing campaign SeaWorld San Antonio engaged in last year as part of its launch of a new ride, ‘Journey to Atlantis’.

Kami Huyse was hired by SeaWorld San Antonio to help market Journey to Atlantis, which was completed ahead of schedule and needed to be opened several weeks early. Huyse turned to social media marketing and:

  • Reached out to rollercoaster enthusiasts and bloggers and invited some of them to the Journey to Atlantis media event held the day prior to the ride’s public launch.
  • Made Journey to Atlantis content available on YouTube, Flickr and other social media websites.
  • Created a micro-site for Journey to Atlantis, which linked to the content on social media websites.

The results of Huyse’s work are touted by Israel and social media proponents like Forrester’s Jeremiah Owyang.

What were the results?

  • The media posted on websites such as YouTube and Flickr was downloaded hundreds of thousands of times in aggregate.
  • According to Fran Stephenson, director of communications for SeaWorld San Antonio, during the launch phase of Journey to Atlantis, amongst the visitors who participated in an exit survey taken prior to leaving the park, the number one answer to “Where did you hear about the ride?” was “On the internet.
  • Stephenson told Israel that “tens of thousands” of visitors came to SeaWorld San Antonio because of the social media marketing campaign. Huyse, in a comment here, claims 200,000.

As I watched Israel’s piece, I couldn’t help but see gaps and faulty logic in the claims being made.

So I decided to deconstruct the campaign based on the available information.

What is a Download Worth?

What are 10,000 “downloads” worth? What are 100,000 “downloads” worth? What are a million “downloads” worth?

I can’t pretend to tell anyone. In looking at SeaWorld San Antonio’s YouTube videos and Flickr group, I don’t see a whole lot of “conversation,” “participation” or “engagement” – certainly not the kind that would lend itself to tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people picking up and heading over to SeaWorld San Antonio.

Who downloaded the SeaWorld content? How many of those who downloaded it were actually prospective visitors to the park (i.e. living in the area or planning to travel to the area)? How did people find this content and what, if any, action did they take after viewing it?

These, of course, are the types of questions that social media marketers rarely like to answer because they’re hard to answer.

The Survey

During the launch phase of Journey to Atlantis, 47% of the visitors to SeaWorld San Antonio who took a voluntary exit survey before leaving indicated that they first heard about the ride through the internet.

Ostensibly, the vast majority of visitors to SeaWorld San Antonio don’t take this exit survey.

This begs a number of important questions:

  • How many people took the survey during the launch phase? What percentage of total visitors does this represent?
  • Is there any data showing that the sample obtained was representative of all visitors? Obviously, depending on the circumstances and how a survey is conducted, certain groups may be more likely to participate, thus providing a sample that is not representative.
  • Was the social media micro-site the only marketing campaign that took place on the internet? Did SeaWorld, for instance, send an email announcement to its mailing list? Were there other online marketing campaigns? How much coverage did the Journey to Atlantis launch receive from media outlets, such as newspapers, whose coverage was made available online?

The devil is always in the detail and as is typical in the world of social media marketing, the important details are lacking here.

What Drives What?

As SeaWorld’s Stephenson makes clear in her interview with Israel, SeaWorld had no way of knowing whether or not the visitors who learned about Journey to Atlantis via the internet had originally learned about it on SeaWorld’s website or through the Journey to Atlantis social media micro-site.

While Stephenson seems to think that knowing which website drove traffic to the other is irrelevant, it’s actually quite important. If the social media micro-site generated significant attention for SeaWorld and drove traffic to SeaWorld’s  website, it would serve as significant validation that Huyse’s campaign was a success.

If, on the other hand, SeaWorld’s website drove traffic to the social media micro-site, it would demonstrate that the social media micro-site played a minimal role in generating interest and attention – it simply took advantage of traffic SeaWorld already had.

Of course, only SeaWorld has the analytics for the websites, but a look at the historical data from Alexa and Compete seems to provide a reasonable answer:

Click on the images for larger views.

As can be seen, there is no clear correlation between the traffic on the SeaWorld website and the social media micro-site, whose traffic barely registers.

Obviously seaworld.com serves as the website for all SeaWorld parks, but nothing in the Alexa and Compete data indicates that the social media micro-site drove non-negligible traffic to seaworld.com and by itself, the social media micro-site does not seem to have attracted much interest at all.

Discrepancies

In her interview with Israel, when asked how many visitors SeaWorld believes came to the park during the Journey to Atlantis launch phase due to the social media marketing campaign, Stephenson responds “tens of thousands.

Of course, previously she indicated that she had no way of knowing what website visitors who learned about the new ride on the internet learned about it at, so one must question how such a response is even possible.

That said, in response to a question by “Adam Zand” in the FastCompany.tv comments, Huyse states “It was somewhere in the range of 200,000 people over two months.

Which one is it? Tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands?

Other Factors

A May 25, 2007 Dallas Morning News article demonstrates just how challenging it would be to figure out how the social media marketing campaign impacted the Journey to Atlantis launch. It states:

“SeaWorld San Antonio is also expecting a busy year as visitors try out Journey to Atlantis, the park’s first new ride in nearly a decade.”

“Dan Decker, the park’s general manager, said attendance growth for SeaWorld has been outpacing that of the industry, and he expects that to continue.”

“The park is offering its usual discounts and has seen an increase in customers booking vacation packages or buying season passes on its Web site.”

Clearly SeaWorld was anticipating a natural increase in visitors due to the launch of the first new ride in almost ten years – with or without social media marketing.

Obviously, such an event would receive coverage from the local press and would have been publicized to the local community, resulting in more attention and more visitors.

It would be interesting to learn what methodology, if any, was used to estimate what impact marketing campaigns, including the social media marketing campaign, had above and beyond the already-anticipated increases.

The mention of increased bookings of vacation packages and season passes through the website is also worth noting. Even forgetting the fact that there is no indication that the social media micro-site drove significant traffic to SeaWorld’s website, it takes little more than logic to conclude that social media likely had nothing to do with the increased bookings.

After all, how many purchases of vacation packages and season passes would one reasonably expect to generate from a few hundred thousand “downloads” of YouTube videos and Flickr photos? The conversion rate would have to be unbelievably staggering.

Finally, as per Huyse’s own post on FastCompany.tv, SeaWorld did run an advertising campaign to promote the launch of Journey to Atlantis so the social media marketing campaign she ran did not operate in a vacuum. Again, it would be interesting to learn what methodology, if any, was used to track the various campaigns SeaWorld ran.

Interestingly, Huyse claims that “in comparing the costs, it was $.22 vs. $1 per impression.” Of course, she makes no mention of ROI. Without one, costs are a moot point.

If it takes 1,000 $1 impressions to acquire a visitor but 10,000 $0.22 impressions to acquire a visitor, $1 impressions are still significantly more cost-effective.

Huyse’s statement looks like it came straight out of Forrester’s playbook: social media marketing is cheap therefore it’s good. My playbook: you usually get what you pay for.

Perspective

According to Busch Entertainment Corp., which owns SeaWorld San Antonio, 23.8 million people visited SeaWorld San Antonio in 2007.

Based on the park’s 2008 schedule, it appears that SeaWorld San Antonio is open nine months out of the year. Assuming that the same was true in 2007, SeaWorld San Antonio averaged just under 2.65 million visitors each month that it was open.

Obviously, there must be some seasonality and one would reasonably expect higher turnout for the Journey to Atlantis launch, but this average will suffice.

If we take Huyse’s claim that 200,000 visitors came to SeaWorld San Antonio over a two month period due to her campaign at face value and we assume that 5.3 million visitors attended during that two month period (2.65 million per month average times two), Huyse’s campaign accounted for 3.77% of all visitors.

Would this have been an acceptable result? Probably.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like this is plausible. The following problems exist:

  • Stephenson’s comments seem to indicate that SeaWorld took the results from the park’s exit survey indicating that 47% of those polled learned about Journey to Atlantis via the internet and simply assumed that 47% of all visitors did the same.

    We are not told how many people took the survey and whether the sample was representative. Thus, believing that 47% of all visitors heard about the ride through the internet requires a huge leap of (blind) faith.

  • If we accept Stephenson’s assumption, we still have to deal with the fact that she admitted SeaWorld had no way to determine where on the internet those visitors learned about Journey to Atlantis. Obviously, this means that it’s impossible to determine just how many visitors who learned about the ride via the internet learned about it through the social media marketing campaign.
  • Given the Alexa and Compete data, it seems highly unlikely that the social media micro-site drove significant traffic to SeaWorld’s website. If anything, the data indicates that it is much more likely SeaWorld’s website drove traffic to the social media micro-site.
  • It is highly improbable that hundreds of thousands of “downloads” of Journey to Atlantis videos and photos, mentions from niche bloggers (some of whom received negative comments on their Journey to Atlantis posts) and the traffic received by the social media micro-site could ever generate hundreds of thousands of real visitors to SeaWorld San Antonio over a two month period.

    After all, one would reasonably assume that most of the individuals exposed to the campaign did not live in or near San Antonio, had no plans to travel to San Antonio and did not decide to travel to San Antonio after simply downloading a video or photo or reading a blog post.

  • While reaching out to roller coaster enthusiasts made absolute sense, it is equally improbable that these niche groups have the power to drive hundreds of thousands of visitors to SeaWorld San Antonio.

    For instance, American Coaster Enthusiasts, which Stephenson stated has a “big chapter” in Texas, only has 8,000 members worldwide. Do these “influencers” have enough persuasion to convince 200,000 people – approximately 15% of San Antonio’s total population -  to go to SeaWorld San Antonio? You figure it out.

    Assuming that even 1,000 coaster enthusiasts became passionate “ambassadors” for Journey to Atlantis, each one would have had to convince 200 other people to take a trip to SeaWorld San Antonio. If they pulled that off, they should all become Amway salespeople.

    It’s also worth noting that Huyse stated that most of the groups she reached out to indicated that they were not in the area and therefore couldn’t come.

I’d love it if somebody involved with this campaign decided to drop by and fill in the gaping holes that exist in the story presented by Israel. Assuming, of course, that they can be filled in.

In the meantime, I have to question whether those who are touting SeaWorld San Antonio’s social media marketing campaign as a social media marketing success story have lost all ability to think critically.

The numbers clearly don’t add up and it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to recognise that.