NB: This is a guest article by Matt Rhodes, strategy director at social media agency FreshNetworks.
How do you represent a region or a country in social media? A challenge to many tourist boards and associations whose job is not to sell a particular product or service but to market a city, region or country.
You could serve as a portal for information and advice, offers and deals. Or you could try to engage with people who visit the area and build relationships with them.
But the real value for such organisations is finding a way to engage people earlier in the planning process, raise their awareness of why they should even consider South Tyrol in ITALY, as a place they might visit, for example.
This becomes a longer-term engagement and so is less about offers and the like and more about building an emotional connection with an audience.
Ultimately this connection should raise awareness of the area you are promoting and lead them to consider it for a holiday.
This is not easy to do. But since December 2011, Sweden has been part of a fascinating Twitter experiment to do just that.
Trying something different
The tourist authority and the Swedish institute developed a simple Twitter strategy – rather than talk about places to visit, things to do and events, they would claim the @Sweden handle and then let a different Swede represent the country on Twitter every single week.
Who better to immerse people in the Swedish culture and introduce them to the country than specifically chosen Swedes who will show people the real country and engage them in the story of everyday lives.
And over the last few months it has been a fascinating experience.
We’ve seen students talk about their days, mums share their experiences and people talk about what it really means to be Swedish and living in Sweden in 2012.
The Twitter campaign has slowly grown and been exciting to watch; raising interest in and awareness of Sweden, the country and the people.
A brave move – letting any member of the public take over the nation’s Twitter account for a week and say what they will. Even more brave when many people are Tweeting in English, a foreign language.
After six months of fascinating and illuminating Swedish people taking the helm, things went a little awry.
The person chosen to represent the nation in the social network is at best a little odd, and at worst hugely offensive. From strange messages and questions about Jews, to odd captions for photos.
These messages perhaps came across as much naive and bizarre as they did purposefully offensive, but it is certainly not the kind of discussions that the people behind the account intended.
This kind of disruption would be challenging for most brands. The natural reaction might be to pull the experiment; protect the brand, the country, and stop the Tweets.
Thankfully this is not what the tourist authority and the team behind @Sweden did.
Rather they let the week play out, they enjoyed the (no doubt sizeable) coverage that the account received, but more importantly they showed that the experiment was real and had real people behind it.
Diversity in all forms
We have all met people like this, who don’t say the right thing, make strange observations or have a different (and challenging) set of life experiences.
Here is a woman from a town in Sweden who has never met a Jewish person, that makes awkward observations or attempts at humour that others may find offensive.
We are learning more about the diversity of Sweden from this account that we do from the kind of bland official updates that some tourist authorities broadcast.
The worst thing that @Sweden could do would be to cancel the account, or even make it much more restrictive. We are all learning more about real people in Sweden, what they do and what they think.
We do not think that all of Sweden is like this, the messages have not damaged the country’s brand. Rather they have immersed people in an experience with real people.
Shocked many, educated some, but raised awareness of the country along the way.
Of course, the tourist authority might not want many more weeks like that on @Sweden, but they have shown how Twitter can be used to provide a direct connection between the audience and the country.
And experiment in tourism marketing that is both brave, and fascinating.
NB: This is a guest article by Matt Rhodes, strategy director at social media agency FreshNetworks. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattrhodes and read more of his thinking on social media.
NB2:Stockholm image via Shutterstock; Twitter grab via Mashable Storify.