Study: Duluth's Digital Footprint Lacking, Findings Questioned

By KBJR News 1

October 25, 2011 Updated Oct 26, 2011 at 5:39 AM CDT

Duluth, MN (Northland's NewsCenter) - The Tall Ships Festival, Bayfront Blues Fest and Grandma's Marathon are all events that help attract an estimated 3.5 million tourists to Duluth each year, each leaving a lasting impact, $780 million dollars.

Behind the effort is Duluth's tourism marketing agency known as Visit Duluth. The organization attracts and promotes many of the city's major annual events- using a chunk of the city's tourism tax dollars- $1.8 million dollars just last year.

"It's designed at its grass roots to the way we put it, put heads in beds and butts in seats, meaning have people stay in our hotels and come and eat in our restaurants," said Tony Bronson, the Chair of the Visit Duluth Board.

But, is Visit Duluth doing enough?

A recently released online study, entitled 'Did $10 Million in Destination Marketing Make Duluth Famous?' questions if the city is famous as a 'destination brand' on the internet.

"We found that Duluth's reach as evidenced by billions of Google searches and 750 million people on Facebook, that it's not growing and it has even declined in some categories." the study's author, Marty Weintraub told the Northland's NewsCenter's Kevin Jacobsen via Skype.

Weintraub is the CEO of Duluth-based online marketing company 'aimClear'. He says he spent 60 hours on the self-commissioned study.

"(Duluth is) primarily a regional brand, which is an awesome thing, by the way, and though there are some awareness of other regions around America, the interest isn't substantial comparatively," he said.

Weintraub's study looks at recreation, travel, and hotels using 'Google insights for search' to track trends and interest to find out how the city's reputation has grown over time, compared to other cities.

Visit Duluth disputes Weintraub's findings- saying the findings have no value.

"We took a very serious look at the study they put out there," Bronson said. "But, actually (we) ended up finding a lot of flaws in it. A lot of problems with it."

Flaws, Bronson said, in the way syntaxes were used in the searches, using quotations, plus signs and minus signs to narrow the data in the results.

("duluth hotels" -ga -georgia + "duluth hotel" -ga -georgia)

Visit Duluth says the problems lie with Weintraub's comparisons and how he narrowed some search results and not others.

(Grand Canyon, Lake Tahoe, Nantucket)

"Some of the things we're being compared to, I don't know if it was quite an apple to an apple," Bronson said.

"That doesn't diminish clear documentation in the study that the techniques not only work, but that they're groundbreaking," Weintraub said in reply.

We took the study to Jon Weissman, an associate professor of Computer Sciences & Engineering at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

He says he found the study subjective.

"It seems to me you can measure footprints in amount of information, this is how we can measure in cyberspace related to Duluth," Weissman said. "It ignores what's quality information, what is the right information.

Weissman says it's way too early to tell if the information is good evidence of a digital footprint. It's the same feedback Visit Duluth says it has received from outside advisers. They say it comes down to analysis of the data.

"I think you can twist them whichever way you want them to go. I think (Marty) moved them in a way he thought they should go."

Visit Duluth officials say the money they've used over the years has been well spent. Tourism tax collections have been on the rise since 2008.

Weintraub says he hopes his study inspires goals and imagination. He says he doesn't doubt the talent of Duluth's marketing leaders.

"I see Duluth as the 800 pound of Gorilla of incredible international destinations that has not claimed its birth place."

Visit Duluth and Weintraub have yet to sit down and discuss the study's findings face to face. Both say they're willing to do so.

Study:'Did $10 million in Destination Marketing Make Duluth Famous?'
Study Followup: 'Frank Questions & Answers'
Visit Duluth

Meanwhile, a city-commissioned tourism task force, made several recommendations for Visit Duluth, including a third party review of the organization. That will be figured out sometime in December as part of contraction negations between the city and the organization.

Written for the web by Kevin Jacobsen