Research Insight: Branding Cities in the Age of Social Media

How to use social media for city branding is a question increasingly relevant for city brand managers and marketers. In today’s research insight article, Efe Sevin summarizes findings from his analysis of social media use of three different cities, published in the book ‘Social Media and Local Governments: Theory and Practice’ (2016, Springer).

He also offers valuable recommendations for those in charge of building, monitoring and managing their city’s online image and reputation.

Efe, what motivated you to write the book chapter?

I am really fascinated by place branding. It is an amazing field! We practically study how we make meaning out of the geographic locations we live in. We observe what residents think about their cities, or how tourists experience a given place. Social media are making branding even more amazing – at least for me. Individuals share their honest personal views about places on these platforms. Moreover, places started to have online presence as well.

Individuals both talk about and talk with places on social media.

In 2014, Dr. Mehmet Zahid Sobaci circulated a call for proposals for his edited book on “Social Media and Local Governments“. The theme of the book was a great opportunity for me to share my work on how cities use social media for their branding purposes.

I proposed a research project analyzing the content of social media branding campaigns and the engagement between cities and users. I analyzed Twitter and Facebook uses of Cape Town, Myrtle Beach, and Philadelphia.

Which are the key insights?

Basically, cities – especially those with smaller promotion budgets – are quite active on social media, but still can do more. Social media are mainly used for message dissemination.

Instead of spending money on mass media advertising, cities use Twitter and Facebook to share their messages. But most of the time they do not talk with their audiences, they talk at them.

My network analysis shows that cities do not engage with their audiences.

Where do you see most potential of social media as city branding tool?

Thank you for using the word ‘tool’. I cannot stress this enough. Social media are just a tool. We should not change our communication understanding to match the capabilities of the platforms. Rather, we should choose the best tool to suit our needs.

In city branding, communication needs to be two-way, frank, and open. Social media make it possible to engage with people, to use a friendly language, and to do so in a platform that can be accessed by everybody.

(How) has social media and city branding practice in the three cities studied changed since your research?

Unfortunately, not much has changed. The numbers (follower numbers, Page likes, posts etc.) are changing. However, it still looks like cities are more interested in communication outputs than outcomes.

A successful Twitter campaign is seen as the one that generates the highest number of new followers. We should focus on longer term results, on outcomes. We should see whether our campaigns change the perception of our cities.

Based on the research findings, which are your recommendations to practitioners?

In line with the book’s theme of local governance, I present three recommendations for practitioners. First, cities need to make better use of social media. They should move away from one-way communication. For instance, social media can be used to monitor how a city is perceived.

Social media accounts can ‘humanize’ cities. By interacting with individuals or by using a language that reflects the local characteristics, cities can establish unique identities for themselves.

Second, social media’s fast-pace does not change the fact that branding is a long-term process. A Twitter advertisement campaign can increase the number of followers overnight, however, this does not mean that the brand of the city can also be changed overnight. Social media are only one aspect of city branding.

Last but not least, we should get ready for the next platforms.

Twitter and Facebook are very popular, but so was MySpace. Specific platforms are not important. What is important is that we do our best to reach out to audiences and to have a frank conversation with them.

Which trends do you observe in the field of social media and place branding?

My biggest concern in place branding practice is our reliance on advertising and marketing. In academia, it is pretty much established that place branding is not branding. It is a distinct field of study. Yet, in practice, we tend to follow corporate advertising and marketing practices and even employ firms that do not specialize in place branding.

We see a similar pattern in the use of social media in place branding. Cities use “short-term” projects that have the potential to go viral, i.e. interesting and innovative.

Anything else you’d like to mention (observations, follow-up research…)?

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to summarize my research. I recommend your readers to go through the chapter to see the data that support my arguments as well as their details.

Let me conclude with two remarks for practitioners: never forget that branding takes time. More often than not, we run into bureaucrats that expect short-term outcomes.

For short-term outcomes, such as driving your tourism figures up quickly, aggressive marketing strategies might be better. Branding is about building a reputation. The return on investment will take years.

Second, let’s not focus on specific communication platforms – they are only tools. We should build up a strong communication strategy that fits our branding needs and then choose our communication outlets and tools.

Thank you, Efe.

Reference: Efe Sevin (2016) Branding Cities in the Age of Social Media: A Comparative Assessment of Local Government Performance. In Mehmet Zahid Sobaci (Ed.), Social Media and Local Governments Theory and Practice. Springer. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-17722-9_16 Link

AEfe Sevin on social media and city brandingbout Efe Sevin

Efe Sevin is Assistant Professor of Public Relations at Kadir Has University in Turkey. Interested in research on social media and city branding? Connect with Efe Sevin on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @efesevin

Featured image: Skippy the Stone Skipping Robot, a social media place awareness campaign created by Sun Valley, Idaho. More


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