Maria Ziv is the former marketing director of VisitSweden, the country’s tourism agency. In her role she was responsible for the multi-award-winning Curators of Sweden initiative that saw control of the organisation’s @sweden Twitter account given to a different curator every week. She spoke recently to CMO.com Europe, and I asked her what led to the Twitter campaign.
MZ: I started working at Visit Sweden in 2005, and I was European advertising manager for Apple prior to that. My venture into digital marketing initially came out of necessity. The budgets I had were so much smaller than I was used to, and the only way to get any leverage was to use digital communications. Most trends were pointing towards what we now call social media, and I decided early on to make that a key part of VisitSweden’s marketing strategy. I also believe it is easier to make a travel decision to visit a friend than a country you have no ties to. I have strived for creating communication initiatives that build those ties.
In 2007 we launched Community Of Sweden, having Swedes and people who love Sweden exchanging stories about our country made it more personal. Instead of just broadcasting the official marketing message, we created a relationship between the potential visitors and the Swedes.
CMO.com: How did that lead on to the Twitter campaign?
MZ: Curators of Sweden is a natural progression from the community. We wanted to continue enabling the dialogue between Swedes and people interested in Sweden.
As early adopters of Social Media we registered the @sweden Twitter account in January 2009 and over two years we got to 8,000 followers. In 2011 we decided to share the account with the Swedish Institute in order to broaden our message. It was going quite well, but at the same time we felt limited. As the official spokesperson for Sweden, we needed to be objective. We couldn’t say “Go to this restaurant, it’s better than that one”, but the Twitter audience is interested in dialogue and opinions.
We wanted to take the next step and start an initiative that supported our brand platform and at the same time maximized the potential of Twitter. We got the idea of letting the people of Sweden be the voice of Sweden.
We handed the account to a new Swede every week and we wanted them to tweet like they normally would and just be themselves. They were representing a piece of Sweden, not all of Sweden. Over time the followers would get an uncensored and authentic image of what Sweden and the Swedes are all about.
CMO.com: What was the approval process?
MZ: Curators of Sweden was one of many initiatives we were working on. Tactical implementation and separate initiatives did not need prior approval as long as they fit the over all marketing strategy. We didn’t have a big discussion about this within the leadership team; they had great trust in our judgment. Marketing in today’s landscape changes daily and there is a need to be agile. New things come up all the time and you have to have the ability to be exploratory. It was like this with Twitter.
CMO.com: So what thoughts did you have about brand protection when you started?
MZ: Marketing a country is very different from marketing a product. The perception of a country or a place is created by a variety of factors, most of them out of your control. It can be the political system, celebrities, history, current events, even the population itself.
In 2005 we developed a brand platform for Sweden together with other organizations who also talk about Sweden abroad; the Swedish Institute, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Swedish Trade and Invest Council. The brand platform’s core is that Sweden is a progressive country: it’s brand values are: innovative, authentic, caring and open. The Curators of Sweden initiative proves these values in action, not in words.
CMO.com: Did you set any rules for the curators?
MZ: The curators know they will not be censored but there are a few guidelines: you can’t break Swedish law; don’t post anything of commercial nature; and don’t do anything that could put another person in danger. It would not have provided the followers with an authentic image of Sweden if we had only allowed certain topics or tweets. Once you start saying “this is okay to say, this is not”, it gets complicated. Who makes that call? If I did, we would no longer be communicating Sweden’s values, we would be communicating mine.
CMO.com: How did you recruit curators?
MZ: To get the initiative started we gathered a list of people who we felt were experienced users of Twitter, good at creating and maintaining a dialogue. Then we wanted an equal mix of men and women; a geographic spread; people with different professions, political opinions, sexual preferences, etc, so you would get an idea of how diverse Sweden is.
The first people we used were very much the Twitter elite, but our goal was always to move away from this group and use “regular Swedes”. As the initiative got known we asked people to nominate other people to be curators. We didn’t want to be the ones picking the curators, because that’s just another way of controlling the message.
CMO.com: How did you measure success?
MZ: We want to create awareness and discussion, so we look at Klout score and we track the PR it generates.
When we started, the Klout score of the account was about 40, and we aimed for 60-65. It’s gone as high as 80. It’s not the number of followers that is important, it’s who those followers are and how much interaction and dialogue are we generating. We want people to ask a million questions of the curator and for them to tell their stories and engage with people.
The initiative has generated a lot of press all around the world and that is also very important. In the 13 countries were we operate we have generated over $40 million dollars worth of media coverage. The articles have not just talked about the campaign, but about Sweden as a country. The coverage has mainly been in line with the brand values we want to communicate.
CMO.com: How did you handle questionable tweets?
MZ: If you hand over the keys to the Swedish Twitter account, you need a process in place in case of trouble. So we talked about what would happen if someone wrote something controversial. We decided to keep it simple and as long as the curators didn’t break the rules, we would let them continue. Some of the curators have really tested us on this. Some humor has been quite raw, but we’ve left it and they’ve been able to write what they want. So far we have not removed one single tweet.
In June last year one curator posted some questionable tweets in regards to a particular religious group. People got upset and it was a tense situation. Swedish law says you can’t try to create aggression against any group of people. I didn’t feel she was, but I wanted to be sure. I asked the lawyers about it, and they said what she wrote might be inappropriate, but certainly not illegal. We decided to let her continue and then I had to deal with the media storm that followed. I spent most of the week talking to what felt like every journalist from every paper around the world. In the beginning it was negative and I was asked why we weren’t stopping her or ending the initiative all together. I explained that even though we were sorry if she had offended anyone, she is not doing anything illegal. By the second day, the media coverage started turning and many articles talked about freedom of speech and how brave we were not to just step in and censor her, as things got uncomfortable. The focus changed from the initial single tweets, which weren’t great, to talking about the brand values of Sweden – exactly what we wanted.
CMO.com: So what were the key lessons from the campaign?
MZ: The most important thing is to be authentic: know your core values and align what you say with what you really are.
When you get questioned it’s very important to know why you’re doing something. Curators of Sweden is firmly anchored in the brand platform for Sweden. We got our message across by creating a campaign that showed what Sweden is all about, instead of just saying it. And I think that is important with all marketing in the future, it’s more about doing something than just talking about it. Here we have an initiative showing what we are rather than something saying what we are, it’s not just an old-school advertising slogan.
And for me a good lesson was to stand up for what you believe in. It pays off.