Twitter, a free social networking Web site where users share short messages or "tweets," is becoming the latest venue for Grand Strand businesses to lure tourists without paying for expensive print ads. And tonight, a local hotel chain is using the site for a prize giveaway - and hoping to drum up business in a lagging economy.
The chain, Myrtle Beach Hotels, is not the only one to go online. The recent downturn has many local resorts aiming to save cash on print by finding new ways to market on the Web - whether it's beefing up their own Web sites or creating pages on other social networking sites, such as Facebook or MySpace.
"Facebook and Twitter gained kind of critical mass here suddenly," said Lyn Mettler, the president of Step Ahead, a public relations and media strategy firm hosting tonight's Twitter event for Myrtle Beach Hotels. "It's becoming vital if you want to compete in today's business world."
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Businesses across the country are shifting their marketing dollars online, especially those targeting a younger, more Web-savvy audience, said Leo Kivijarv, the vice president of research at PQ Media, a custom media research firm. And as companies spend more on new media, that means they're spending less on traditional ads, like print or TV.
"What the advertisers are trying to do is follow their target audiences to the media that they use," Kivijarv said. "They really focus in on the youth market, who have so many different devices to get their news, information and entertainment. If this were the 1970s, basically you had eight media. Today, you have over 30."
Jason Ellis, a broker associate at Legends Real Estate, which advertises property at Legends Golf Resort, said his print advertising budget has decreased 70 percent in the past 10 years. He has created a free Facebook page for the resort, runs a blog and has advertised elsewhere online.
Costs aside, online advertising reaches a much larger market than advertising in local newspapers or magazines, he said. His online advertising has brought more traffic to his Web site and increased real estate inquiries, he said.
"At least it's making the phone ring right now," he said.
At Myrtle Beach Resort, Becky Donevant, the new general manager, recently revamped the hotel's Web site and also created a Facebook page. Donevant, who also wants to start using Twitter, said she can get more for her dollar on the Internet than she can advertising in print.
Another advantage of online advertising, she said, is how quickly she can tailor her special offers. If it appears reservations will be low during a given weekend, she can announce a special online without having to plan ahead as if she were running a print campaign.
"We basically look at places where our customers are, and then we look for places where they would be online," she said.
"Instead of putting an ad in the newspaper in Pittsburgh, I might go to the newspaper's Web site in Pittsburgh. It's cheaper to do."
Despite the growth in online advertising, businesses must use a combination of print and online ads to reach everyone, experts said. And Internet advertising is not immune to the economic downturn - the amount being spent on paid banner ads on Web pages has decreased as companies trim their marketing budgets, Kivijarv said.
"Some people just don't use the Internet," said Tom Sponseller, the president of the Hospitality Association of South Carolina.
"Some people don't use e-mail. It's hard to believe, but it's true. So they have to have their word out in whatever fashion they can to get the broadest group of people to make a reservation."
Tonight's Twitter event runs from 8:30 to 10 p.m. Anytime vacation hopefuls answer a question about Myrtle Beach Hotels correctly on Twitter, they get entered in a drawing for a $1,000 gift certificate. Other prizes, like golf rounds, restaurant gift certificates and beach towels, are also being given away.
"All of us in Myrtle Beach are doing traditional online and offline marketing," said Patrick Norton, the Internet marketing manager at Myrtle Beach Hotels.
"It's just something that will stick out a little bit and generate interest in a more exciting, newer way."