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Can Cedar Rapids get 'likes' that last from newbo evolve?

Tourism marketing increasingly uses celebrity influencers

CEDAR RAPIDS — When model Candice Huffine shares a photo of herself and fashion designer Christian Siriano at Cedar Rapids restaurant Caucho and says she loves snarky T-shirt shop Raygun, do her 216,000 Instagram followers internalize a certain vibe about the city?

Quite possibly yes, according to University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communications associate professor Brian Ekdale. He currently is studying how destination marketers — like GO Cedar Rapids, which put on this weekend’s “newbo evolve” — work with celebrity “influencers” to get the word out about their communities.

GO Cedar Rapids mission “is dedicated to enhancing the local economy by promoting the Cedar Rapids area as the premier destination in the region for travel, tourism and events,” according to the organization’s website.

“Based on our research, one of the things destination marketers are really interested in, looking at influencers, is they have developed really personal relationships with their audiences. Their approach is very conversational, and the intention with that is to have the audience feel they have a relationship with that person,” Ekdale said. “Destination marketing organizations are interested in using the credibility earned through the relationships these influencers have.”

He said celebrity and social media influencers talking up a place can feel more genuine to their followers than if they saw a traditional advertisement.

“If I go to Cedar Rapids and say, ‘I’ve never been to Cedar Rapids before, but this town is awesome ... 100,000 of my followers aren’t going to suddenly buy a ticket to Cedar Rapids, but that is going to have an influence on them. ... If GO Cedar Rapids puts down an advertisement, as an audience member, I know their job is to make Cedar Rapids look good. The influencer doesn’t have a stake in making it look good, so it feels more authentic.”

He said a growing number of destination marketers, though, are including stipulations about social media promotion of their destination in contracts when they bring such influencers to town. It’s up to the influencer to then post a certain number of times about the place.

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Jennifer Pickar, GO Cedar Rapids director of communications and marketing, declined to say whether the organization included any such stipulations in the contracts of “evolve” speakers and performers, which included Huffine and Siriano, saying the tourism organization does not comment on talent contracts.

As of Saturday evening, there hadn’t been many tweets or Facebook posts from the performers and speakers in town for the festival.

But several were updating their Instagram stories — images and videos that disappear after 24 hours, used to chronicle moments throughout the day — during their time in Cedar Rapids.

One example: “Oh my God, I just found the most amazing store. We are in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and it’s called Mad Modern, and it’s so good. I’m dying,” fashionista Carson Kressley posted, taking a video of the shop’s interior, along with images of him shopping at other neighborhood stores.

Kressley, who was one of the cast members of the original “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” TV show, has 106,000 Instagram followers.

“Having a celebrity or participating talent promote the festival in any way is definitely a benefit, as we are hopeful that this year’s festival is a huge success and sheds light on our beautiful city and its offerings,” Pickar said in an email.

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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