Episode 31

Risks Worth TakingJohn Ricks

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About Our Guest

John Ricks

John Ricks, Nebraska Tourism Director joins the Destination Marketing Podcast to talk risks worth taking. Topics discussed include the home run Nebraska Tourism campaign, having the guts to run with a risky idea, and benefiting from earned media. 
"We knew right from the get go that rather than just informing the public, that we had a real perception problem here and that we had to define and go after changing these perceptions" - John Ricks on the thought process behind the Nebraska Tourism campaign. 

Episode Highlights

  • Name: Adam Stoker
  • Position: Co-founder and CEO of Relic
  • Favorite Destination: Fiji
  • Dream Destination: New Zealand
  • Name: John Ricks
  • Position: State of Nebraska Tourism, Visit Nebraska
  • Favorite Destination: He's been to 50+ countries, but five weeks in Africa was a good highlight
  • Dream Destination: New Zealand/Australia/NewGuinea/Bali area

“Risks Worth Taking” – Show Notes and Highlights


  • John Ricks was born into an Army family stationed in the Philippines. He spent childhood years in Japan, Hawaii, and Taiwan, to name a few. He grew up traveling, so it’s second nature to him now.
  • He went from being an “army brat,” to working in tourism through ad agency life. He spent 25 years working in agencies.

Creating the Nebraska Campaign

  • In order to create the Nebraska campaign, to be bold, well done and research-based, they worked from the outside in.
    • Qualitative research with people from out-of-state including focus groups, one-on-one interviews and more
    • Meetings with stakeholders and others to find what their core human values were in Nebraska to build on
    • Persona building
    • Persona mapping – to find out what messages, core values and psychographics they could use to build the campaign upon.
  • The core human values they settled upon are honesty, purity and simplicity.
  • The campaign they settled on brought to light what everyone already thought about Nebraska, “Honestly, it’s not for everyone.”

“Honestly, it’s not for everyone”

  • They would create ads that were unique with this punchy tagline. For example, “Lucky for you, there’s nothing to do here,” and they would have a picture of someone tanking. Tanking is where you climb into a livestock watering tank with your friends and a cooler and go “tanking” down the river. John has even seen people grilling in them as they relax and float down the gentle river!
  • It’s a very concept and copy-driven campaign.
    • “Lucky for you, there’s nothing to do here” is the headline. This is the body copy:
      • “In Nebraska, we believe that only boring people get bored. So, we invent our own fun, like when we realized that a livestock tank would float and thought, “it’s a boat.” So, tanking became a preferred method of meandering down our slow-moving rivers. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if it sounds as good to you as it did to us, go to visitnebraska.com for a free travel guide and welcome aboard.”
      • They play on the fact that people think it’s boring and then they try to prove them wrong and get the visitor that really wants to “peel back the onion,” as John said, and get to know the Nebraska that is fun and adventurous.

The Results

  • The campaign was a smashing success that, once released, was seen by the whole country: NPR, CNN, New York Times, etc.
  • Earned media was great too. Colbert picked up the story and looked at the camera and said, “Nebraska, are you OK?” They were able to tweet back intentionally and said, “Yeah, we’re fine, Colbert, and by the way, OK is Oklahoma.”
  • The value of PR for that period of time was about 7.2 million dollars. That’s bigger than their entire budget!
  • For the overall TRT results, their fiscal year ends in June. The campaign ran from April through the end of June and it was an all-time lodging tax record since the law was created in 1980. June was the largest lodging tax collection by a significant amount too.
  • They understand that they aren’t going to fix these hard-set perceptions in a few months, but this is a good start. At least people are interested now.
  • Web traffic increased by 30 percent.

Resources Mentioned in the Podcast

Episode Transcript

John Ricks:                         We knew right from the get-go that rather than just informing the public that we had a real perception problem here, that we needed to define, go after, and changing these perceptions.

Adam Stoker:                    00:14     Welcome again everybody to the Destination Marketing podcast. I’m your host, Adam Stoker. Another great episode in store for you today. We’ve got a great guest for you. Before we get to our guest, I just want to remind everybody that reviews help us to get noticed, get more listeners, and get seen, especially in the destination marketing space. If you’re enjoying the podcast, please leave us a review. We would love to get that so that we can continue to climb in the charts as we have so far. The numbers are pretty exciting to see. We’re getting more and more listeners everyday, so thank you for telling your friends and getting more people interested in the show. 

                                             We have a great guest, like I said today. And his name is John Ricks and he’s from the state of Nebraska tourism. And they’ve got a really unique campaign that we’re going to be talking about today. John, welcome to the show.

John Ricks:                         Hey Adam, how are you? Thanks a lot for having me on.

Adam Stoker:                    Doing great. Especially now that we’ve got you here with us.

John Ricks:                         Okay.

Adam Stoker:                    Oh, we’re ready. We’re ready for your knowledge.

John Ricks:                         All right.

Adam Stoker:                    01:16     Before we dive into your campaign and everything though John, we have a question that we kind of ask everybody that comes on the show. What is your dream destination? If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?

John Ricks:                         Wow. That’s a toughie for me because I’ve been to over 50 countries. I still haven’t been down in the New Zealand/Australia/New Guinea/Bali area. I don’t know if they’re dreams, I think every place I go is a dream. But I would say down in that area is something I’m looking forward to, yeah.

Adam Stoker:                    So, for you, it’s not your dream destination, it’s just the only place you haven’t been.

John Ricks:                         Not really true. Not totally true. I’ve been a lot of places. I mean, the world’s a great place and travel throughout the world is tremendous. So yeah, I’ve been a boatload of places.

Adam Stoker:                    02:08     Well, tell me some of your highlights. Tell me some of your favorite places you’ve been.

John Ricks:                         02:12     Well, you know the five weeks in Africa was not bad at all. That was fun. We climbed Kilimanjaro and spent some time out in the Serengeti, which is really kind of fun because you are the zoo, you’re in the zoo, you know.

Adam Stoker:                    Yeah.

John Ricks:                         And there’s no gates or anything. Then the craziest thing I think I’ve ever done, we went down to Zimbabwe to Victoria Falls and white water rafted the Zambezi river, which is insanity. It’s the world’s largest concentration of class five rapids anywhere.

Adam Stoker:                    Oh my gosh.

John Ricks:                         02:53     That’ll keep your heart pumping for a good four to eight hours, depending on which tour you pick. But you know there’s a lot of places. I mean, Iceland and Costa Rica and Patagonia and Bhutan and Borneo and Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia. All these places are amazing. The world’s great. Travel is wonderful.

Adam Stoker:                    Well that’s why we’re all here right? As destination marketers, we get to do a pretty awesome thing and that’s market destinations around the world.

John Ricks:                         Absolutely. It’s a fun job.

Adam Stoker:                    Well tell me how you got into it? I mean, sounds like you’re really well traveled. Did that happen after you got in the industry or were you a traveler that decided to just work in what you love?

John Ricks:                         03:34     Oh it’s very easily explainable. I’m an Army brat, so I was born in the Philippines and then we moved to Japan and other places, but I spent five years in Hawaii, which was really bad when a fourth through ninth grader. You know, you don’t have to wear shoes. You’re just outside all day. But then graduated from high school on Okinawa, which is part of Japan now. It wasn’t then. But Taiwan and all these places. I just kind of grew up traveling. It’s kind of who I am and it’s really truly in my blood.

Adam Stoker:                    Got it. Okay then, let’s talk about professionally then. How did you go from Army brat who grew up traveling all over the world, to working in tourism?

John Ricks:                         04:22     I’m an ad agency guy. I spent 25 years in agencies. A couple of different really good ones and started out as a bad writer. Well, I started out as a writer, first. Then, I discovered I was a bad writer. Then, I got into other stuff in the shop. I was in account service and account planning and strategy and all that. I just found out that I was a whole lot better at translating what needed to be done from a marketing standpoint into the creatives than I was a creative myself. It’s fun. It’s not a bad thing. So, I was in Wisconsin and worked for an ad agency at that time — Frankenberry Laughlin & Constable. They’re now Laughlin Constable. This was in the mid-to-late ’80s and the Wisconsin tourism account came up to pitch. We’d already handled their department of economic development, which was a separate department. So, we pitched that and won it. That was my first baptism by fire with destination marketing — the state of Wisconsin back in the late ’80s. Fun time. Spent years there. Then, left there and worked in eCommerce out of Milwaukee with a big tour operator, that was a lot of fun. Then, got recruited to go out to Boulder, Colorado.

                                             So all this is really travel-related something. Whether it was destination marketing, or we had a little consultancy. We did some work with CVBs and things and everything in between. Then in the early 2000s, I joined a shop in Denver and worked on Wyoming tourism for six years or so. Then I jokingly call it, I entered the dark side, but I came to the government side and was associate director in Colorado for five years. Then, I’ve been here in Nebraska for three.

Adam Stoker:                    06:25     So you have been in tourism your entire career, that’s great.

John Ricks:                         06:29     Pretty much. Absolutely.

Adam Stoker:                    06:31     Awesome. It’s actually interesting that you’ve been on both sides of the table as both an ad agency guy and then also on the dark side as you call it, the government side. Tell me how that gives you a unique perspective on managing your team and managing your relationship with an agency.

John Ricks:                         06:51     Yeah, you know, I’m truly an ad guy at heart. So sometimes I find myself being kind of like the intermediary between the outside agency and the inside folk, but having that experience is really valuable because government’s a different place. It doesn’t act like the regular world if-you-will, with the rules and everything. They’re not insurmountable. You must find a way to work within them, but just knowing the agency environment and what is generally pretty natural to do there, sometimes is not looked upon as generally naturally from the government standpoint. So having a feel for those things is important because I’m able to prevent a lot of hiccups from happening. That makes the process go easier and the work better.

Adam Stoker:                    07:55     That makes a lot of sense. You know, having context on what both sides of the table are going through is really helpful when doing the intermediary role, right?

John Ricks:                         08:04     Absolutely. No question. I like the intermediary position because people really don’t understand both sides. There’s no reason for an operation and government to understand the other guys or the other guys to understand government. But my goodness, the size of some of these contracts. There’s millions and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on destination marketing on an annual basis in somewhat similar situations. You have some kind of a government or a public/private partnership that use tax dollars, working with ad agencies who are perceived as crazy places that just like to spend your money. And knowing both sides of that —

Adam Stoker:                    We don’t love that perception, but yes,­ we definitely have seen it out there.

John Ricks:                         08:58     But, you jumped right on it. It’s true. If people understand that first of all, advertising is not the least expensive business in the world. Ideas — one of the people I grew up in the industry with said, “We’re paid for our ideas and many times there’s just no way to price that.” But again, in this intermediary role and this translator role, I’ve had a lot of experience in hopefully making both sides happy.

Adam Stoker:                    It seems like you have with the state of Nebraska and I want to talk a little bit about your campaign. You guys have done something, and I love it. I’m really excited to talk about it because you’ve done something really risky and you’ve seen huge success with it. So, tell me about this risky campaign that you’ve done and how you came up with it as a team, what led to it, and what did you have to go through to get it approved?

John Ricks:                         10:00     Okay. The biggest thing of all is that there was a significant marketing problem that we faced. I think that that’s always a good place to start any kind of thinking regarding a new strategy or anything. In destination marketing there’s three things and you probably know them: ad awareness, familiarity, and likelihood to visit. When I started here in Nebraska the numbers, and I won’t tell you them, but let’s just say that they were very low. As a matter of fact, The Portrait of American Travelers, it’s out of MMGY and it’s been done out of Pete Yesawich’s shop in Florida for years. I think it’s 28/29 years old now. At least back until like 2012 or so, Nebraska was the least likely state in the country for people to visit. So that’s a pretty significant hurdle. If you can dip down there in old 50th place for a year or so and pop back up. Having that length of time in the basement if you will, it’s kind of uncomfortable.

Adam Stoker:                    Yeah, let me ask you about that because identifying that problem means you have to admit that the problem exists and I’ve got to imagine there were some people or stakeholders that feel very passionate about where they live and very passionate about Nebraska, that may have been a little hesitant to embrace that as the problem.

John Ricks:                         11:36     You know, that fits right in to the whole concept that we’ll talk about. The whole campaign is really based on what’s called a value-based positioning. It’s based on core human values. Interesting that you said that, because the value that this whole thing is predicated on is the value of honesty. We did a lot of work outside of the state. We built this from the outside in, because I just think it works better that way. People from the outside, when they come, they stay longer and spend more. Not only that, but they also really don’t have a horse in your race and they’ll be very straightforward with you and tell you exactly what’s what. So, when we started, we did a lot of qualitative work in different markets. The Denver’s, the Kansas City’s, Minneapolis, Des Moines. The kind of areas with a few more people in them around here. We found out a number of interesting things. The first one was that consumers didn’t even consider Nebraska as part of the typical vacation category. That’s another problem because if you’re 50th place and people don’t even think you’re in the category, that’s a tough sell.

                                             So right out the blocks, we knew that there was a strong preconceived notion that there’s nothing to do here. We’re not in anybody’s consideration set. We knew right from the get-go that rather than just informing the public that we had a real perception problem here, and we had to define, go after and change these perceptions. One of the stories I like to tell, I don’t remember what city it was, but there was a quote from a gentleman in a one-on-one. He said, “You know when you go to New York and you come back and somebody says, ‘Hey, how was your trip to New York?’ And you go, ‘Boy, that was a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.’” In this interview this guy said, “’I’d like to live there, but I’m not sure I’m excited to go there on vacation.’” So were just absolutely upside down. 

                                             Nothing got better for a while. We really just faced what’s called brand apathy. And that brand apathy was, because of those preconceived notions of nothing to do, consumers told us that they really weren’t interested in putting forth any effort to research anything about Nebraska. That’s pretty big. 

                                             The third thing we found out was a geographic thing, it’s the size of the state. There are fun things to do here. There are fun things to see and do everywhere. But when we talked to people or focus groups and told them about these things, they generally said, “Yeah, those are all cool things that I probably would do if I were there, but they’re really not, for me, strong enough reasons to go.” So, just talking to people about things to see and do wasn’t going to cut it.

                                             So, we knew again, pretty much from the get-go that we had to be pattern interruptive. We had to somehow break these perceptions and we had to challenge the perceptions that people have, while at the same time, being true to the DNA here and what happens here. We told our tourism industry at the first conference I was at here almost three years ago now, and this is to your point about, “did you have some uneasy people?” We warned them about what they were going to see in a year, and we hadn’t put pen to paper or anything having to do with a campaign at all, that it was going to feel risky and edgy and that some of you people out there, it’s really going to take you outside of your comfort zone.

Adam Stoker:                    So, you were laying the groundwork early.

John Ricks:                         15:49     We knew that going in. Yep. This is a very interesting culture. It has a wonderful sense of humor and everything, but they’re not big on looking at lists and being number one, two, and three. They’re pretty satisfied with being honest and all those kinds of things. So, this core human value thing was important. I can explain that to you really easily, really quickly, because it’s much easier to give an example than get into all of the philosophical stuff behind it. We throw a picture of a Harley motorcycle up there and say, “What does Harley Davidson sell?” The first thing to blurt out of most people’s mouths is, “Well they sell motorcycles. Of course.” Well yeah, but look a little harder at it. Go a little deeper. What do they really sell? Harley sells freedom. I speak a lot in groups and I said, “If you want a brand video or something that really encapsulates Harley Davidson, go to YouTube and hunt that down because I don’t care if you have never been on a motorcycle ride in your life, I don’t care if you are an enthusiast, you will have goosebumps after watching that manifesto. It’s sensational.”

                                             So yeah, Harley sells motorcycles, but they really sell freedom. Nike is another pretty well-known company. With that little swoosh, you know it’s Nike. And what does just do it mean? Nike is all about empowerment. So that’s the track we went down. We had to find a way to, I guess the best way to say it is, transcend talking only about things to see and do. Because like I said before, every place has things to see and do. And generally, not in all cases, but generally, unless you really have a sensational thing to see and do in your destination, everybody pretty much has everything. Same stuff. I have fun with the craft brewers here. I was joking with them one time. I said, “You can’t swing a dead cat in any state in the union and not hit 40 craft breweries. People don’t come to the state to visit your craft brewery.” Immediately, then I have to come back out and say, “But craft brewing, it’s almost cult-like. So, when people come to the state, once we get them here, once we find that reason why, they’re going to hunt you guys up and they’re going to enjoy craft breweries everywhere.”

                                             So that’s the concept and we had to find that sweet spot between the values of the place and the values of the people who were interested in visiting here. So, we did a lot of work in that arena.

Adam Stoker:                    Yeah, we call that persona mapping, right?

John Ricks:                         Yep.

Adam Stoker:                    You take the target persona and their values and match it with what message is going to touch on those the most. Yeah, I think that’s a great exercise to go through.

John Ricks:                         18:59     Yeah. It’s hard work. There are truly about almost 500 different values and values are your inner compass. They are the basis for what you make decisions on and how you live your life. So, it can be pretty heavy stuff, but as you know in working a campaign like this, the whole strategy is a process of focus. It’s not a shotgun process. You have to keep whittling it down to, in this case, to that one core personal value that we thought was shared here by the culture and out of state by the people who are interested in kind of the same things here. So, we narrowed it down to about 10 of them and honesty came up as the winner. And it’s worked because for the creatives who worked on it, we had to what I call dimensionalize what honesty really means. Initially, when you say honesty, somebody says, “Well I tell the truth,” and all that kind of stuff. But it’s much deeper than that. We dimensionalized it. We came up with three pillars: truth, simplicity, and purity. I’ll just read you some words because I’ll tell you a story about that in a second. But candid, open, straightforward, and sincere are under truth. Simplicity is unadorned, ordinary, appreciative, self-aware, and modest. Purity is genuine, authentic, open-hearted, natural and unblemished.

                                             Those were our pillars and we were showing some people when things were in the layout stage and there was a gentleman here who I was walking this through. He said, “What exactly is this now?” And I told him that we actually built this from the outside in. This is how people describe what honesty is. He looked at me and said, “Well that’s me.” So, we knew then that we had a connection between talking to the people from outside of the state and what the real, as you put it, the persona or psyche of the place was or the people in the place. So, we knew that this honesty thing had some legs, yeah.

Adam Stoker:                    Great. Now I think our listeners might kill us if we don’t get to what the actual campaign is. Let’s talk about the campaign and messaging and dive into that.

John Ricks:                         21:42     Sure. I mean where we settled, and we tested around a lot. Again, I’m not a big tagline guy. I’ve always believed that if a tagline puts a bow on the present if you will, then it’s worthwhile. But it came out as “honestly, it’s not for everyone.” The executions are really interesting. There’s a concept in the development that we came across and it’s called inoculation. So, when we were out of state talking to people, we asked them what their barriers were to visit here and these are things that came up: “There’s nothing to do here,” “It’s flat and boring,” “Nothing but flyover country,” and on and on and on. You know, the dusty plains. The dusty great plains and all that. So, what we did was this technique called inoculation. We fed them the thing that they were most familiar with. For example, one of the headlines on one of the ads is, “Lucky for you, there’s nothing to do here.” And we have a picture of people tanking. Now tanking is a unique thing here. I don’t even know if you know what it is.

Adam Stoker:                    I’m not familiar with it.

John Ricks:                         23:01     Well, you got to come up and do it then because somewhere along the line here, in the last whatever years, a rancher or a farmer took a livestock tank and threw it in a river. And now you can go tanking. The rivers here don’t have the rapids or hot water like in Colorado, but there’s a lot of miles of river in this state that are deep enough and you set a bunch of people up, you can get seven eight people in a tank up to 10 maybe if they’re little kids and you just float down a river for hours.

Adam Stoker:                    Oh, really?

John Ricks:                         Absolutely. It’s beautiful. You got paddles and stuff and you bring your favorite beverages in there. And I’ve seen even people grilling in them. You mosey down these rivers and it’s phenomenal.

Adam Stoker:                    That is unique. That’s really unique.

John Ricks:                         23:51     The fun part was that this is really a concept and copy-driven campaign. I’ll read you the ad because it’s fun. It says, “Lucky for you, there’s nothing to do here.” And the copy is, “In Nebraska, we believe that only boring people get bored. So, we invent our own fun, like when we realized that a livestock tank would float and thought, ‘it’s a boat.’ So, tanking became a preferred method of meandering down our slow-moving rivers. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if it sounds as good to you as it did to us, go to visitnebraska.com for a free travel guide and welcome aboard.”

Adam Stoker:                    Brilliant.

John Ricks:                         24:27     The inoculation is drawing them in. I think you mentioned it before. One of the keys to this whole thing I think was, really having guts. People say it’s gutsy. Well, it’s hard for a marketer to admit that they aren’t popular, but this campaign really did that. We just took it by the horns and said yeah, you might not think there’s fun things to do here and that’s okay. There really are. And we told them what it is, we put the spin on it. There’s another one that’s great. They’re flat and boring.

Adam Stoker:                    Before you move on — I love the line, “we believe that only boring people get bored.” Because immediately, as you’re hearing or reading that, you start to question, well am I a boring person? Well no, I better go to Nebraska. I’ll find something to do that’s fun, I’ll challenge that.

John Ricks:                         25:30     As it has been in the marketplace and we’ve talked to more people about it, an interesting thing is, the understanding of “honestly, it’s not for everyone” is coming through better now. Initially, when it got into the press and stuff, the press always simply seems to just take the tagline and —

Adam Stoker:                    Face value.

John Ricks:                         25:53     Yeah, they’re just ruling on the tagline. Well, it’s not even half the story. Like I said before, it’s the bow on the present. What we found was, this started to give some differentiation. This isn’t a place like Disney World where you’re led around by your nose. We really found out that the psyche of the people who come here, I call them the people who want to peel back the onion, they’re not satisfied with outward appearances. They want to dig a little deeper and find out about the soul of the place and that’s the kind of people we’re looking for. There’s something called Toadstool National Geologic Park way, way, way up northwest. Almost South Dakota. It’s a beautiful place with the wind-blown rocks out to look like toadstools. That’s why it’s called toadstool. And the headline of the ad is, “Famous for Our Flat Boring Landscape.” Again, the inoculation.

                                             We fed people a perception that many of them believed and then we went into this copy. It said, “There are two kinds of people in this world. The ones who think Nebraska’s nothing more than a 77,000-square mile cornfield, and the ones who don’t. We find that second group to be a lot more interesting and are comforted by the knowledge that there are people willing to look a little deeper to discover what makes this place so special. We’re not trying to convince everyone, just you. So, go to visit nebraska.com and be the kind of person who gets a free travel guide.” Yeah, the copy is tremendous.

Adam Stoker:                    It is.

John Ricks:                         You can see there was a technique to it, but the copy’s really strong and I think, like we were talking before, is that admitting that you’re not for everyone, was the thing that took the country by storm.

Adam Stoker:                    Right. Well, it’s a risk. And especially in marketing. You don’t see a lot of people take somewhat of a slight or a backhanded shot at themselves and be a little bit self-deprecating.

John Ricks:                         Absolutely.

Adam Stoker:                    And you guys did that really, really well. I’d love to hear a little bit about the results that you’ve seen because you’ve been doing this for two years now. Is that right?

John Ricks:                         28:14     No, no. It just came out in April. About a year ago. October 17th is when we showed our tourism industry the campaign at our annual conference. I remember it vividly. The presentation finished at 4:30 in the afternoon, it was 3:30 to 4:30. We did a little media after that. Then, we had a big awards banquet that night. Our social people and PR people noticed there was something going on. By 9:00 the next morning, we were getting calls from everyone: CNN, New York Times, everybody. All Things Considered on NPR, we did the lead story that day on that. And it just exploded.

Adam Stoker:                    That’s fantastic.

John Ricks:                         29:13     In 45 days, just about the end of November — mid-October to the end of November — the earned media value on this was incredible. Now, when it started, we started to do fun things to seed it. A live with Kelly and Ryan out in New York. They caught ahold of it, so we simply just sent them coffee mugs with their names on it with the logo on it. Then, they used them on their show for a while and they refer to it every once in a while. So, who knew? The value of that PR for that period of time was about 7.2 million dollars and that’s bigger than our entire budget including rent, people, and everything else. So, Colbert picked it up. Who knew? We had fun with him. Because he looked at the camera that night and he said, “Nebraska, are you OK?” So, we tweeted back at him and got back to him on Facebook the next day and said, “Yeah, we’re fine, Colbert, and by the way, OK is Oklahoma.” So, the whole platform just seemed to love it.  It was there, it was all intentional. And the fun things that have come out of it that we’ve been able to play with just continues to keep it top-of-mind.

Adam Stoker:                    30:32     So John, I just want to pull one thing out of this for our listeners that I just love. Especially as you’re going through the media value that you earned. You know, marketing is a risk/reward business. And if you play it conservative and don’t take any risks, you’re probably going to continue to see the same results or some incremental growth maybe, but nothing crazy. If you’re willing to take a risk, there’s the possibility that it can fail. But in my opinion, you either win or you learn, it’s not win or lose. So I think you can fail, yes, but the reward, the possibility of reward, the 7.2 million dollars in earned media from having the guts to do a non-conventional campaign far outweighs any of the possible downfalls of doing something like this, right?

John Ricks:                         31:29     Yeah. I mean, this truly was kind of a lightning-in-a-bottle thing. There were two things I had written down, I’d found in books. Understand, let’s go back to the beginning of our conversation. We were the least likely state in the country to visit. So, you’ve got to change something. This is a great quote I found, that says, “If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less, enough said.” And that, in-a-way, is permission for us to go with it. Then, another one that I picked out of a TV commercial for a national shoe company says, “A sea of mediocre will never yield an ounce of great.” So, we ran into those things pretty early on and they acted as mantras. There was a book that a guy I knew wrote, Jonah Sachs, it’s called “Unsafe Thinking.” I’ve known him and when we were in the midst of thinking how far we could push this, his book came out. So, I read it one weekend and I thought, okay that’s all I need.

                                             In his book, he goes through all these really cool experiences like the woman who was VP of CVS pharmacy. She took it over and she was the one who pulled cigarettes out of CVS. She said, “We’re going to be a health store, we’re not going to sell cigarettes here.” That’s gutsy stuff. What Jonah does in his book is interesting. He’s discovered a lot of things. He said, “The more experience and expertise we gain, we interestingly stick even more to the familiar approaches.” So our default is to safety.

Adam Stoker:                    33:21     Yeah. To reply to you and that, you’ll appreciate this having been on the agency side too, I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been in where somebody says, “We have this problem that we need to solve.” And so we go, we put our heads together, and we put together a few options. We say, “Here’s how we feel like you can solve this problem.” And the answer is, “But we’ve always done it this way.” It’s like “No, no, no, no, no, the way you’ve always done it is the problem.”

John Ricks:                         33:53     Absolutely. That’s exactly the manifestation of the default to safety. I mean, if you’re in a room with somebody and you’re not one of the higher ups if-you-will, you have a hell of an idea, and that person says a little something and you take it to “ooh boy, I don’t know if I should say that now,” that’s even more reason why you should say it. Because in this industry, everybody talks about things to see and do in their advertising. Not everybody, but many places do. And like I said before, everybody pretty much has the same stuff, so how do you differentiate? In this industry, there’s a lot of places that also try to be something they’re not. Or on the other extreme, they try to be everything to everybody and end up being nothing to anybody. So, I think that knowing this and knowing it for years and going into the campaign development took a little guts, but I think we also knew that with the goal of changing perceptions rather than just providing information, we pretty much had to take the risk and go at it, and we did.

Adam Stoker:                    Yeah. Well okay, so tell me, visitation so far. What do you see? And I know it’s early. You launched in April, right?

John Ricks:                         35:09     Yeah. There’s a couple of things. Yeah, we’re over our weird fiscal year and it’s only been out in April, but our whole office is funded by a 1% lodging tax. So, for not all of last fiscal, but for the entire fiscal year that ended June 30th. The campaign had been in there not quite April, May, June. Three and half months. We set an all-time lodging tax record since the lodging tax was created back in 1980. So, there are really good signs that the stuff is working. We had June of this year, June was not only the largest June lodging tax collection, but the largest month ever by a significant amount. So, the initial things are looking really good. We’re doing some monitoring the marketplace because we want to find out the awareness and the likelihood to visit in the familiarity aspects of it really carefully. And just some initial numbers that we had, that’s looking pretty good too. You don’t fix perceptions that were so deeply rooted as this. We’re not going to fix them in a year or two. This is going to take a spell, but what we’re finding is at least people are now interested.

                                             Here’s another really good example. I’ve always said we stripped this campaign down to the bare bone. So, when I said before that people wouldn’t even go to the website to research, one of the things you’d naturally watch is did your trips to the website increase? Well, just from the time the campaign was introduced til now, we’re up over about 105,000. And on a site that got about 360,000 people the year before, having an increase of 105,000 site visits is fairly significant.

Adam Stoker:                    Yeah, that’s a big deal.

John Ricks:                         So yeah. It’s out there. We watch it closely every day. It’s a unique thing and the results look good so far. Really good.

Adam Stoker:                    Well, first, congratulations.

John Ricks:                         Thank you.

Adam Stoker:                    37:39     What a great idea, great campaign. Took some guts, but what a reward. To have your biggest month ever just a couple months after launching the campaign. And really Transient Room Tax (TRT) collection is the best way to measure the effectiveness of the campaign. Because you know there’s so many different things to look at, especially in tourism. So many different levels to look at. Brochure downloads, website traffic, all that kind of stuff. But what matters is did people come and stay? And in such a short period of time after you guys launched the campaign, people are already booking trips, coming and staying at a faster and larger rate than they were before. I think that speaks volumes to what you guys have done, so kudos to you guys.

John Ricks:                         Thanks. It’s been fun. It truly is lightning-in-a-bottle but hey, the more lightning in a bottle you can hoard up, the better I guess.

Adam Stoker:                    38:29     Totally. I think we’ve just got a couple more minutes John. But how do you know it’s a risk worth taking? You didn’t know that you were going to have your biggest month ever when you were coming up with this campaign. You didn’t know web traffic was going to up by around 30%. How do you know it’s a risk worth taking?

John Ricks:                         38:49     There’s always a decision point and, like I mentioned before, that “Unsafe Thinking” book kind of gave me personal permission to do it, but we did a lot of work with consumers. We sat and listened. We did focus groups. We did one-on-one interviews. We tested — the word tested is bad because creatives say, let’s not test everything — we talked to people about it and when we went into this testing and stuff, we knew that this kind of self-deprecating humor would…well, humor’s funny until it’s not right?

Adam Stoker:                    Right.

John Ricks:                         39:26     So we knew we had to take something in to see how far we could push the envelope. The short answer to your question — you go talk to people who your prospects are where this is a real high interest category. They’ll tell you. So, we just listened very carefully, and I’ll read you this ad and I’ll even send it to you because we took an ad in that we thought was going to push the envelope, okay. So, this is an ad about festivals. Every state has events. You have fun mudder runs and all this other kind of stuff. We have some unique things here. So, the headline of this ad is, “Festivals for Everything from Mud to Testicles.” And the sub head is, “Some of you are shaking your heads.” And this tested the best of all the ads. And the copy just says, “Nebraskans can find joy in just about anything. So, we have festivals celebrating just about everything. Art, science junk, juggling, chickens, pirates, bees, John C Freemont, mud, and yes, those delectable cattle cojones. Not everyone shares this approach to life. But if you’re a Nebraskan at heart, go to visitnebraska.com for a free travel guide and maybe we’ll create a festival to celebrate just that.” That ad tested very well and didn’t offend anybody, so we knew that we had tested the envelope.

                                             Then grouping with all the other stuff and everything. We knew that we had something. And I guess that’s part of the whole game, how does your gut feel? That’s where it comes down. You got to get out of your head and into your heart and your gut. We were in our gut by then and we said, let’s just let this thing fly. And we did.

Adam Stoker:                    John, the copywriting on this campaign is just incredible.

John Ricks:                         Yep, it’s really good.

Adam Stoker:                    Tell me the name of that book again, because I actually would like to have it posted for our listeners.

John Ricks:                         41:30     Yeah, it’s “Unsafe Thinking” by Jonah Sachs. S-A-C-H. He’s a former ad agency guy from the bay area. Really good guy. Actually, when you were talking before of your concern about how the culture or your industry would accept all this and everything? We actually brought him here to do a presentation of “Unsafe Thinking” the morning of the day. He was the keynote that morning before we premiered the campaign and it was entirely intentional because of what it allowed us to do, because he’s a really good speaker, he has a lot of good examples, and it just opened up people’s heads. It opened them up to being a lot less defaulting to safety and it worked really well.

Adam Stoker:                    42:19     Awesome. We have a LinkedIn group called Destination Marketers, John, and we’ve got lots of our listeners that are members of that group. Usually when we have a compelling piece of information that you can’t verbally display, we try to post it in the group. Would be willing to post some of the ads from your campaign so that people can refer to it in the LinkedIn group?

John Ricks:                         42:44     Yeah, we will. We can’t get into TV because we’re talking through the airways. But, one of the coolest things that was come up with, and we did not go into testing with this, but there was a concept that we were fiddling with –the TV commercials called Odd Kid. Basically, Nebraska’s just like that odd kid. Everybody knew one in school. It’s that person who might have seemed a little peculiar, but once you got to know him, he was really something else. We’ll post that. Just send me the information and we’ll get it up there because, it’s a really strong, yet very unique brand positioning and it’s working really well.

Adam Stoker:                    Oh great. Yeah, I’d love to have you post that. I’ll have Kyle send you the link to join that group and get it posted.

John Ricks:                         Yep. And there’s kudos to a buddy of mine, who I’ve worked with him for years who I didn’t work with him but brought him back. His name’s Kirk Runky. He’s the master behind the copy. I’ve met few people like him and he just, well yeah, this was a home run.

Adam Stoker:                    That’s great. Well congrats again. Is there anything I haven’t asked you as far as advice goes that you feel like may benefit our listeners?

John Ricks:                         44:06     You know, in the destination marketing area, I hope this campaign is going to give people — First of all, thinking that they’ve got to work a little harder at things. Take a little more risk. I just think the questions about “how do you get there,” it’s all real. Can you take that step? There’s a lot of really good thinkers out there and a lot of fun books like Jonah’s and many others that I think you just have to keep up to date on. You can find the steps to take, the confidence and all of a sudden “yeah, let’s just go with this whole crazy thing.” We work very carefully. We have a commission board of 11 people. We have marketing committees and everything else. We meet with them a lot more frequently and I guess the coolest thing of all, there was a gentleman from here and he said one time when he got it, he said, “You know, we’re not a braggadocios culture at all.” He said, “But we do have a sense of humor and things and I think this is giving Nebraska a voice.” I think that’s probably the highest paid comment that anybody’s made about the campaign because it’s a fun voice, it’s welcoming, and it makes a whole lot of sense and it’s really, really, really honest.

Adam Stoker:                    45:33     That’s great. That’s great. Well John, thank you so much for coming on the show today. I appreciate your advice, your experience, and helping a lot of us learn how to think bigger and take a few risks, and the reward that can come along with that.

John Ricks:                         Absolutely.

Adam Stoker:                    So, thank you.

John Ricks:                         Thanks for having me on Adam. Have a good day.

Adam Stoker:                    45:52     You too. Hey, this has been another episode of the Destination Marketing podcast. Thanks everybody for listening. Reminder, if you want to see those ads that John talked about here on this episode, go join the Destination Marketers LinkedIn group. We have new content posted almost every day now and we’re learning and growing together to become better destination marketers. So, thanks again, we’ll see everybody next week.