Smartphones and social media on the Internet are revolutionizing the travel and recreation industries. The technologies involved are proving to be powerful tools for community economic development. Businesses that depend to any extent on the tourist trade need to become ‘mobilized’ by having a positive presence on the mobile websites and handheld device ‘apps’ that tourists use. Trip Advisor and Yelp are two popular social media web sites devoted to travelers and tourists. The convenience of their vast repositories of reviews about restaurants, hotels and attractions help millions of tourists make decisions on the spot.
Berea College’s Entrepreneurship for the Public Good (EPG) program has, for the past several years, been involved in exploring ways social media engagement could be good for Appalachian communities. EPG Director Peter Hackbert is an advocate for smartphone access to social media. “If you are a motel or restaurant owner in Wolfe County, you want to be easily found in TripAdvisor or Yelp. Next you want to have a 5-star rating. And you’ll want satisfied clients to write positive reviews. This is how social media adds to your bottom line,” Hackbert said. “On the other side, the tourist side, more-and-more people are using mobile media to help them make decisions. A town with lots of businesses and attractions described, rated and reviewed in these websites is a more compelling place to visit than one with little or no web presence.”
Over the summer 2012, EPG’s student project was dubbed “Appalachian Mobile” and 26 students focused on Wolfe County and the city of Berea in Madison County. Participating students were trained to be social media strategists. They held workshops for community businesses and non-profit organizations and they ‘practiced what they preached’ by helping locals become familiar with a variety of social media platforms, create accounts, and drive engagement for their business and their community at large. They located and coordinated with other social media consultants, advocates and bloggers to build partnerships and joint initiatives.
Berea College student Ali Djire ’15, double majoring in Business and Agriculture, minoring in Sustainability, explained: “Since we were bringing new ideas and concepts into the Eastern Region, we had to make sure we met and explained our program to community leaders to make our project viable. Therefore, we spent a lot of time talking to and mobilizing civic leaders, business owners and citizens in general.”
While they were on scene in their target communities, the students helped various businesses experience social media engagement by writing their own reviews as “tourists to the community” and posting them in fledgling social media accounts.