Charlottesville’s Facebook page goes viral

John Freeman, a 25-year-old UVA grad, is the man behind the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Facebook success. Photo: Graelyn Brashear

Every marketing firm and tourism board in the country is searching for social media’s magic bullet, and the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau might have found it. With a small budget and a young social media coordinator’s instinctive touch, the CACVB’s Facebook page has shot to the top of national user engagement ratings.

John Freeman, 25, has had a front-row seat for the rapid rise of social media, but the Crozet native and UVA grad said he never thought he’d make a career out of Facebooking. Still, when the job with the CACVB opened up in 2010, he went for it. If a revolution was on the way, he said, “I’d rather be on the front end of it.”

When the CACVB started trying to build its social media presence a year ago, the page had 1,000 followers, Freeman said. He’s raised that number to over 41,000.

It turns out people who like our city love to say so. Professional Facebook watchers say the industry average for a page’s engage-
ment-—the number of people liking, commenting on, and sharing posts—ends up being about 5 to 10 percent of total page likes. For the CACVB page, it’s over 100 percent.

Many destination cities pay experts big bucks to get numbers like that. But Freeman developed his formula on his own: Post pretty pictures with a little attitude, and have a good understanding of your key demographic—mostly middle-aged moms.

Other tourism bureaus pour money into contests and giveaways to lure fans, he said. “We’ve just never done that.” The CACVB spent $11,000 on its Facebook campaign in the past year, Freeman said—just a sliver of its budget of over $1 million.

Late last month, a few well-timed posts quoting Jefferson on politics and some beautiful photos of fall foliage seemed to be driving activity on the page higher than usual. Freeman decided to check the major sites that compile data on the universe of 42 million-plus Facebook pages. “I pulled up the rankings for travel, and there we were. It was Disneyworld, Vegas, and us.” The Charlottesville page has now topped the social engagement lists for three weeks running, beating out sites with a million or more fans.

So what’s in a Facebook “like,” anyway? A lot, it turns out. The traditional method of marketing a destination has been to buy print ads and hope readers pause on the right page, Freeman said. “But with Facebook, you’re in their living room three times a day.”

And a recent study of fans of the Baton Rouge, Louisiana Facebook page found that each “like” brought an average of $56 in annual spending to the area, he said. Based on those numbers, CACVB’s social media presence is worth millions.

Freeman said the job satisfies his competitive nature, but he also brings to it the passion of a native son. He loves seeing other people rave about the area online. “‘This is where I grew up,’ ‘This is what I call home,’ ‘When I think of heaven, I think of this’—it gives you a different appreciation for living here,” he said.