March 16, 2017
Case Study

Inbound Marketing: How a hashtag contest collected 106K entries and elevated the cruising industry


With the objective of broadening the visibility around the cruising industry, Cruise Lines International Association speaks for the industry as a whole. This year, for National Plan a Cruise Month in October, the CLIA wanted to reach out to people who had never cruised before.

They did this through a sweepstakes that focused on weekly themes that would broaden people’s understanding of what cruising could be, and they ultimately drove submissions up to over 100K.

by Courtney Eckerle, Senior Managing Editor, MarketingSherpa


Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) is the unified, global trade association that helps members advocate, educate and promote cruising.

“We have about 60-member cruise lines globally,” said Sarah Todd-Evans, Social Media and Digital Content Manager, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

There are also 300 “Executive Partners,” which are those who have a business interest in cruising, but are not a cruise line — excursion companies or ports, for example. 

The third, and largest audience is travel agencies, which number around 15,000 members globally and individual travel agents, which number around 25,000.

“We focus a lot of time and care working with our travel agents because they're so key to the cruise industry. Cruising is one industry where the majority of [travel] is booked with a travel agent, so it's really important to our cruise line members that our travel agents … have information readily available to them,” she said.

Aside from these three main member groups, CLIA is also always speaking to the general public in order to raise the profile of cruising options, she added.

“I believe … there were about 24 million passengers who cruised last year. So, we're always keeping an eye out for that because obviously without people cruising, you have no cruise industry,” she said.


“A large portion of the public really doesn't understand the variety available to them with cruising,” Todd-Evans said.

Most of the uninitiated think only of the Caribbean when it comes to cruising, she added, and while that is a large portion of the market, “there's a massive variety of cruising available from river ships to expedition cruises, from Antarctica to Alaska. There's this huge variety of cruising from destination to ship size to experience.”

The team decided to focus on this group, those who are new to cruising, because according to a CLIA research consumer survey, 90% of people who have cruised once will take another one.

That gap in knowledge is a great opportunity for CLIA to expand people’s knowledge about what the options are when it comes to a cruise vacation. They wanted to focus on people who have never cruised before and show them how customizable cruising can be.


The “#CruiseSmile” sweepstakes campaign, which was in its second year, is a piece of the overall “National Plan a Cruise Month” in October.

The concept of the month is to broaden the visibility around the cruising industry, and CLIA speaks “not just from an individual cruise line, but from the industry as a whole,” Todd-Evans said.

Cruise lines give agents deals in October, which is why it’s “the perfect time to book and get a really awesome cruise for a great price,” she said.

The #CruiseSmile sweepstakes gave away one cruising package per day during the month of October, and all someone had to do to enter was to upload a selfie to social media and tag it with #CruiseSmile. Alternately, they could enter on the dedicated website.

In addition to setting up the sweepstakes, to promote it, the team utilized dedicated Facebook and Twitter accounts and even held some open Twitter chats, where cruise line representatives were available to speak with followers on options, availability and anything else someone might have a question about.

Step #1. Evolve to fit your audience and message

The #CruiseSmile and “National Plan a Cruise Month” campaign started in 2015, and in 2016, the team wanted to make sure to evolve it appropriately from feedback and lessons learned.

For instance, in 2015, 31 cruises — one cruise per day — were given away, which Todd-Evans gave a “wow-factor … but the feedback that we got from winners was that they really wanted choice.”

So, when planning for 2016, the team decided to break the giveaway month into theme weeks in order to bring a level of choice into the giveaway. The team would spotlight one cruise a day, and then the weekly winner would get to choose the right one for them from those seven cruises.

The theme weeks were:

  • Family-friendly
  • Cultural
  • Sun
  • Exploring nature

“There’s a right cruise for every style and budget,” she said. “If you're the kind of person who wants a small ship going to the Galapagos, over a large ship in the Mediterranean, while [the larger ship] is a beautiful cruise, it might not be the right fit for you.”

The team was apprehensive at first, she said, because, “technically, we were giving away less cruises, but we actually got more entries, more excitement, and much more positive feedback because [we] reinforced that concept of choice and personalization.”

It was a pretty big change to make, but it “felt like it fit more with the core value of what we offer, which is that [a cruise] has to be the right fit for you, and it speaks to why we recommend people go through travel agents,” she said, adding that in the end, “it was a success. It was the right decision, hands down.”

Step #2. Be specific to your target audience  

Having theme weeks meant that that Todd-Evans and her team could speak more in depth about each concept. The team was able to help people understand all of the options available and paint a picture of what their cruising experience would be like.

When they were posting one cruise giveaway a day, they didn’t have the time to get in depth, she said.

“When you do an Alaskan cruise, you're not just staring at glaciers the whole time. The excursions you can go on — zip lining through glaciers and helicopter rides — it gave us the opportunity to go a little bit more in depth,” she said. “I think that meatier conversation was more worthwhile than just keeping it too surface level.” 

As part of creating those meatier conversations around the possibilities for a cruising experience, the team set up two-hour Twitter chats during each theme week for followers, travel agents and cruise line representatives.

“All social media does is give you a way of taking that dialogue and the conversations you have every day and putting them online,” Todd-Evans said. “What I really love is that using Twitter for a Twitter chat every single week just gave them a digital space to have conversations.”

These Twitter hangouts served two audiences, she said, in that customers love the idea of being able to go on these amazing vacations, and the cruise lines want to talk about how they can help them go.

“If you can give them that digital space to have that dialogue, it's fun. You keep it fresh. You don't let them get too salesy — because they will, but don't let them. It just really opens up that world to let everybody have a feel-good two hours about travel,” she said.

The team prepares pre-planned questions to spark conversation, but “the engagement we got was above and beyond,” she said. “Our cruise lines were engaged and talking about whatever the question was; they were engaging directly with travel agents and with consumers.”

Another purpose of these chats is to dissuade myths. If people ask questions or have misconceptions, it’s easy to send them the correct information. Even people who worry about seasickness are provided with a solution, she added — go on a river cruise.

Aside from the standards like “how do I book a cruise?”, the questions changed depending upon the week’s theme, she said. This is where the different themes helped with diving into the possibilities.

“Those were those questions that I like to see come out. I think it really got to the heart of the issue where people didn't realize you could do that,” she said.

Cruising is an approachable way to explore corners of the world that people might feel intimidated by, Todd-Evans said.

For instance, “I don't speak Vietnamese, but I would still love to go there,” she said. “You've got guides. You've got tours. You've got people who speak the language … you can still really immerse yourself and see that world.”

The challenge of the 2016 campaign was to activate audiences into doing more than just entering the sweepstakes, she said.

“Obviously, you want those entries, but the bigger picture is getting that engagement and education and exposure. So that was really fantastic to have the dialogue between all of those people,” she said.

Step #3. Use influencers to reach niche audiences

The team also activated digital influencers in the travel space to talk about #CruiseSmile and cruising in general.

Throughout the campaign, they had “everything from travel bloggers talking about photography trips they've taken on cruise ships to mommy bloggers talking about family vacations they've taken with Disney Cruise Line or Royal Caribbean where you take your whole family and what a great option it is,” Todd-Evans said.

That effort with influencers helped the goal of reaching new audiences for cruising and opening them up to the possibilities.

“It's about changing that perception. You might not think, ‘Oh, a cruise is a great choice if I want to go on a photography tour.’ What you don't realize is a river cruise puts you in the heart of the city,” she said.

In some cases, CLIA has worked with the influencers before and taken referrals from its PR agency, but “because we were fairly new to this [influencer] world, we used good old Google. I'm serious, we just started searching,” Todd-Evans said.

The team started primarily with travel, but they kept in mind that they wanted to reach different audiences, which is how they connected with photography and parenting influencers.

“What was shocking is, we reached out to a few folks, and their response was, ‘Oh my god, we took our family on a cruise. It was awesome.’ So it wasn't hard to get people on board,” she said.

Although rounding up the right group of influencers was “a lot of legwork, I think it was really worth it. Our influencers brought a lot to the table,” she said.

Step #4. Engage stakeholders

“Our travel agents are pretty incredible,” Todd-Evans said. “What we realized is they have that drive — they've got a great voice, and they're huge influencers, but they don't necessarily have a marketing team. They're small businesses.”

She and her team put together a PowerPoint deck of ready-made social media content for travel agents to turn them into influencers in their own right.

“Most of them are on Facebook, and they're starting to expand into the Twitter and Instagram space. So, we gave them ready-made content for all of those channels. We produced four videos, one for each of the theme weeks, and sent those to them,” she said.

The travel agents were aware of the calendar ahead of time, and were, of course, engaged in the Twitter chats.

However, whenever they saw a travel agent or agency going above and beyond, CLIA wanted to recognize that hard work.

“We would just send them presents,” she said. “It was so much fun because you would see somebody, and they're posting just awesome stuff on Facebook.”

She gave the example of an agency that used a green screen to act out a scene that corresponded to the theme week.

“They would have these really funny posts about what the theme was. That's incredible. That is really going above and beyond. So, I sent them presents, just like a water bottle and fun stuff about #CruiseSmile,” she said.

Then, she said, the agency posted online about the gifts that they had received, and other travel agencies began posting more frequently and creatively as well.

CLIA’s travel agent members “dove in deep and really embraced this and expanded it because they realized all of this exposure is positive. All it's doing is expanding people's minds about the industry and, in turn, driving more business,” she said.

Most importantly though, it’s fun, she added.

“It lets people know you care about them and, more importantly, that you see what they're doing and appreciate it. The last thing you want is people posting and feeling like it's for naught,” she said.


The team’s goal going into 2016 was to have 100,000 entries, expanded from the 75,000 entry goal that they reached the year before.

“We ended up with 106,146 total entries. So, we beat our goal by 6,000, which made me really happy,” Todd-Evans said.

The vast majority of those entries came from the hashtag — about 83,000 from Twitter and Instagram, and the rest of the 23,000 entries came from the microsite.

She credits the success of the campaign on making entry “as simple as possible.”

“Folks are impatient. When they see something, if you can get them excited enough that they want to enter, you don't want to lose them because the entry is too complicated,” she said.

Personalization was also a huge credit to the success, she said, as that was a major shift from the previous year.

“It made sense for us, and it made perfect sense for our industry, but I think people just inherently want personalization and choice,” she said. “That really empowers the people who are entering, and it makes them realize, ‘I'm really going to like this. I'm not winning some random t-shirt. I'm winning the thing that I choose,’” she said.

Creative Samples

  1. National Plan a Cruise Month
  2. Sweepstakes entry
  3. Norwegian Cruise post
  4. Alaskan Cruise post
  5. Parenting blog influencer


Cruise Lines International Association

ShortStack – CLIA’s campaign vendor

Related Resources  

Subscribe to MarketingSherpa to get the latest case studies and data on inbound marketing

Content Marketing: ZipCar increases contest submissions by 717% by moving off of Facebook

Social Media Marketing: Boston Marathon sponsor John Hancock brings together 30 thousand people with mosaic campaign

Social Media Marketing: Startup achieves 900% Facebook fan growth through sweepstakes

Email Marketing: Visit Detroit achieves 46% of yearly email newsletter subscriber goal in eight days

Improve Your Marketing

Join our thousands of weekly case study readers.

Enter your email below to receive MarketingSherpa news, updates, and promotions:

Note: Already a subscriber? Want to add a subscription?
Click Here to Manage Subscriptions