MANATEE -- Robert Neff wanted to tweet a nice beach photo, but he needed it with a Chevrolet Camaro convertible in the background.
After scouting the shoreline, he found a spot in the Three Piers area of Bradenton Beach, whipped out his phone and framed the steering wheel, windshield and beach, telling his 15,765 followers "Surf's kicking up the Gulf! #Bradenton Beach #tourism via @CoxAuto Camaro #CoxAuto" from his handle @5wa.
Neff of St. Petersburg is evangelizing about his take on viral marketing. The writer and photographer was invited by the Charlotte Harbor Visitor & Convention Bureau as a social media influencer to attend a luncheon Friday in Port Charlotte for the Tampa Bay Rays first day of spring training. Knowing he had a nice trip ahead, he talked Cox Chevrolet of Bradenton into providing him with a 2013 deep blue Camaro convertible to take on the trip and promote it via social media.
"You tell a story," Neff said about his Twitter marketing. "I'll take this down today to my aunt in Osprey. She's 92 and if I can get her in, I will. I'll take it out to the coast to Sarasota and do photobombs with it."
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Cox General Manager John Rudd said this is the first viral marketing promotion he has done in the Bradenton market.
"It's fun and it allows someone else to go out and talk about the vehicles," Rudd said.
Rudd and Neff knows a balance has to be struck. Neff won't make every tweet about the Camaro over the coming days or about its features, and at the same time, Rudd didn't want a Cox magnet on the side of the car or else it comes off as trying too hard.
"A lot of people don't want to hear information from a dealer. They want to hear from a trusted source or from someone outside of the employment of Chevrolet so you'll get true opinions," Rudd said.
Getting free stuff for tweets is becoming more common. A Marc Jacobs store in New York is allowing customers to take items such as perfume in exchange for a post on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. The more creative posts will be entered in a raffle for more expensive items.
A social media campaign involving a rental Camaro and a baseball fan experience are letting Neff live the high life this weekend.
In Port Charlotte, this is the second year the Rays have allowed the visitors bureau to invite social media influencers, giving them special access to spring training events to both promote Rays baseball and the Port Charlotte area, including the press conference at the spring training luncheon.
The CVB pre-screened and selected the influencers based on familiarity with them. They wanted to make sure they would be professional, have a high score on Klout (a social media rating system), and have a high passion for Rays baseball and Port Charlotte, said Jennifer Huber, spokeswoman for the Charlotte Harbor Visitors Bureau.
The visitors bureau wanted to do these campaigns to show Rays fans in St. Petersburg and Tampa that Port Charlotte has plenty to offer and is worth the drive for baseball and more, she said.
"When they share that, it's authentic and organic, and they're excited about spring training and coming down to Port Charlotte," Huber said, adding the marketing helps promotes a NCAA Division I baseball tournament the following day.
For Rudd, getting Cox's name out in Port Charlotte is huge, while also getting eyeballs from St. Petersburg and Tampa residents at spring training. It helps that Chevrolet is an official sponsor of the Rays and MLB, he added.
Dealership wants to be No. 1
"We need to let people know who we are, where we are and let people know the size of dealership that we are," he said. "We're the second-largest new Chevy dealer in the state of Florida, and a lot of people don't know that."
The dealership is battling with a competitor in Daytona Beach to take the top spot, he said.
"We're going to close that gap, but it's going to take us awhile," Rudd said
Neff lives and breathes viral marketing. One year he photographed a 7-Eleven Slurpee all over the area, at the beach, in the bathroom and everywhere in between. For this campaign, he's done his homework, checking to use hashtags #TheNewDay for the Camaro, #RaysSpringTraining14 for baseball and #CoxAuto for the dealership making sure he has consistent reach outside of his followers, ideally, tourists.
"You can leverage tourism, auto fanatics and people from all around the country and start building up the viral scope and bring it back to Cox because they're the ones who are supporting us," Neff said.
If companies or tourism bureaus in Manatee County area would do this, Neff and Huber said it's viable.
"They could invite the social media influencers from the Tampa Bay area to a tweet-up," he said. "That's the easiest thing they could do."
Huber has opened tweet-ups with influencers for other events including a trolley tour and Christmas lights canal cruise and makes sure she measures the results to check the effectiveness of the campaign using a program called Tweetreach and a unique hashtag on Twitter.
"If the Bradenton CVB wants to use this with the Pirates, they may want to use their connections for this and may start small and make sure they qualify the people they're inviting to participate," she said.
It's also a good idea to have a point person on the scene in case the social media marketers have questions about technology or about the event.
While the Pittsburgh Pirates aren't planning tweet-ups during spring training this year, the Bradenton Marauders helped drive team awareness with a Facebook campaign Feb. 7, giving away tickets to the first person to spot the Andrew McCutchen poster in the area, take a picture of it and post it on the Marauders Facebook page. The poster was at Ellenton Premium Outlets.
"In less than an hour we had a winner," said Nate March, communications coordinator for the Marauders. "Certainly some eyes fell on it pretty quickly."
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.