In 2012, 2.6 million Ugandans were connected to mobile wireless Internet. According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics report 2017, during 2016, the total number of fixed Internet subscribers increased by 13.7 per cent compared to those registered in 2015. In the same period there was a 76.6 per cent increase in mobile wireless internet subscriptions up from the 29.1 per cent increase in 2015.

By 2016, there was an estimated Internet penetration of 51.9 per cent, representing an estimated 19 million internet users.

People are spending more and more time on social media all around the world than on any other medium of communication. The numbers are going higher, probably with no chance of ever going down.
This can only mean one thing: Social media marketing could be effective on a grand scale.

Potential of social media
Oscar Ntege, a professional wedding photographer, serves as a good example of what social media marketing can do.

“When I first started marketing my photography on Facebook,” says Ntege, “I would post with a desperate need to sell. I was always describing my services and praising the latest cameras and gadgets I was using. After a few years, I found out I was not going far with this strategy.
“People do not care about your high-tech gadgets and cameras. On social media, people care about a great picture, and a relationship with you that is almost on a personal level.

“So around mid 2013, I decided to start posting pictures that I felt were engaging and of interest to my 1,000 followers. I stopped trying to sell my services. I started trying to engage with quality. To get as many likes as possible, just for the fun of it. During wedding gigs, I would ensure to post a photo while the wedding was still going on and then I would kindly ask the bride and groom to share my post.

“In just one month of doing this, my following jumped from 1,000 to 8,000. My pictures were being shared numerous times and attracting hundreds of comments. Within one year of doing this, I was pleased to see Shs200m for the first time on my account.”
This could be one of thousands of success stories.

The question is, can this kind of success be replicated to important national sectors such as tourism? Can Uganda as a country grow tourism through social media?

Charlotte Beauvoisin is a British expatriate living in Uganda and she is passionate about both tourism and social media. Her travel blog, The Diary of a Muzungu is a household name on Facebook. She says, “Many tour companies are doing social media - but few of them are getting it right.
Social media is a moving target and you have to keep up-to-date with trends.”

Asked about the kind of mistakes people are making, she says, “The classic mistake that people use is to give the intern or IT person the job of managing social media. Wrong. Social media is all about communication.

You need to be up to speed on all the latest tourism products and issues in the country that may affect tourism. You need to be proactive and reactive. You do not need any particular IT skills to manage a Twitter account or Facebook.

You need an eye for a good picture and a good story. You need good written English. You have to understand your audience.”
Beauvoisin says some of the very good social media pages in Uganda include Gorilla Highlands @gorillahi and #KoiKoiUG. Tweets from @Tourismuganda and @TouroperatorsUG are always informative too.

National social media page
Ideally, the Uganda Tourism Board Facebook page should be the first stop for a prospective tourist so they can make some decisions about visiting Uganda.

On arrival on the page, the tourist will be greeted by a cover picture of a good looking but tiny ferry moving on a water body with tourists on board. Nice picture, but not great; not good enough for a body charged with promoting Uganda’s beauty.

Most of the pictures used were phone camera pictures, which held no particular aura in terms of colour or content. There was not a single video posted.

The page has just over 18,000 followers.
Patrick Kateregga, the online marketing official at UTB, says the board is planning to run their social media pages more professionally, including buying the appropriate cameras and gadgets. This, he says is aimed at taking advantage of the potential of social media.

“We have seen the magic of social media over the last three years, Kateregga admits. “In 2015, we got three PR agencies in the US, the UK and Germany to help us interest tourists in visiting Uganda. The ones in the UK and Germany opted to use social media, and ever since they went that route, the numbers from those two markets increased dramatically.”
Social media for domestic tourism
One could argue that social media plays a much bigger role in promotion of domestic tourism.

According to David Oguttu, team leader of Kafunda Kreative, the outfit that runs #KoiKoiUg a domestic tourism campaign, they have successfully attracted a community of creative enthusiastic Ugandans with a passion to tell the world about Uganda.

Their campaign was successful to the extent of being featured on CNN’s Inside Africa. “Our involvement is about exploring how good content can contribute to a sense of discovery of Uganda through good photography, video and blogs. That sense of discovery we hoped would provide the spark that gets people travelling because of the interest in the stories of their country, its culture, communities and natural resources,” he says.

Private ventures on social media
Marasa Africa is the company that owns the four of the biggest tourist lodges in the country, namely; Paraa Safari Lodge, Mweya Safari Lodge, Chobe Safari, and Silverback lodges. Spacey Kawarach Oreste, a marketer with Marasa says social media marketing is the future.

“Our presence and active participation on Facebook and Instagram has increased our online bookings by 30 per cent since we got engaging in 2016,” she says, adding that almost all bookings made over Christmas by Ugandans were made through their social media platforms.

Oreste says most of their social media marketing is aimed at Ugandans. Some of the packages targeting Ugandans on Marasa pages include honeymoon, conference and weekend getaway packages. Which leaves the question; how do they reach the lucrative foreign markets?

“Most international bookings still come from tour agencies in the developed world,” she adds.
Mihingo Lodge in Lake Mburo National Park relies entirely on tour agencies in Europe and the US.
Raph Schenk, the proprietor of the lodge says, “We did our best to market our services on social media but realised no returns so we are going slow on that route. We will keep in touch with our 500 tour agencies in the developed world for now because it is the better use of money.”
Mercy Kateera, Serena Hotels’ group head of social media marketing says, “Social media is a conversation. You have to be available to respond to comments in time. We ensure that our social media messages have a call to action. So we have linked our website to all our social media channels.”

Although most of their bookings still come from online travel agents such as, Leading Hotels of the World and Expedia, social media bridged a gap.

“Since we created social media platforms, the number of diners, baby showers, bridal showers and visitors to the Serena Hotels has increased.”

Kateera believes social media should be used to keep the brand visible and attractive and to maintain a lively relationship between a business and its customers.

Way forward

International exhibitions and tour agents are still the major channels of interesting foreign tourists to Uganda.

However, we need to learn how to reap from social media marketing and in the process, ditch the interns and hire professionals.
“Promotions and special offers always catch people’s eye!” says blogger Charlotte Beauvoisin, further advising, “consider boosting posts on Facebook or using Instagram and Twitter advertising.
“Remember Facebook likes do not mean much; you want shares and comments. It is better to have 100 customers that are engaged with you and your company than 1,000 who never make any comments or enquiries.”

Social media has evolved from an avenue for connecting friends, to a means by which businesses are linked to markets. Any business that does not take social media seriously should not be in business. Tourism is no different.