Tampa Bay tries to stand out in wave of lists and rankings

http://www.tampabay.com/writers/justine-griffin

Top places to retire. Top party spots. Best beaches. Best cities for runners. Worst cities for runners. Top dining destinations. Best place to launch a business. Most romantic cities. Least romantic cities. Best cities to buy a home. Top cities for dogs. America’s sweatiest cities. (No joke; Tampa, by the way, is tops).

Lists and rankings are everywhere — our inboxes, our Facebook feeds, on nearly every website we visit.

They often include Tampa Bay cities. St. Petersburg is No. 1 for millennials in Florida. Tampa is the nation’s second-best beer town. Clearwater Beach has a bevy of “best beach” titles.

And on and on. Enough already, right?

“There’s a new list out every minute, it seems,” said Patrick Harrison, vice president of marketing and communication for Visit Tampa Bay, the tourism marketing arm of Hillsborough County. “Once the Internet took off, lists took over as the first true form of clickbait, but now you’re seeing them from lesser-known websites and media outlets.”

But here’s the thing: We read them. The people who spend time compiling them wouldn’t if we didn’t.

It’s not like BuzzFeed invented the “listicle.” The Top 10 list was hammered into the ground for nearly three decades by David Letterman. U.S. News &World Report and Consumer Reports developed business models based on lists. Power ranking lists have been on sports websites for years. And even local food critics have found a niche ranking the best bars and restaurants.

But this addiction to lists is something relatively modern — fueled by the ever-expanding Web culture, information overload and an opportunity for quick, easy reading.

Lists also provide a certain validation— satisfaction in reading something that endorses our own choices and shows off our local pride.

“In this consumer-driven era, people want to know what falls in line with how they already think,” said Susannah Costello, vice president of global brand for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism agency.

Researchers at Albany State University of New York think it’s easy to become disoriented while multitasking on the web. Lists are popular because they’re simpler to digest when we’re watching videos on Facebook and G-chatting with friends at the same time. Some psychologists say it’s because we think we’re too busy to sit down and read anything longer.

“Lists spark curiosity,” said Danny Markstien, a managing partner of Alabama-based digital marketing firm Markstein. “Most of the time, the content looks like it’s credible and well researched, even if that’s not the case. But that’s the perception, and that’s what matters.”

For people who make a living branding and marketing Tampa Bay, the surge in lists provides plenty of opportunity — who wouldn’t love their beach to make a Top 10 list that shows up when you Google “Florida beaches”?

But it also presents challenges. While there are legitimate rankings out there, they can get lost in the static of lists with less rigid standards or methodologies.

For instance, Clearwater Beach may be able to poke a sign in the sand saying a legitimate news outlet likeUSA Today named it America’s Best Beach Town. But if a lesser beach can do the same with a study from the relatively new and unknown website like Thrillist, how can tourism officials ensure consumers and travelers can separate the junk from the real thing?

“Because of the Internet, different websites are carving out their own niche with lists that speak to a specific audience,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. “Some of them are a little shady. You’ve got to take them with a grain of salt.”

The lists that hold the most weight come from reputable news sources like USA Today, Conde Nast andTravel + Leisure magazine. The more prestigious beach awards are given out by travel experts, like Dr. Beach (whose real name is Stephen Leatherman) of Florida International University, and Peter Greenberg, a CBS News travel editor. Some are generated by customer reviews from sites like TripAdvisor.

The problem is, once a beach or destination is ranked No. 1, like on Dr. Beach’s top lists, it can’t win it again. Clearwater Beach topped the list in 2008. Fort De Soto was No. 1 in 2005.

“These rankings come and go so fast,” Harrison said. “You want to be able to hang your hat on being ranked in the top 10 by some major independent organization that can set you apart from the mess that’s out there.”

Tourism agencies like Visit Tampa Bay and Visit St. Pete-Clearwater have logged hundreds of pages of rankings that cities, beaches, attractions and restaurants have made over the years. They promote the biggest ones on their websites, through social media and by circulating news releases.

“At its core, it’s just another engagement tool,” said David Downing, executive director of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, Pinellas County’s tourism agency. “With today’s news cycle, people move on so fast.”

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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