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Social Media and Networking - The Travel Marketers Guide

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October 01, 2007
Distribution | Special Report
Cindy Estis Green - cme25@cornell.edu

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© 2008 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

Social media and social networking is all about customer engagement. While consumer reviews have certainly captured the attention of travel marketers, it’s not just about consumers spouting the good and bad aspects of their travel tales and travails. There is a much bigger story to tell.  The highest and best use of social media – and the way in which a travel marketer can most effectively respond to consumer commentary on the well-known review sites – is to engage customers and prospects in conversations to understand their needs, develop relationships and interact with them before a purchase, during the purchase process, and after a purchase is made.

This conversation may begin with customer reviews, but a savvy marketer will take it well past this point. Such conversations can serve to develop and deepen relationships (with customers, intermediaries, influencers) and can be a primary vehicle to create, project and burnish a brand image.  There are powerful tools in the new social media-driven environment. The cost to use these tools is relatively low and the impact is high. The tools and approach are accessible to a small hotel or destination, as well as to international brands and global organizations. And the use of social media is not limited in any way to just upscale travelers or to those 20-something Gen Yers.  The same expectations and methods apply to all generational groups and to those traveling on a limited budget. The needs of various customer groups are indeed different, and the methods of execution may vary widely, but the tools available are very similar. Now is the time for the travel industry to dive in, engage their customers and reap the benefits of these relationships.

The Conversation Economy
This new consumer behavior applies as much to travel as it does to industries as varied as electronics, books, automobiles and financial planning.  Every industry is feeling the impact of the new conversation economy and is beginning to alter the way its marketing is executed. Consumers want to continue their offline relationships in the virtual online world. They want a similar depth and breadth of interaction, and technology now makes this possible. The door is open for travel marketers to join in the conversation with very productive results. This conversation is not limited to management responses to consumer reviews. The toolkit is robust and growing.

According to a recent TIA/Ypartnership TravelHorizons™ study1, two-thirds of online adult leisure travelers consume online video and audio clips, and four in 10 read blogs, share photos and take virtual tours. One in four post responses to blogs and participate in social networks. It is clear that the U.S. population is actively using social media and this phenomenon is growing dramatically. It is also spreading like wildfire worldwide. ComScore reported a substantial expansion in the international use of social networking sites.

Consumers look to the Internet, not just for information and a convenient place to transact business, but increasingly to interact with members of their business or personal networks. Consumers participate in areas in which they would typically become involved in the offline world. It’s about creating connections among users based on their shared interests or a dedicated purpose. If this virtual interaction sounds familiar, it is because it is.

This is exactly what happens between people offline. Groups of like-minded people belong to organizations – be they social, commercial, fraternal or community service-based – in order to interact. The change is that much more of this interaction is now being done online. This may include online participation in topics related to gardening, photography, travel, current events, medical research or art history. You name it and there are online communities interacting on every topic. Most consumers have multiple reasons to go online and are increasingly doing so for interactive experiences.

The dialogue that occurs online is very similar to that which takes place offline in terms of depth, complexity and degree of interactivity. The result is an amplification of the conversations and a highly accelerated transfer and exchange of commentary and ideas. These are the factors most salient for marketers when they set out to maneuver through the waters of consumer communities with their respective brand messages.

This conversation-based economy is influenced even more by the high speed, pitch and volume of these conversations affecting consumer behavior than it was during the days of traditional word of mouth, when it could take weeks or months for word of a product or purchase experience to spread. Consumers have also become less tolerant of the interruptive messages of legacy marketing campaigns created when TV, radio and print ads are interspersed in the delivery of entertainment or information. Messaging appropriate to be incorporated into consumer conversations is quite different, and the communications used are more likely to be effective than their traditional predecessors at creating longer lasting bonds with consumers.

The Rise of Consumer Constellations
It is not as though consumers have traded a magazine or TV show for a favorite new Web site, blog or news posting and that marketers need only figure out which Web sites or URLs they visit so messages can be delivered. Social interactions will occur in many places. Mirroring the offline world, consumers belong to multiple social groups, each including many members, and with each member being a point of contact. Imagine a constellation of stars representing a group of people in a network, each pattern unique to one consumer but interconnecting to each other through the common friend, colleague or acquaintance.

One consumer could feasibly be active in LinkedIn, SecondLife, Flickr, Yahoo! Groups, Classmates.com and TripAdvisor. This isn’t about learning how to manage in MySpace or Facebook or about which one will finally reign supreme in cyberspace. It is about the emerging concept of consumer constellations and how consumers will belong to a collection of networks.  The Internet is, in fact, becoming one big social network. Learning the topography of this complex set of networks is the first step one must take to develop a strategy of customer engagement.

A New Purchase Funnel
Following on this theme, the next step required is to understand the purchase process undertaken by travelers. Gone are the days when a travel marketer focused on two points along the purchase continuum: awareness campaigns to promote brand name recognition and tactical campaigns to capture attention at the time of booking with promotion of the 800 number or URL.

The newly evolved purchase funnel identifies multiple points of contact, and the new online technologies create a variety of opportunities for travel marketers to interact with consumers at every point along the way. Interaction with the consumer doesn’t end when the booking is made. It continues during the travel experience and in the post-travel dialogue, which then feeds into the next purchase or influences the decisions of family and friends for their next trip. There are online tools to address every point in the process and most of them are found in the social media arsenal. Yes, consumer reviews are crucial, but they are merely one point of contact and often serve only as opening dialogue. Travel marketers can master a dozen other tools to effectively capture the attention of the audience that matters to them.

Overlaying the Five Cs onto the Five Ps
Not only has there been change in the purchase process, but the marketing mix has also required modification.  Since the turn of the century, the path or distribution component of travel marketing has become dramatically more complex. The new marketing landscape for consumer 2.0 (the consumer environment that allows a higher level of dialogue through the interactive tools of the new Web 2.0) has caused every element of the marketing mix to expand. The nature of consumer decision making and the growing hunger for social interaction online has been a catalyst to alter the marketing mix forming the basis for any sales and marketing campaign. If the classic five Ps include product, pricing, path, promotion and packaging, the new model requires an expansion on most of these elements. Overlay the five Cs and a marketer will be better prepared to function in this new environment.

The Bottom Line for Travel Marketers
There are six primary objectives that can be accomplished through the use of social media and social networking tools. There are many tactical tools to execute strategies against these objectives, and are detailed in the special report. One of the surprising findings was that on its face, social media appear to be just an expanded set of tools to fulfill tactical objectives. One might assume that the primary goal would be short-term bookings. Ultimately, however, the report explains through many illustrations of its use in many industries (not just travel), that artful management of social media and social networks results not just in sales or bookings, but in powerful brand building and reinforcement as well.

When a marketer is focused on the conversation rather than short-term conversion, results can be substantially better, and even more importantly, more sustainable. The reason why the use of social media and networks tends to resonate with marketers is that strategies of customer relationship management have frequently yielded greater and more sustainable sales.  Note the long-term success of companies such as American Express, Lands End, Nordstrom and Starbucks, all masters of customer engagement. The online tools available for this purpose are now accessible to travel marketers from companies as small as individual hotels or attractions, to branded international organizations and large destinations.

Travel Industry Position on Social Media and Networks
In a survey conducted in July 2007 by TIA and HSMAI, travel executives identified the increased use of blogs, podcasting, photo sharing, online video, virtual communities and online tagging (or bookmarking) as major areas of focus for their online marketing development in the coming year.

A high level of interaction with consumers on the subject of travel is a natural fit given the high level of personal involvement consumers experience in their travel decisions. It requires a lot of time and money to travel, and when personal funds and vacation time are involved, travel is imbued with an even higher value. Like many other industries, the travel industry is learning about social media. There are many elements that are still unfamiliar and new. The TIA/HSMAI study of travel executives shows that although the art and science of social media is relatively new, the industry has taken note and is testing the waters. There is an opportunity for the travel industry to excel in these techniques. The very form of social media that can inspire fear in the hearts of travel suppliers, the consumer review, can be the most potent tool a marketer can leverage in its use of social media.

The industry has the great advantage of a high degree of dialogue with its customers and the benefit of so many travel Web sites (including dedicated travel networks, suppliers, intermediaries, destinations and many others) – that incorporate commentary, advice, photos, video, trip planning and many other interactive elements. There are few other topics online that stimulate the same volume of dialogue. Consumer products like hairspray and toothpaste do not naturally stimulate consumers to respond in the same way as they do to travel. Travel marketers can join the dialogue. They can listen, lead and participate. The cost of entry is relatively low and the upside is tremendous.

Social Media Toolkit
There are many tactical tools that can serve a travel marketer’s marketing objectives. Trip planning, an ideal application for social media, can be one of the natural focal points for marketers since it is often interactive in nature when several people are involved in the travel decision.  The trip planning function is enhanced by rich content such as video, audio, photos and mapping, often forming mashups from several sources, and is usually an essential element in the travel purchase. Whether it is built around trip planning or not, many of these social media tools can be deployed within a travel supplier’s own Web site and/or can be used on external sites. For the most part, social media tools are deployed in multiple places. They can be used in combination or individually, but they should be incorporated into a comprehensive plan. They should not be tapped for ad hoc campaigns but rather applied to an overall purpose and goal that may be rooted in brand or sales development.

Cindy Estis Green is the managing partner of The Estis Group. She speaks at conferences and provides consulting and educational publications for the industry on topics at the intersection of marketing and technology. Estis Green authored The Travel Marketers Guide to Social Media and Social Networks published in September, 2007 by HSMAI and TIA. To order the full report contact her at cme25@cornell.edu or go to www.hsmai.org

TIA/Ypartnership, TravelHorizons™, bi-monthly study of 2,000 online U.S. adults to examine travel behavior, April, 2007

Issues for Travel Marketers

There are 10 key points when it comes to social media for travel marketers. These are the primary issues that need to be at the top of mind in order to manage in the new consumer 2.0 marketing environment.

  1. The use of social media is high and growing in all customer segments. This isn’t something limited to those marketing to teens and 20-somethings.
  2. Conveying and harnessing the passion for travel will be necessary to successfully engage a customer base.
  3. Trip planning is an ideal focal point to stimulate interaction with travelers.
  4. User-generated content is high and can be threatening to travel suppliers, but it is a potent tool. Learning how to manage this form of social media is crucial.
  5. Relationships with consumers need to be interactional, not transactional.
  6. The long tail of the Internet is very applicable to travel and can be leveraged with its many niche customer groups and many niche suppliers.
  7. Social media complements (and may one day supplant) traditional search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO).
  8. Corporate travel, groups and meetings all use social networks and will respond to social media; this is not just for the leisure traveler.
  9. Widgets are coming, widgets are here. Learn how to use this new technology—it will be especially important as the online activity goes mobile.
  10. The rivalry between online travel agencies (OTAs), other third-party intermediaries (TPIs) and travel suppliers will continue and intensify in the social media and social networking arena.

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