Developing an online and social media strategy is crucial to attracting first-time clients. // (C) 2010 IStock Images
Navigating the ever-changing social media landscape is difficult, to say the least. It becomes even trickier when you try to use it as a means of promoting your business. While it seems like almost every marketing and branding expert these days is telling you to get online and get social — that by logging on to the Internet, agents can leverage it to their advantage instead of letting it take away their business — knowing what to do and how to do it is still unclear.
Making things even more complicated is the fact that social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are still not the most profitable — or trusted — sources for marketing travel services. The 2010 Portrait of American Travelers study, conducted by Ypartnership and Harrison Group, found that social networking sites are considered the least credible sources for travel service marketing. Only 19 percent of those travelers surveyed cited Facebook and Twitter as credible sources, while only 14 percent considered YouTube as a credible source. Ranking slightly higher than these online outlets were blogs (33 percent), which also outranked traditional travel advertising (29 percent).
So, although it is important to be online in some capacity, you also have to be thoughtful and smart about the ways in which you approach the use of these online resources to create an added presence on the Web. While the approach will inevitably vary from agent to agent and from agency to agency, there are some key strategies for how you should design your agency’s online strategy, whether that relates to an official business website or a Twitter account.
More and more travelers are going online to research and book their own travel. According to the 2009 National Leisure Travel Monitor by Ypartnership/Yankelovich, Inc., nearly two-thirds of leisure travelers have used the Internet to obtain travel information and prices; nearly six in 10 have booked a reservation online. And although a majority of leisure travelers will visit online travel agency sites such as Expedia, Travelocity or Orbitz, all agencies should consider having a professional website of their own as well.
“Consumers who go online will make a decision about you by how your site looks,” said Marc Kassouf, co-owner and CEO of Long Beach, Calif.-based Pride Travel. “A professional and functional site is a must.”
When it comes to designing an agency website, agents should bear in mind the following increasingly desirable website features, as listed in the 2009 National Leisure Travel Monitor.
• Photos of the area
• Local transportation information
• User-generated reviews or commentary from others who have used a specific travel service or supplier
• Virtual video tours of the area
The most-desirable features for a website, however, included the ability to check for the lowest available fares/rates (87 percent); having an easy-to-use booking feature (74 percent); and photos of the hotel and resort facilities, rooms, etc. (72 percent).
By whatever means you can afford to, an agency should consider having its own website, whether that involves using website building resources from its consortium, opening up an account with an Internet domain registrar and Web hosting company such as GoDaddy.com or hiring professional designers and developers to build a site.
Although only two in 10 leisure travelers have turned to blogs for information about a destination or a travel service, according to the 2009 Leisure Travel Monitor, blogs are a simple, relatively easy — and inexpensive — way for agents to spark conversations about travel and to generate business from both repeat and new customers. They are also viewed as having much more credibility than other online sources, including social networking sites.
Blogs are just one other online alternative for agents interested in engaging in a conversation with their client base — both new and current. Blogs can help agents immensely by helping them develop a public, online persona that is both accessible and relatable to consumers. Relating personal travel experiences, sharing links to other travel-related sites or articles and posting information about new packages and promotions are all easily accomplished on a blog.
When it comes to creating a blog to promote your agency, agents should keep the following tips in mind:
1. Know who your audience is and will be.
2. Stick to a topic or theme for which you will not have trouble coming up with content.
3. Find your own blogging voice and make sure that it is authentic and invites conversation and feedback.
4. Have fun: blogs should never be taken too seriously because that defeats the whole spirit of blogging in the first place.
Facebook and Twitter
Now that Facebook has officially surpassed 500 million users worldwide and Twitter has nearly 106 million registered users, it is a safe bet that your clients and potential first-time clients are also Facebooking and Tweeting as we speak.
“Social media is here to stay, whether you like it or not,” said Julie Johnson, co-owner of Azzurro Travel in Marina del Rey, Calif.
And although these social networking sites do not necessarily lead to direct business sales, they are essential to providing opportunities to get in touch with new clients and keep in touch with the ones that agents already have.
To join in the conversation, travel agents should pick at least one of these outlets and go from there, deciding what type of information they want to include in these profiles and why.
At Pride Travel, for example, Kassouf and co-owner and COO Nathan DePetris view social media networks as discussion channels — and not as direct sales tools.
“Our entire social media strategy is about discussion,” said Kassouf. “We view travel as a subject and a topic for discussion. By starting that dialogue, you can establish yourself as their friend.”
For that reason, DePetris and Kassouf choose not to publicize or promote advertisements in these venues. Other agents, however, opt for a slightly different approach.
Chris Russo, ASTA president and chairman and an agent himself, said he takes a more hybrid approach to how he uses his social media outlets.
“I want to encourage people to travel so I will post some promotions or package-related news on those pages or accounts, but not too much,” he said.
On her agency’s Facebook page, Johnson includes links to informative articles from trusted travel media sources, shares personal photos and promotes breaking deals from various suppliers. Recent wall posts included an item on tips for making the iPad an ideal traveling companion; news about increasing U.S. passport fees; and even a personal photo, designed to showcase the near-perfect Los Angeles summer weather as an excuse to head out west.
Using a networking site such as Facebook or LinkedIn also allows agents and agencies to virtually link with like-minded customers, fellow travel professionals and other organizations. Finding out who you know and making new friends and connections — and realizing just what a small world it really is — are just some of the many benefits of these free online tools.
Whatever type of information that you or your agency decides to post on Facebook or Twitter, you should also bear in mind who is logging on to those sites. Because Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are also much more popular with younger adults than older adults, you may need to tailor your content to a younger audience. According to the 2010 Portrait of American Travelers, 61 percent of travelers ages 18-30 and 54 percent of travelers ages 31-44 have a social networking profile. For that reason, it makes sense to ask younger agents in your agency to help you strategize your social media direction.
Don’t Forget the Basics
As confusing — and sometimes convoluted — as these social media sites may be, the same objective remains for travel agents hoping to use them as a resource for generating interest and, possibly, business.
“The core element of these social networks is exactly the same as traditional methods of marketing and selling,” said Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar Tours. “Agents need to present themselves as a valuable asset and use these [sites] as a way to enter into a conversation.”
In her use of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, Johnson also makes it a point to offer advice and make the experience more personal, something that DePetris also emphasized.
“No matter what, you also have to make sure to separate yourself from just being an online presence to also having that human presence and experience,” he said.