Pick platforms that can serve a purpose for your business. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): Social media can be used to engage with current and potential clients. // © 2016 iStock
Social media is a thriving digital ecosystem. And it has become a crucial part of operating a gainful business within the travel industry.
For starters, the number of social media users — or potential clients — has increased drastically over the years. According to a 2015 report from Pew Research Center, nearly two-thirds of American adults are on social media, up from just 7 percent in 2005. The frequency of use is staggering, too: 92 percent of teens, for example, go online daily, including 24 percent who admit they connect to the Internet “almost constantly.”
Clearly, there’s a substantial index of users on social media, and these channels have become an intrinsic part of travel, as well. Masses of consumers consult social media during travel-planning stages and then share their experiences in real time or following the trip.
Though most travel agents have created a social media presence, some have been more fruitful than others. We turned to these experts within the cross section of travel and social media to see what is and isn’t working. Following are five tested features of a strong social media plan.
Set Your Goals
Like with any plan, your social media strategy needs to have fixed objectives based on ample reasoning. These objectives should be both quantifiable and achievable, and they’ll guide the rest of the strategy.
Cathy McPhillips, marketing director for Content Marketing Institute (CMI), says to start by asking yourself pertinent questions like the following: “Are you looking to start conversations and build relationships? Or, are you looking to position yourself as an expert in your niche? Will you be sharing content from your website on social channels?”
In an industry saturated with travel companies that are all jostling for customers, the ultimate goal is often to achieve brand loyalty. Sure, selling one itinerary is great, but a client who returns to you for help with a destination wedding, honeymoon, babymoon and later, a family reunion — all the while glowingly referring you to friends and family? That’s exponentially more profitable.
For Cadence Travel Management, a travel management company focusing on business travel, meeting and event planning and vacations, the main strategy for achieving brand loyalty is to give consumers what they want: authenticity, coupled with meaningful content.
“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it,” said Melinda Powers, marketing communications manager for Cadence. “So right now, our social media focuses on showcasing our brand’s identity and passion for travel, rather than simply bringing attention to individual services or trying to sell travel offers, because that will eventually come. We want to educate and inspire our travelers, and we do that with engaging connections, relevant content and multilayered touchpoints.”
Also vital to keep in mind when developing brand loyalty is your agency’s niche and the interests of your core customer. If adventure travel is the principal focus of your brand, then the content across your social media channels should reflect this — think Instagram posts featuring a group of daring clients trekking the Himalayas or tweets from an adventure-travel-themed Twitter chat. Or, if cruises are your specialty, then perhaps the best route is a Facebook photo album from the ship inspection of a long-awaited newbuild.
Andres Zuleta, founder and president of Boutique Japan Travel Company, exclusively sells itineraries to Japan. In turn, the agency’s Instagram regularly depicts bowls of delicious-looking ramen (most popular with the account’s followers, Zuleta notes). In similar fashion, its blog offers comprehensive posts on topics such as packing tips and the best luxury ryokans (traditional Japanese-style inns).
Show off what you know best — your brand — and prove why others, especially clients, should want to be a part of it.
Make It Count
No longer restricted to only a handful of platforms, new apps and websites continue to enter the social media spotlight. Instagram launched in 2010, and it now has more than 400 million monthly active users. (The platform is even more popular than Twitter, which has about 320 million monthly active users.) Then, there are other relatively new channels, such as Snapchat, which was introduced in 2011, and Periscope, a video-streaming app that was acquired by Twitter in early 2015.
Meanwhile, more familiar sites such as Facebook and Twitter frequently add new features and tools and alter their algorithms, subsequently changing best practices. And don’t forget about the slew of other platforms, including Pinterest, LinkedIn, Google+, YouTube, Vimeo, Vine and Tumblr.
How does a travel agent effectively approach such a vast number of social media websites without compromising quality? For one, refrain from quickly registering for each platform, sticking social media links on your website’s homepage and then calling it a day.
“Don’t be everywhere,” said McPhillips of CMI. “Be where your customers are, and do it well. Each social media channel offers something a little different. Take a look around and assess the competitive landscape and also determine the needs of your customers.”
Samantha Tautz, director of marketing for Frosch, likewise emphasizes the importance of committing to a curated selection of social media sites.
“You can do yourself more harm than good by creating Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn accounts and then getting overwhelmed and never updating them,” Tautz said. “By picking one or two channels and committing to post at least a few times a week, you’re creating an active presence that not only shows your expertise, but your continued dedication.”
Understand Each Platform
From a supplier standpoint, adventure tour operator Intrepid Travel has a strong presence across multiple channels. Yet Michael Sadowski, Intrepid’s public relations manager, recommends that those with limited resources focus on what he considers the three major sites: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“They all serve their own unique purpose,” Sadowski said. “For us, Instagram is a good visual representation of the brand. People love it because it’s easy to use, it offers great inspiration and it’s great for general awareness. Twitter is more for building a community. There’s a lot of playful dialogue and a lot of back-and-forth communication that Instagram doesn’t really have. Facebook is important for referral traffic. It’s also a space for us to have meaningful conversations and offer help with planning — without Twitter’s character limit.”
Though Sadowski says Intrepid has dabbled in using Periscope, the strategy behind it has been cautious and intentional.
“For our Urban Adventures brand, where in some cases it’s a two-hour tour, we can use Periscope [for previewing to] travelers from all over the world what it’s like to go on a bar crawl of New York City or on a tour of Toronto’s ‘Hogtown,’ exploring the city through its food,” Sadowski said, while noting that it doesn’t work as well for Intrepid’s other brands with longer, multiday tours.
However, Periscope can be effective for real-time news and updates from the ground, Sadowski says. After a post-earthquake trip to Nepal, Intrepid CEO Darrell Wade utilized the platform to broadcast an on-ground update of the destination.
Another way travel agents can use social media is to offer interesting peeks into their own lives, thus humanizing the travel-selling process — already one of the most compelling reasons to use a real-life travel agent’s services vs. booking via an OTA.
Stacy Small, CEO of Elite Travel International, a Virtuoso agency, finds that travel photos can be a dime a dozen, with millions of users posting them daily. For her, it’s imperative to insert posts not directly related to business into the mix.
“With Facebook, I am broadcasting to a curated group of 4,900 ‘friends,’ so I intersperse my travel-related posts with more personal ones that might range from photos of my dogs to pieces about meditation and stress-relieving techniques for entrepreneurs,” Small said.
At the same time, Small has a whopping 70,000-plus followers on Twitter, so her posts tend to skew toward sharing travel articles, travel trends and other items of interest to a more general audience.
Engage Followers and Fans
Without a doubt, selling travel is largely a relationship-based business.
Sam McCully, vice president of marketing for Avoya Travel, says connecting and engaging with prospective and current customers is key for the company’s social strategy.
“Social media is a mechanism that allows for two-way interaction,” McCully said. “It offers a way for us to tell our story and also to hear stories and experiences from our customers.”
One form of engagement is creating a brand hashtag and encouraging consumers to include the hashtag on their social media posts. Avoya’s #BeyondTheWeb promotion increases visibility of all posts that are similarly tagged and directs attention to the agency’s business platform and ongoing campaign.
Another type of outreach is hosting a contest and asking participants to share their entries on social media. For example, last year, contenders posted creative 15-second videos to Instagram and tagged @CadenceTravel in hopes of winning a voluntourism scholarship to Fiji. The contest was part of Cadence’s anniversary celebration and “paying it forward” initiative. These videos were cross-posted to the company’s Facebook, as well as on the applicants’ other social media platforms, and attracted retweets, replies, comments and emails.
“We always say social media is like standing in a room full of people,” said Cadence’s Powers. “It’s not going to be a one-sided conversation; you can’t just stand there, shouting whatever you want and not caring who is listening. You actually have to engage back and like people’s posts and share their photos, too.”
Of course, when you offer up a mic for consumers to publicly voice feedback, the result isn’t always sunshine and rainbows.
Tautz of Frosch recalls an instance where a mix-up with a client led to a complaint posted on one of the company’s social media profiles. But after a Frosch representative quickly responded and a regional director personally contacted the client with an apology and a small token of appreciation, the client not only retracted her feedback in a follow-up comment, but also recommended the company’s services.
“When you can change a negative situation into a positive one and truly turn around a client’s point of view, it’s clear how powerful social media can be,” Tautz said.
The Biggest No-No
So what shouldn’t you put on social media? Posts that try to sell travel rather than focus on establishing genuine rapport can be social media suicide.
Elite Travel’s Small says that she never tries to flat-out sell travel on social media. Instead, she positions herself as an expert so that she can be a resource.
“I just try to engage when appropriate and answer questions, and then assist if needed with travel plans, which has happened time and time again,” Small said. “I love getting emails from people telling me they’ve been following me on Twitter and would like my help with their honeymoon or family vacation. It’s proof that the platform works when you are actively engaging with your audience.”