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In an era where people are constantly bombarded by marketing messages, advertising agencies are being paid big money to try to shape the way consumers process those messages. While promotion was once enough, today’s advertisers must promote their clients’ products while also emphasizing the benefits the product will deliver.
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Travel agents may wish to take a page from the advertising playbook. By remembering that their clients are just as overworked and just as bombarded by all forms of messaging as anyone else, the successful agent is the one who takes the lead in marketing themselves.But, similar to the organizations that spend millions of dollars on marketing, agents should remember that promotion is not enough when competition is fierce. Agents need to develop a personal brand and become known for the value they deliver.
Personal BrandingAt its core, any product’s brand is its reputation. To understand the effects of branding, consumers need to look no further than Toyota. Once synonymous with value and quality, after a spate of recent recalls, today’s Toyota brand means something entirely different. However, with careful attention and a healthy dose of time and money, consumers will probably see a new Toyota brand emerge.Branding isn’t just a concept for multimillion-dollar organizations. Just as Toyota is paying close attention to what its brand means to consumers, so should all individuals — travel agents included — in order to manage what their personal brand means to colleagues and clients.In an interview with CareerBuilder.com, personal-branding guru William Arruda defined personal branding as “using what makes you unique and valuable to stand out from your peers and attract the attention of people who need to know about you.”When it comes to creating a personal brand, the first step is understanding your expertise. While agents have expertise in spades — every day, they provide solutions for people who ask incredibly detailed questions — the challenge may be to resist trying to be all things to all people.When selecting an area of expertise, or a niche, it is essential to pick a subject that you are passionate about. If you love the product you are selling, you will be more motivating to your clients than an agent who is simply trying to make a sale.Once an agent has determined his or her area of expertise, the next step is to become an expert on that subject. Being an expert takes work, and agents should plan to read — a lot. Subscribe to supplier newsletters, read travel-trade magazines, sign up for RSS feeds, browse Web sites, talk with suppliers and, generally, stay on top of developments in the arena you have chosen. Try to be known as the go-to person for answers on that subject.After committing to an area of expertise, agents should come up with a label or a slogan that defines how they want to be perceived. A good slogan is more than a way to communicate value to clients. It can also help keep agents on track. In a day that is filled with countless choices of “which project to handle first,” a personal brand can help busy agents focus on priorities. For example, when it comes to meeting with travel supplier reps, agents with a well-defined personal brand only take appointments that add to their expertise. When creating a slogan, “Your Hawaii Travel Specialist” is better than “Great Travel Agent” because it defines a specific expertise, and personal branding is about finding a way to stand out from the crowd. When it comes to selecting a label, an agent’s expertise and personality should shine through. If an agent has a talent for scheduling flights, he or she may choose to bill themselves as the “Asia Travel Expert: Less Airport, More Lounging.” Whichever label the agent selects, it is the unique component that will set him or her apart from others.Lastly, no matter what your label is, it must maintain truth in advertising. A brand creates a promise to clients — one which the agent must deliver on.
You.comOnce you’re comfortable with the brand you’ve developed for yourself, it’s time to get the word out.“When you have a clear and solid reputation, those around you use the same words to describe you, and they spread your message for you,” said Arruda. “You start to build a ‘personal fan club’ of people who respect your brand. Just as people become devoted fans of Apple or Starbucks, you have your own brand ambassadors trumpeting your message to those around them.” Sometimes, even basic steps can make a big difference. If your company doesn’t have restrictions on how you format your e-mail, one of the best and most-overlooked marketing tools is including your contact information and brand slogan in your e-mail signature. Once you’ve formatted your e-mails so that they will do some of your marketing for you, it’s time to head to the Internet. People are primarily online because they are looking for quick solutions to their problems, preferably from experts in the field. By offering sound advice to Web users through message boards, online chat rooms and comment fields, you establish yourself as an expert. When doing this, always remember to provide the same contact information and slogan that you include in your e-mail signature to give Web users an easy way to get in touch with you, while also establishing your brand online. No matter how much effort you put into the Internet, be sure your signature line appears everywhere you find yourself posting content related to your personal brand. Not only should agents develop a Web presence to establish themselves as an expert and attract new clients, but current clients should be hearing from you on a regular basis, too. Not communicating with them may be a favor to their e-mail inbox, but it provides no benefit to your bottom line. Every time a client takes a cruise, visits a hotel or requests a brochure online, he or she becomes a new marketing target for the company he or she has interacted with. These companies will not hesitate to send e-mails touting the reasons why the client should book that product, with much of that communication geared toward an “act now” purchase. Unless you provide consistent messaging to your clients reminding them about the benefits of working with you, the expert, they may decide to just book their next vacation direct. While loyal, longtime clients are less likely to buy directly from a supplier, staying in touch can only serve to remind them why they did business with you in the first place. Consistent communications will also help ensure that today’s new client becomes tomorrow’s repeat business.Communicating can be as easy as a simple e-mail once a month. A text e-mail containing the agent’s latest travel specials, article links to stories about destinations, comments by happy consumers or horror stories of what happens to people who don’t book with an agent can help you level the playing field and offset some of the pressure clients face for an “impulse buy” driven by the larger marketing entities. Remember that you must give your clients an opportunity to unsubscribe from your communications, so you don’t run afoul of spam laws, but the personal touch will serve to remind your clients that they have an advocate looking out for their vacation interests. As you watch your self-marketing efforts take form, remember that the identity you have created for yourself doesn’t have to remain permanent. As long as you act in a way that’s consistent with how you want your followers to see you, you’re well on your way to self-marketing success.
As you develop your newfound self-marketing strategy, be sure to manage a consistent identity on the Web. Even if you don’t choose to actively use the methods below, securing these products in your name gives you the ability to emphasize your brand, while ensuring a competitor doesn’t snap up products in your name. Another reason to establish multiple channels on the Internet is that when a new, or existing, client performs a search on your name or slogan, multiple items appear in the search results. The more a client sees a unique product touting your brand, the more likely they are to accept that you are “real.”URL: Buy a URL with your name in it. No excuses. It costs less than $15 per year to own a URL, and Web software is readily available, often free and easy to use. A simple, one-page Web site consistent with your personal brand is as important as a paper resume. A Web site gives clients a way to know you are professional, while offering them a way to connect with you on a personal level. Even if you never update it, design the page to include your slogan, a way to contact you, links to related sites and a frequently-asked-questions page that pertains to your area of expertise.
Google Profile Page: After developing your personal Web site, the quickest way to get into the search engines is by setting up a Google Profile. It is free to set up and allows you to easily upload images, provide descriptions about what you do and implement a variety of other add-ons. www.google.com/profile
LinkedIn:This is a social network for business professionals, so people visiting the community are specifically interested in what you do for a living. Finding friends of friends means you are always just a few clicks away from people that are within your six degrees of separation. Groups and forums allow you to post comments and start topics, further allowing you to emphasize your personal brand. www.linkedin.com
Facebook: If you’re not on Facebook yet, do it. This is an easy way to keep your personal brand in front of your “closest” friends. When it comes to convincing people the work you do has value, what can be better than crowing your successes to the people who have already indicated that they want to keep up with what you’re doing? www.facebook.com
Twitter: Whether or not you ultimately decide to become someone who tweets, securing a Twitter profile with your name is free, and it ensures that no one else will tweet under your identity. www.twitter.com
Flickr: Flickr is one of the premier photo sharing Web sites in the world. It is so highly regarded that even magazine art directors visit the site when they need to fill in content for their publications. Create a profile, in your name and give clear instructions on how your photos may be used and attributed, and you may even see your images pop up in a publication or two. Flickr also allows users to create “sets,” so travel agents can create a section showing clients enjoying the vacations they have arranged for them.www.flickr.com
YouTubeJust as Flickr is tops for photo sharing, its hard to imagine any Web user that hasn’t heard of the video sharing Web site YouTube. Even if you don’t see any likelihood of ever posting videos, sign up for an account anyway. By owning your own YouTube account you ensure control of your own messaging. Further, by using video-sharing features, you can also create links back to videos taken by satisfied clients. Or you can create a resource section for your clients of videos, that match your personal brand, but taken by complete strangers.www.youtube.com
Blogs:Once “King of the Hill” when it came to online marketing, blogs have lost some of their popularity with the introduction of Twitter. Still blogs by experts in almost all subject matters are readily available on the Internet. If you are too busy to make regular posts to a blog, invite clients or guest bloggers, such as executives from your preferred suppliers to blog for you. There are many free blog technologies on the Web, but the preferred sites are Blogger.com, a Google.com product, and WordPress.com, which is a technology so powerful that it can serve as an underlying Content Management System (CMS) for your URL.www.blogger.com, www.wordpress.com
Other ways to demonstrate your expertiseComments on Travel Web SitesWhen people have questions about traveling, especially “will this hotel be a good match for me,” the first place they go to find more information are travel Web sites featuring comments from the traveling public. Although sites such as TripAdvisor.com and/or Expedia.com have taken a bad rap for fake comments (the positive ones may be delivered by PR people while the negative ones may come from competing travel products), the reality is that consumers do read and use these comments to make their own decisions. Be sure to make your own comments (and where possible include a link back to your own site in your signature line), thereby further establishing your expertise in your branded area.
Yahoo Answers:Yahoo offers a place where anyone can ask a question about an issue that is troubling them. From video game cheats to the name of Jennifer Aniston’s latest boyfriend, nothing is off limits. Travelers will frequently ask detailed questions that directly match a travel agent’s expertise. An answer to a question with a link back to contact information will further establish an agent as an expert in their preferred area.www.answers.yahoo.com
Amazon.comThe first social network, Amazon.com has amazing interactive features. Travel agents can both comment on their favorite travel guides (or any other books they like), as well as create reading lists. By recommending two or three favorite books in a subject area, agents will soon see their name popping up on a sidebar in an Amazon search. This is a free service, and there can’t be any better targeted marketing for a travel agent than a traveler seeking advice from a travel guidebook.www.amazon.com
Free Press Release SitesThere are literally dozens of sites that allow anyone with an announcement to send out a free press release. Agents who have news in their field or who are particularly adept at making their day-to-day work sound newsworthy can quickly reiterate their expertise by distributing a free press release. Some sites will charge a small fee for distribution but often the press releases sent out by these sites will significantly aid the search engine rankings of an agent’s Web site.www.free-press-release.com
Google AlertsYes, all of the above is a huge amount of marketing. And yes, it is unlikely that the average agent will be able to take advantage of a small fraction of the steps listed below. However, the savvy agent will at least take advantage of some of the steps above to help establish their personal brand.
As you roll out your new marketing campaign, it may help stay on top what messaging is being spread about you. A free service by Google, known as Google Alerts, will allow you to input your name and send you regular digests of what content is being posted that matches the content you input. This service is not just limited to searching by name, however, and agents can also input any search terms in their area of expertise to see what new content is being regularly posted.www.google.com/alerts