“There is a tsunami coming that few fully anticipate and it will dramatically change the marketing landscape in all industries, not just travel,” according to Cindy Estis Green, author of a report on Social Media and managing partner of The Estis Group.
Working together to focus on emerging topics of importance to travel marketers, the Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International (HSMAI), under the auspices of the HSMAI Foundation, and the Travel Industry Association (TIA) have partnered to produce a comprehensive educational report titled: The Travel Marketer’s Guide to Social Media and Social Networking.
The findings, first being presented in a speech by Estis at the HSMAI Hotel Sales Strategy Conference at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., will also be presented at the TIA Marketing Outlook Forum, being held in Charlotte, NC from Oct. 22 - 25, 2007.
“There is a tidal wave related to online consumer behavior that has already begun to swell and the change that will engulf the marketing world will be of dramatic proportions,” Estis says, adding “it’s not just about a new set of media, it’s a sea change in consumer behavior. Social media opens the door for this new marketing model and as far as the consumers are concerned, the train has already left the station.”
“This study underscores the fact that savvy consumers are engaged with the Internet’s social media tools and social network sites in ever increasing numbers. Travel marketers should be plugged into the latest ways their customers are gathering and exchanging information,” says Dr. Suzanne D. Cook, TIA’s Senior Vice President of Research.
To research for the report, Estis interviewed travel executives, vendors, and experts from various social media sites. Additionally, executives from non-travel industries who have a strong background in the use of social media were interviewed. Case studies and results from travel executive polls are also featured.
Some of the topics covered in the report include:
? Explanations and definitions of social media and social networking
? Highlights of the way social media and networking are used in other industries
? How travel companies are using social media and social networking in 2007
? How travel companies can use social media and social networking in the future
Excerpts from the Executive Summary
Social media and social networking are 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 of their travel tales and travails. There is a much bigger story to tell.
The 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, to develop relationships and to interact with them before a purchase, during the purchase process, and after a purchase is made.
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.
“Now is the time for the travel industry to dive in, engage their customers and reap the benefits of these relationships,” Estis asserts.
The Conversation Economy
This new consumer behavior applies as much to travel as it does to industries as different 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.
According to a recent TIA/Ypartnership TravelHorizons? study, two-thirds of online adult leisure travelers consume online video and audio clips, and 4 in 10 read blogs, share photos and take virtual tours while 1 in 4 post responses to blogs and participate in social networks.
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. This is exactly what happens between people offline. Groups of like-minded people belong to organizations - be it 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.
Entirely driven by consumer behavior, this “conversation-based” economy, a variation on the age-old “word of mouth” communication, is influenced even more by the high speed, pitch and volume of these conversations affecting consumer behavior than it was during the pre-Internet days when it could take weeks or months for word of a product or purchase experience to spread.
The Internet is, in fact, becoming one big social network. Learning the topography of this complex set of networks is the first step for marketers to develop a strategy of customer engagement.
Social Media Toolkit
There are many tactical tools that can serve a travel marketer. Trip planning is an ideal application for social media since it is often interactive 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.
For the most part, social media tools will be deployed in multiple places. They can be used in combination or individually, but they should be incorporated into a comprehensive plan that might include:
? Optimized press releases and articles
? Photos, videos, podcasts
? Profile pages on social networks like MySpace
? Content voting
? Mashups (especially used for trip planning)
? Special events, contests, games
? Widgets (aka badges, flakes)
? Brand education tools
Travel Industry Position on Social Media and Networks
A 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 websites (including dedicated travel networks, suppliers, intermediaries, destinations and many others) - websites 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.
Summary of Issues for Travel Marketers
There are 10 key points when it comes to travel marketers’ effective use of social media. These are the primary issues that need to be top-of-mind in order to manage in the new Consumer 2.0 marketing environment.
0. The use of social media is high and growing steadily.
0. Conveying and harnessing the passion for travel will be necessary in marketing messages.
0. Trip planning is an ideal focal point to stimulate interaction with travelers.
0. User generated content is high and can be threatening to travel suppliers; they need a plan to manage it.
0. Relationships with consumers need to be interactional, not transactional.
0. The “long tail” of the Internet is very applicable to travel.
0. Social media complements search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO).
0. Corporate travel, groups and meetings all use social networks.
0. Widgets are coming, widgets are here and it is essential to learn how to use this technology.
0. The rivalry between online travel agencies (OTAs), other third party intermediaries (TPIs) and travel suppliers will continue and intensify.
TIA/HSMAI Survey of Attitudes About Social Media - August 2007
TIA and HSMAI conducted a survey of members to ascertain the relative emphasis placed on online marketing tools. Over half (53%) of senior management in these organizations believe social media and related social networking opportunities will have a positive affect on sales and marketing results, and less than two percent (1.5%) believed it would have a negative impact.
When the travel executives were asked about the expected impact of social media usage, their primary responses ranged widely from strategic brand issues to basic tactical sales. For example:
? Deepen brand relationship with customers (65%)
? More targeted communications to niche markets (55%)
? Better understanding by staff of customer needs (46%)
? More recognizable brand image (42%)
? Improved revenues (41%)
The report will be available for purchase in late September or early October via both HSMAI and TIA.
Cindy Estis Green, author of the report and a 30-year industry veteran, has an MBA in Marketing from The American University and a BS from the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. She is managing partner of The Estis Group, a travel industry consulting firm specializing in online marketing, distribution, CRM and revenue management.