The best way to really understand the power of social networking is to realize that it begins by networking with people who are in your proximity: family and friends. “Many people miss the point that it literally starts with everyone you know, then everyone they know,” says Joe Mazzarella, president of Travel Sciences, a Hartford, CT-based travel technology company. “We all have a starting point we can use. It isn’t just about large numbers, but about a couple of people within those large numbers. You’ll find it’s one or two who have the right connections you need for your business and you have to connect with a hundred people to get to them.”
Mazzarella says over the course of two to three months you could actually build several hundred people in your network and can go further by adding as much fresh content as possible. “It’s what drives the search engines,” he says. “They are content monsters that gobble up new information when you keep it up for a while. The ranking is a slow process and it could take over a year for you to see yourself get to the top. It’s the cheapest form of advertising, though, because you don’t have to pay for it.”
A blog is still the standout feature to social media and must be intelligently personalized, says Mazzarella. “The content needs to project you as an expert and also your personal experiences,” he offers. “You also need to contribute your thoughts to the comments side so people know you’re willing to read their ideas and have a dialogue with them.” Mazzarella warns it will take at least an hour a week of creating content—much of it for the blog—to see strong results. “It’s a writing skill,” he says, “and some don’t feel comfortable with it when they start off. Give yourself time. The second piece is spending even 15 minutes a day in pure social networking, going to other people’s networks to bring them in to yours.”
Putting the social network together on your own depends on the computer savvy of the user, notes Mazzarella. “You can build a social network in 10 or 12 hours,” he says. “On the other hand, it may be a better use of time and a matter of quality to have someone with IT experience build it. From the moment you put it up, you need to know that it’s about connecting with each user. When someone signs up, personally thank them and tell them something specific that shows your response wasn’t automated.”
Beyond just the setup, you can go one step further and even have a company run most of your social media for you. Jeff Cohen, president of Las Vegas-based JWCE Travel, a travel technology and services company, says his offering can take care of the majority of content so the agent doesn’t have to invest anything more than they want to.
“We can capture a profile on new sign-ups and make it a lead source for travel agents without needing them to be personally responsible,” he says. “We can also solve the problem of transportability. If you want to switch from Facebook to MySpace, you have to do your whole social media from scratch, but we have the ability to change over seamlessly.”
They also have moderators available for chat rooms, so if you’re not there the conversation can still be kept going. “The cost can be as little as in the hundreds of dollars a month to something more complex,” Cohen says. “Sometimes the cost can be nothing by partnering on advertising.”
Finally, Mazzarella warns against a shortcut that often blows up in a company’s face: dishonesty. “Many companies pose as an ‘unbiased’ blog and talk about a great agency that just happens to be theirs,” he says. “This is more than unethical—it’s just bad business. Savvy visitors will figure it out right away.”
Mazzarella says agents have to remember that social media is a long-term strategy and will reflect your brand just as much as any travel package you sell. “It’s better to be yourself and gain your audience’s trust over time,” he says.