In 2012, more than eight out of 10 leisure travelers maintained a profile on a social media site, according to MMGY Global’s 2012 Portrait of American Travelers. With sites such as Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter reshaping the way travelers talk about, recommend and research travel, it’s no wonder social media communities are an essential junction to engage with travelers.
Social media is different from other ways of reaching your customers because these sites are a community. It’s not enough to broadcast deals to the world. You need to take the time to reach out and engage with your customers, involving them in a useful conversation instead of just pushing sales.
Whether you’re just thinking about getting into this realm or you’ve already taken the first steps to market yourself on social platforms, the sheer number of different communities, and the time you need to build engagement on each one, can seem overwhelming. That’s why Travel Agent reached out to the experts in the field to detail a five-step plan to help you become part of the conversation.
Step One: Know Your Goals
“First and foremost, you have to have a goal for what you’re doing,” says Tim Peter, president of e-commerce and Internet marketing consulting firm Tim Peter and Associates. “I think one of the reasons social media frequently becomes a time sink is that, instead of going into it with a business purpose, people just wind up browsing around. It’s not focused enough.”
You can use social channels to grow awareness about your agency, promote new business, drive sales, enhance customer service, or some combination of all of these, Peter says.
Julie Squires, CEO of branding, market consulting, digital marketing and public relations firm Softscribe, recommends setting a number for each goal. For example, an agency might be aiming to book 12 tours of over 50 people for 2013. Being specific now will help measure success later on.
Knowing what you’re hoping to get out of social media will shape your strategy and allow you to budget your time effectively.
Step Two: Know Your Brand
Just as important as knowing what you want to get out of social media is establishing who you are going to be while you are on it. Squires recommends boiling it down to six to eight words to describe your brand.
“Spend an hour working on your elevator pitch, because that will become what you want to say for your content,” she says.
It’s important to keep those six or eight brand keywords consistent across every customer touchpoint, Squires adds, because that helps raise your agency’s overall online profile. For example, since every tweet is its own webpage, each one you post will become a new site that could contain your brand keywords. All those new webpages with the same keywords work to make your site more visible to search engines, which makes it easier for customers to find you.
“If you spend an hour up front figuring out what brand you want to build, and then how to communicate it, it will turbocharge your time,” Squires says. She offers a brand template at www.softscribeinc.com/how-much-does-pr-cost to help businesses get started.
Click through for Step Three
Step Three: Develop a Plan
Now that you know what you intend to get out of your social media presence and you’ve honed in on how you are going to present yourself, the next step is to develop a specific plan on how you will go about achieving your goals.
|Softscribe’s Julie Squires: “Pick the social media venue to start with that you’re already doing personally.”|
First, figure out which social media channels best suit your agency’s needs. Because of its sheer size, most agents will want to be on Facebook. “There’s a joke that goes, Facebook is the third-largest country in the world,” says Peter. “It has almost a billion users.” At the same time, that size means you can have a difficult time connecting with the right customers.
“I encourage people to have a presence on Facebook, to use it as a way of communicating with their customers,” he says. “I almost think of it as a supplementary webpage, part of your overall web presence for your brand. But unless you really know how to reach a specific market, it can be very general.”
For more specific outreach, go where your customers are, Peter says. For example, Pinterest can be a great fit for a company focused on bachelorette getaways, destination weddings and honeymoons because of the heavy wedding presence in the community.
Twitter can be a good channel for public relations, he notes, because many journalists are active in the community. If your agency has a brick-and-mortar site, Google+ can be useful for its Google+ place pages. That’s because having a Google+ place page for your location will raise your profile in Google’s search engine rankings. LinkedIn tends to attract more business travelers. YouTube can be great if you have good-looking travel videos to share; but, since high-quality video is the most difficult content type to produce, only get into YouTube if you have the resources for it.
If you’re just starting out, Squires recommends playing to your strengths. “Pick the social media venue to start with that you’re already doing personally,” she says. “Recognize your natural aptitude and go with the strengths that you’ve already developed.”
Now you can get into the nitty-gritty of mapping out the content that you’ll be sharing.
“Think about what’s of value to your customers,” Peter says. “Travel agents should be better at this than a lot of other people because you talk to customers every day. What are the things your clients ask you all the time? That’s great info to share.”
You can use the analytics tools for your website to see what search terms customers are finding it by, Peter says. Are people coming to the site looking for “good places to stay in Cancun”? That could be a good topic to talk about. Also, try to see what other influential people and organizations in travel and tourism are talking about and commenting on it. Squires suggests subscribing to travel and hospitality newsfeeds to keep abreast of topics of interest in the industry.
Aim for a steady stream of content, she adds. Setting aside a few minutes each day to do at least one tweet per day and three Facebook posts a week will keep your presence looking fresh.
To make matters easier, you only need to produce a small portion of this content. Mostly, you will be curating what is already available on the Internet—finding news stories, blog posts and articles written by other people that would be of interest to your customers and sharing them. Peter recommends a ratio of about four or five to one (or even as high as 10 to one), in terms of curated to original content. Original stories can come from your agency website or, if you have one, your blog.
Don’t be afraid to repeat topics. “We like to pretend that customers listen to every single thing we say, but the reality is of course that doesn’t happen,” Peter says. “So it’s OK to talk about the same things repeatedly. You don’t want to have the exact same message every time, but for topics like ‘how do I cancel a flight,’ you can send multiple different pieces around, and it won’t come across badly to people because they won’t see them all.”
Time of day is important for posting as well. Bit.ly has an infographic on the best times to tweet or post on Facebook (www.coolinfographics.com, search “best times”). Generally, aim for between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and avoid after 3 p.m. on a Friday —almost everyone is rushing to finish work for the weekend by then.
Click through for Step Four
|Tim Peter: “What are the things your clients ask you all the time? That’s great info to share.”|
Step Four: Grow Your Presence
Once you’ve mapped out a content strategy and committed yourself to a regular posting schedule, it’s time to start thinking about expanding your presence to help you meet your business goals. To do that, you’ll need to find good people to follow and reach out to your customers.
Success via social media, like most endeavors, is often about who you know. Squires advises starting with thought leaders and influential bloggers in your travel niche, and then seeing who they follow. If you keep going down the chain, you can amass a good list of people with influence in your corner of the travel industry.
Peter says that Pinterest, Twitter and YouTube can be good places to find influential people to follow. “LinkedIn is a little tougher because it’s more of a professional environment,” he says. “Many people don’t respond to a random LinkedIn request if it’s somebody they don’t know. Facebook also doesn’t tend to be as good a research tool. It’s more friends of friends.”
Once you amass a good follow list from Pinterest, Twitter or YouTube, though, you can usually find those same people to follow on other social networks, Peter says.
After you’ve reached out to your list of influencers, you can begin engaging with them to help promote your content. Be careful: it’s important to do this respectfully. “Don’t spam them,” Peter says. “Too many people push the stuff out there more like a broadcast. It’s much more effective if I contact you. If I send it to you directly, it’s far more likely you’re going to take an action.”
If influencers do take action on the stories you send them by sharing or posting it, your content will now be in front of everyone in their social network—and if those people decide to pass it on, the effect can only grow. At the same time you are reaching out to influential people in your niche, you should also be reaching out to your customers.
“The most critical rule is: Don’t be creepy!” says Peter. “This is a big thing with social sharing—think about how your customer might react to what you’re saying. If they share something, think about who they intended it for and if it’s appropriate to respond or not.”
Instead, Peter recommends concentrating on what the customer needs from you. He says, “I remember working with this small, luxury-focused online travel agency. We were monitoring their Twitter and we happened to notice a heavy social media influencer [he was the head of social media for a major company] tweet, ‘It’s a shame there are no travel agents on Twitter who can tell me where to stay tonight!’ Customer service tweeted back, ‘Give me a call,’ and managed to book him a room.”
Focusing on the customer’s needs will make you more memorable because you are actually helping them, Peter says. If you come across as just trying to promote yourself, customers will dismiss what you’re saying as spam.
Another good tip? Ask questions! Questions to solicit comments will invite people to engage with you, Squires says. “Ask things like, ‘What’s your favorite book’ or ‘What’s your best photo this week,’” she says. “It depends on what you as a travel agent like to do—if you like visuals, if you’re on Pinterest, go there.”
Whenever you are interacting on social media, be sure to pay close attention to the voice you are using. Squires’ rule: Keep it simple. Use language that a seventh grader could understand, and keep your sentences short—about 14 words or less. Also, try to avoid coming across as too “chatty,” because that could strike your customers as wasting their time. Finally, keep it positive. Negative comments can hurt your reputation and kill sales.
“The one thing that people will talk about a lot is authenticity,” Peter says. “You want to be authentic to yourself and the type of agency you are, but you also want to be appropriate to your brand and the customer you’re talking to.” While people can easily see through a bogus persona, it’s important to maintain a careful balance between being true to yourself and maintaining your professionalism.
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Step Five: Measure Your Success
While you’re caught up in posting, reaching out, and engaging, it can be easy to lose sight of your core business goals. That’s why it’s important to constantly measure yourself against the numerical goalposts you laid out in the beginning and adjust your strategy to make sure your efforts pay off.
“First and foremost, don’t measure ‘likes,’” Peter says. “While ‘likes’ can be an important proxy for if you’re getting traffic, it’s very hard to determine if they have any business value to you.”
Instead, Peter says that shares are a much better gauge of whether or not what you’re posting is valuable to your customers. “It’s not if people say they enjoyed their stay,” he says, “but if they would recommend that stay to their friends. People have a much bigger stake in their recommendations.” Almost every social media site has some variation on the sharing concept, whether that be a retweet, repin or a LinkedIn share, and that gives a better sense that someone actually took action on what you had to say.
If your goals involve driving traffic or sales to your website, you can use your site’s analytics tools to calculate your progress, Squires says. These tools also have the ability to create segments that show how customers coming from a certain site—say, Facebook—behave on your site relative to everyone else, Peter says.
There are also tried-and-true offline methods of measuring your social media success. If your agency is large enough to accommodate multiple call-in lines, Peter suggests setting up a different call number for each social media channel. Agents can also set up different offer codes to keep track of where sales are coming from. Finally, when speaking to a customer it’s always a good idea to ask, “How did you hear about us?”
Sticking to a plan and managing your social media time effectively will be key, because social media’s importance shows no signs of slowing.
“This is going to be a big part of your life from now on,” says Squires. “Combine the learning curve with your own personal wellness, because you’re going to need to sustain it for the rest of your working life.”
“I think there’s this tendency on social media to think of it as this abstract thing— ‘I’m talking to the world!’—but it’s not,” says Peter. “You’re talking to individuals, so what’s important is what matters to them. In the end, social is people.”
Click through for Agent Perspectives
|Heather Christopher, manager / travel consultant at Classic Travel, New York City|
Agent Perspectives: Increasing Awareness
Social media theory may be all well and good, but what about practice? We reached out to some top agents and suppliers in the industry to find out what social media strategies are working for them.
Lynda Lettre of Party Time Cruises and Travel in Nanuet, NY, is finding social media to be an increasingly essential way of connecting with clients. “It used to be that if you did not have a website you were way behind on technology. Now if you are not on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or offering deals on Groupon or livingsocial.com, you are basically obsolete,” she says. “If you want to keep up with the Y-generation and the majority of society which has smartphones and is part of the worldwide social media community, this is where your business needs to be.”
Beth Jenkins of McCabe World Travel in McLean, VA, uses social media to increase her visibility with current and potential clients. “Keeping posts short and sweet—like a fabulous photo to catch followers’ attention—is important since people don’t spend more than a few seconds looking at any one thing online,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to ask for client testimonials on Facebook,” she adds. “It is a quick and easy way for your client to thank you for your services that can reach a huge audience.”
Jenkins adds: “I rely more on social media as a great public relations venue more than as an avenue to increase sales. For every post or tweet I put out, potential clients are seeing thousands more from all kinds of other outlets, so you probably face more competition on social media than in any other avenue for increasing sales [referrals, networking, personal outreach, traditional marketing].”
Heather Christopher, manager/travel consultant at Classic Travel in New York City, also uses social media to drive awareness. “What we’ve found—since Facebook now shows what your friends are commenting on/liking in your newsfeed—is an increase in awareness about our company from within our own social groups which has provided us more bookings. I personally get an average of five more travel requests a week in my Facebook messages; not huge, but definitely an increase over past years. It’s also been a fun way to ‘touch’ our clients on a daily basis; at least once a day a client will tell me they saw ‘xyz’ on our Facebook page”
Click through for Supplier Perspectives
|Susan Black, EVP and chief marketing officer at Travel Impressions|
Supplier Perspectives: Engagement is Key
Travel suppliers, too, are leveraging social media to drive awareness of their brands and help their customers.
Susan Black, EVP and chief marketing officer at Travel Impressions, which offers the Social U. webinar series, says, “Content that is engaging, interesting and relevant is key,” says Black. “If you can devote 10 minutes a day to your social media content, which you can do by sharing and a number of things, then you’ll have a very consistent presence.” Travel Impressions follows this strategy with its own Facebook presence, using a split Black describes as “80 percent tell, 20 percent sell.”
“Eighty percent tell is putting up blogs, best places to go, make up your own holiday day,” Black says. “We try to focus on 80 percent of that, while 20 percent is promotions.”
“When you do put promotions,” Black says, “make sure they’re really, really compelling. You really have to curate the best, and people will look forward to it then. People like to be first to know. They like limited offers, limited availability. They like to know that travel agents are in the know. It’s about expertise.”
Agents can learn a thing or two about social media from Allison Sitch, vice president of public relations for Ritz-Carlton, and something of a Twitter queen, as agents who follow her (@LuxePRLady) can attest. One of the major uses Ritz-Carlton sees for social media is to change the way the brand is perceived in the U.S. “People perceive us as your grandfather’s Ritz-Carlton,” says Sitch. “We have shifted the style of the brand significantly but the online conversation doesn’t reflect it. On our social channels we are starting to change the conversation.”
The company’s social strategy is not about accumulating followers, but rather about engagement, which is key for agents and suppliers alike. For Ritz-Carlton, Facebook is the most heavily trafficked form of social media. Just as many travel agencies now do, the company often uploads photos to its page to inspire people to book travel. On Twitter, the comonay finds that it gets almost no direct customers, but a very large segment of bookers, such as OTAs, wedding planners and meeting planners.
Ritz-Carlton also uses Twitter to engage with existing customers to make experiences even more memorable. On the rare occasion that something should go wrong at a hotel, Ritz-Carlton can monitor what guests are saying on Twitter and remedy the situation.
“If someone orders a cappuccino and tweets out that it arrived cold, we try to identify who that customer is and alert our guest relations department,” says Sitch. “Within 10 minutes we can deliver that person a hot cappuccino. It gives us the opportunity to make something right that shouldn’t have been wrong to start with.”
Likewise the more travel agents engage consumers via Facebook and such, the better prepared they will be to find solutions for their clients.
Social media can also be important for relations between agents and their suppliers, says McCabe World’s Jenkins. “Show your supplier partners that you are promoting them online, which increases their coverage as well as your own. Driving interest in a product or destination, while promoting yourself as a knowledgeable resource on that product or destination, is a win-win situation for you and the supplier.”