Going Social Keeping up and moving forward By Carrie Finley-Bajak / March 05, 2014 Share 1 -- In the boom days of brick-and-mortar agencies, a travel agent was a community asset. He or she could be trusted with the vacation dreams of customers while acting as the go-between for the supplier. However, thanks to the economy and morphing distribution channels, the neighborhood travel agent must fight for relevance in an interconnected world. A survey commissioned by Google found that in 2013, 68% of leisure travelers began researching online before they decided where or how to travel. That was up from 65% in 2012. The travel-tracking study also reported that the Internet is as essential for inspiring travel as it is for planning it. Sixty-two percent of respondents indicated that they had taken inspiration from family, friends or colleagues, and 80% of the sample indicated the Internet as the top source for travel planning. Agents ranked at 9% for providing inspiration and 14% as a travel-planning resource. But while consumers are using a multitude of platforms to research trips and engage with other travelers, savvy agents are finding ways to add value to these conversations. While it's important for agents to speak up and help direct conversations on supplier websites, with travel communities (like TripAdvisor and Cruise Critic), on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube, it is vital to remember that social media is never one-size-fits-all. Home-based agents and independent agents face the biggest challenges when it comes to social media marketing. Lacking time and budget restraints, smaller agencies might be inclined to let social media marketing slide. However, it is hard to dispute the popularity of social media accounts from high-profile brands. Agents should try to penetrate these platforms to build relationships with qualified leads. While agents are looking for lead generation and conversions, they can't overlook the importance of brand building and customer service. Here are some tips for agents who want to establish an online brand identity using social media. 1) Use social media as a relationship-building tool. Too many travel agents are falling short and are not putting in the time or effort it takes to build relationships. 2) Set up a blog and make sure that everyone in the office can post updates. Encourage people to leave comments, to exchange ideas and promote networking. Keep information current to help build brand credibility. 3) It's not all about Facebook. Research where your customers and prospects go online and to add value to the conversations by answering questions, leaving comments and sharing tips to establish your expertise and build trust. 4) Be consistent. It is better to spend a little time on social media over a long period than make a big splash that ends in long periods of no activity. 5) Keep content fresh so targeted customers are up to date about new products, deals and news. Use StumbleUpon or Digg to get the latest news about your travel niche to share with your audience. Social media marketing takes time. Start with getting to know your customer and the community that best represents your niche. Take baby steps to optimizing your online presence, and gradually become more visible as you grow increasingly comfortable with these platforms. Speaking of creating your brand's story, don't just take my word for it. Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean International's senior vice president for sales, trade support and service, recently stressed the importance of storytelling in her e-newsletters. "Once again, we get to see how far a business can go when they take their pitch beyond 'services' and 'products,' and instead focus on their story, history and value," she wrote. "Storytelling moves the needle of a brand further than any traditional product pitch." Freed offered examples of ways agents can use storytelling, such as letting others tell your stories through testimonials or referrals, or using the art of storytelling to help your clients picture themselves on the vacation you build for them. Travel agents looking for a quick way to create a visual story about their travel niche can head to Pinterest, leveraging their expertise by using the Place Pins feature to tag a location via Foursquare. This is extremely helpful because it enables Pinterest to sort pre-existing destination pins that will facilitate aspirational travel planning. Pinterest has also introduced Explore Interests, which is a new way for users to search for information. Pinterest currently has 48 million users, who have pinned millions of images, videos and GIFs, and it continues to develop ways for pinners to collect and share digital inspiration. If you have a success story to share, or if you have figured out a way to remain relevant in the travel community without social media, send me an email at email@example.com. Carrie Finley-Bajak is a social media consultant who specializes in building travel industry branding online.