If social media has replaced traditional forms of travel marketing, then Facebook must surely be the Holy Grail. In every sector of the travel industry economy, some of our best minds are advising agents and suppliers to jump in with both feet. I wonder if there has ever been a conference or even an industry panel discussion when someone advised their audience to stay off the thing.
With all the Facebore noise, you would think that the number of users is growing faster than the number of delayed flight departures from Newark. There are, after all, just so many potential addicts for almost any social ill.
In an article for Reuters, Vera Gibbons tried to answer the question "Why the exodus from Facebook?" Well, it is really not an exodus, at least not in the biblical sense; it's just that the number of active users in the U.S. seems to have declined.
Perhaps, as Daniel Sieberg writes in "The Digital Diet," it is a simple case of Facebook Fatigue. We know that social media is now approaching an equal footing in terms of time swaps for television. The number of hours the average American now devotes each day to social media equals or exceeds the time he or she spends watching TV.
My reading of my own collected "Facebook Files" tells me that the site's purpose boils down to a simple proposition put forth by its founder after six "hard years where we just sat at our computers and coded." Mark Zuckerberg thinks that knowing about other people and places is not really the focus of Facebook. He asserts that the core question for his corporate team is: "What do people want to tell about themselves?" It turns out that the most important thing we have learned from Facebook is how to harness people's inherent ego needs.
The number of people who want to shout, "Look, here I am, and this is what I am doing" can best be illustrated by some of the big numbers. Start with the fact that one out of every 12 people on our planet has a Facebook account. In the U.S. that number is one in four. If you look at only the world's more advanced countries, you find that Scandinavia, plus portions of Russia and Eastern Europe in particular, have higher usage percentages than the U.S.
On the surface, it would appear that any travel seller who takes his ball and walks away from this playing field, the world's largest, is a marketing zero.
But the real question in our industry is just how much selling is taking place on Facebook. We see travel searches increasing rapidly, but credible examples of suppliers making serious money on Facebook are not easy to find.
After myriad requests, Facebook allowed a few privileged tech reporters to meet with its vice president of engineering. Among the revelations arising from that interview was the fact that Facebook is generating 2.5 billion separate pieces of content and more than 500 terabytes of data each day. Your "like" click is one of 2.7 billion "likes" generated daily, and users are scanning just over 105 terabytes of data every 30 minutes.
But there is no reason we should care about this other than the fact that Facebook is collecting more data than anyone could have categorized five years ago, and the company has dramatically increased the speed at which the monster can digest your data.
Facebook can use simulation models of impressive sophistication to test sales messages, in particular ZIP codes, customizing advertising targeting down to a specific address.
The argument against Facebook must conclude with security issues, some of which Facebook is trying to address. But for travel suppliers and sellers, we can bet the GDS on one simple fact: Facebook will take its "world's largest ever" database and sell it to the highest bidders. That will change the game -- and for those who want out, it will be too late. Your stuff -- your views, your travels, your photos, your family, your clients -- will all be out there, and your data will be transparent.
Here are just a few practical reasons to consider whether Facebook is right for you:
- Irrespective of whether you press the "like" button, Facebook knows which websites you frequent. It says it only keeps that information for 90 days.
- Since "friends" can check your locations if you let them, Facebook users can know where you are and where you live with little effort.
- It is increasingly easy for "phishers" to steal your passwords or other sensitive data by posing as sources you trust.
- Facebook allows past and potential employees to have at you.
- While Facebook is great for businesses that want to connect with customers, particularly those who sign up as "fans," they should be careful what they wish for. Facebook makes it extremely easy for groups of customers to organize, to complain and, should they so wish, to seriously erode the reputation of your company.
Let me share with you what we've done at our firm. We have a letter we send to all our clients explaining that we value their business and their privacy too highly to risk communication via Facebook or other social media. This is how the letter ends:
There are, of course, many other reasons why we feel that clicking "like" and calling strangers "friends" is both artificial and counterproductive. Recent research seems to support the idea that serious issues of privacy are raised when businesses open up their clients to exposure via social media generally and Facebook particularly. In the current climate, we are unwilling to do that for many of the same reasons that we no longer keep copies of your credit card information on file.
Our real friends know how to reach us. We are always available for human conversation and immediate, live responses to your questions. We think, quite frankly, that avoiding human conversation and the nuances of speech, ignoring the efforts necessary to interact as only humans can with one another, is several steps backward rather than some great new future. You will never be a piece of stored data to us. That's not why we became merchants of dreams.
We know that all the real "friends" of our firm will understand.
Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at email@example.com.