Avoya and Cruise.com build sizable Facebook presence

By Johanna Jainchill
In the new marketing world order, where Facebook “likes” equal brand power, it is no surprise that online travel agency giants Expedia and Orbitz have the most muscle.

With nearly 1.2 million fans, Expedia leads the pack, while Orbitz’s 313,965 make it a distant second. But the travel agency that comes in third is not another of the giant OTAs that might be expected: not Travelocity, which has 124,140 likes, or Priceline’s Negotiator page, with 100,115.

Third place belongs to Avoya Travel, which as of Feb. 9 had 164,169 likes. It is followed by Cruise.com, with 129,195 likes.

These numbers far surpass those of other travel agencies primarily because Avoya and Cruise.com have made their Facebook pages cornerstones of their marketing strategies.

“We spent a lot of money to drive a lot of traffic to [our Facebook page],” said Jeff Anderson, Avoya’s vice president of marketing, who described the company’s Facebook investment as being in the low six-figure range. “We wanted to create a brand identity that is difficult to communicate in other forms of advertising.”

Avoya purchases Facebook advertising and banner ads that point people to its page. The decision to focus marketing on Facebook, Anderson said, was scary at first because it wasn’t clear there would be a tangible benefit.

“What we knew is that we had to play,” Anderson said. “If that many consumers are spending that much time in a new medium, we needed to be able to be present to our customers there.”

The companies have since learned a lot about the value of being on Facebook and how its users interact with brands online.

“Very few people want to interact with a brand in a social context to make a buying decision,” Anderson said. “We learned after a couple months that social media for us was not going to be a giant in terms of generating revenue.”

Instead, he said, Avoya’s efforts focus “on building brands and relationships.”

Avoya does get a good response when it posts deals on its page, he said, but its larger strategy is to engage its fans. That is achieved by posting questions about dream trips, such as, “If I could go on a romantic vacation with my sweetheart this Valentine’s Day, we would be off to ____! (Fill in the blank!)”

That post generated 138 comments within a day of being posted.

The company also builds themes around relevant cultural topics, such as the Super Bowl. The benefit, Avoya has discovered, is the viral nature of social media.

“That penetration rate of 138 grows to thousands because friends see what friends are posting,” Anderson said.

Anthony Hamawy, president of Cruise.com, agreed that Facebook is not about making sales.

“It’s not a place for deals like we might do with other advertising,” he said. “It’s meant to have conversations with new customers and our existing customers.”

Cruise.com has contests on its page, such as best photos, and has given away a few cruises, sometimes in collaboration with cruise lines.

“As it has grown, more cruise lines and suppliers want to be more active on our site,” he said.

Sophie Bujold, a social media coach who specializes in the travel industry, called the number of fans these agencies have amassed “quite exceptional among non-OTA brands.”

“Not many travel agencies are able to achieve these kinds of numbers without significant effort and marketing funding,” she said.

Looking at Avoya, Bujold said the company seems very focused on marketing and technology, “which is a perfect fit for developing a social media presence. ... These numbers definitely did not come without a cost and a really good marketing funnel.”

Bujold said that the decision to focus on socializing rather than selling has helped.

“Most of Avoya’s Facebook posts focus on getting customer input, with only a few of them mentioning product or trying to make a sale,” she said. “They have been able to develop their community around this.”

And community is where the real value lies, Bujold said, because “once consumer confidence is built, the sales will come naturally from that trust and sense of community.”

“People buy from people they know and trust,” she said. “Avoya is focusing on nurturing those relationships by getting their fans involved through questions, invitations to share and game play. This is a really good approach that really takes advantage of the social part of social media.”

While it is difficult to pinpoint the value of a Facebook fan, Jamie Turner, a social media expert and founder of 60SecondMarketer.com, said that being “liked” has staying power, and that Facebook users are not indiscriminate fans.

“Most people ‘like’ fewer than 10 brands on Facebook, which shows that they have some sense of loyalty to each brand they like,” Turner said. “Once someone likes your brand, they don’t go away. A recent study shows that 76% of all people have never unliked a brand.”

Hamawy said Cruise.com has solid evidence that its Facebook efforts have produced a “fair share” of bookings.

“I know because of the feedback we get from travel agents and customers,” he said. “It’s part of the funnel that delivers the ultimate booking.”
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