At this point, you might be either intrigued to learn more about social technologies or sick of hearing about the subject.
Regardless what your state of mind might be, you would do well to read this article carefully, for it delves into an exciting new set of technologies known collectively as Social Media 2.0.
Our growing ability to frictionlessly connect across the globe is a much more powerful phenomenon than most people understand at the moment, and it will not be going away. We are in the very early stages of comprehending its impact on society as well as on the travel business, and there will be winners and losers when the chaos subsides.
The complete social toolbox is much more powerful than Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn. These applications are but tiny pieces of a larger opportunity to empower tremendously those who are willing to learn and experiment with new concepts.
The great news for smaller organizations is that the cost of putting these tools to work is quite low, so every leader in the travel space has a fair shot at stardom. The unhappy news is that some of you will gloss over this information as not really relevant to your business needs, when in truth, some of these ideas are already making a big difference for early adopters.
To really understand the world of social technologies, you must understand the terminology.
Social networking refers to the exploitation of tools that enable companies or individuals to communicate, collaborate or forge communities with each other: Facebook, Twitter, Ning, blogging, etc.
Social media refers to sites that enable users to upload and share media such as videos, documents, graphics/photos or presentations. Think YouTube, Scribd, Flickr and SlideShare.net.
Social relevance refers to a company's or individual's ability to manage an online reputation or brand among its target constituencies. This covers all the methods by which a searcher would form an opinion online.
In addition, there are a number of new tasks that have the word "social" bolted in front: social CRM and social recruiting, for example.
The umbrella term for all of these is social technologies.
Here is an idea that you really need to digest: Social technologies are beneficial for all aspects of an enterprise, not just for driving revenue. Outside of marketing, there are many techniques being used in the world today to lower costs and help enterprises get smarter. Think of social tools as you would the Web in general: There are benefits for every department.
An e-word-of-mouth marketing campaign can help drive vacationers to your door, and a crowdsourcing process can save you thousands on a new Web user-interface design. While all that is going on, your accounting person is harvesting huge amounts of information about new ways to do your taxes.
Starting at the beginning
But alas, we might be getting ahead of ourselves. Let's take a look at a few of the foundational concepts you need to understand first.
Social technologies are best known for their ability to help drive revenue in new ways, so let's examine where they fit in the larger scheme of marketing. To really understand what is going on today, you have to grasp the simple, five-element formula that defines smart digital marketing:
1) Building productive websites. These are the destinations that people go to in order to access archived information or do transactions. They will not come to these properties unless they have a specific reason, and websites are not optimized to create ongoing connections.
2) Providing social technologies. These tools create the conversations that enable you to build ongoing, close relationships with customers and trust with prospects. They give you the right to talk with people on a regular basis and push information to them that they believe is valuable.
3) Utilizing mobile tools. For the first time in history, we now have a method for people to discover what is physically around them and for your business to connect with customers using location-based criteria 24/7, anywhere in the world. In the travel space, being able to connect through a mobile device is mandatory.
4) Driving online traffic. Once you have integrated the three elements above, you are ready to drive a much larger volume of traffic into your relationship net. There are many tools for doing this, including traditional advertising, search-engine optimization and pay-per-click campaigns.
5) Creating measurement systems. It is true that what gets measured gets done. Once you have the first four elements in place and integrated, you must create a full suite of measurements so you will know exactly what is working and what needs improving. Too many travel industry players are sloppy with measurements and therefore really have little insight into how to improve.
The important point to glean from this model is that social technologies are just one of the legs of the stool, but they play a crucial role because they create the ongoing conversation with your constituents. None of the other legs give you the ability to build an ongoing relationship like social tools do.
Enabling potential clients
When you apply a sophisticated and well-thought-out digital marketing campaign to your business practices, you will see a change in the sales process that is more profound than it might seem at first.
You will be morphing from a company that asks, "Where can I find new customers?" to one that asks,"How can I enable customers to find me?" We live in a highly searchable recommendation economy, and it is much more difficult to hunt down new customers if you do not have the backing of a digital marketing net.
Where the travel space once depended heavily on word-of-mouth recommendations, you now will live and die with the concept of e-word-of-mouth and an online reputation. You must learn to use digital marketing to create an environment in which you can close more sales.
The first foundational practice to apply in creating your selling environment is to devise and master an organizational voice.
There are many channels through which to deliver this voice -- Facebook, Twitter, blogging, video blogs, etc. -- and in many cases, you should be using a combination of these channels to reach different audiences. Building an organizational voice provides a method for you to talk to your constituents on an appropriate and regular basis.
Moreover, if you provide real value to your customers, you will create an "earned media" relationship with them. This replaces many of the "interruption marketing" methods you have used in the past, also known as advertising. In other words, you will move to more conversation and less shouting at your customers and prospects.
The other benefit of creating all this content will be the boost to your online reputation, because you will be providing digital proof that you are an expert in your field. That is crucial because people are tired of someone selling something to them when it is clear that the seller lacks the requisite expertise and is likely just trolling for a commission. They want to deal with an expert who clearly cares about them.
The next step, the social media campaign, is a crucial element. Once you have created a conversation with people, you need to augment it with a large inventory of online assets. Thankfully, we now have very inexpensive ways to communicate with millions of people in an instant.
Start by creating custom channels on YouTube, SlideShare, Flickr and Scribd. All are free to set up, so there is no reason to delay.
Once you have them, create unique and interesting content for each that would appeal to your customer base. Think in terms of 100 or more assets spread across all four channels. Be clever with what you create; you don't have to spend lots of money, you just have to be innovative in order to stand out and get lots of viral lift.
- Videos that share with travelers best practices for packing and getting through airports and customs.
- PowerPoint presentations that highlight destinations or help travelers easily find all the information about a specific type of cruise, tour or destination in one place.
- Pictures and infographics that provide helpful or fun facts about locations you serve.
- White papers that outline everything someone might want to know about an ecotour.
There are myriad clever ideas for creating digital media assets that will help your prospects and customers. If you do really well, they can even go viral on the Web and get large numbers of views.
Once you have these assets online and ready to distribute, there are many ways of reaping the benefits.
You can send them to individual prospects and customers for their personal use. You can include your digital assets in sales proposals and send them to online magazines and newspapers for placement in their online platforms.
Make sure you imbed each type of media in your website to imbue it with flashy content. You can get partners to imbed links to your assets on their sites, and this will drive people to your properties.
All of this builds your brand and creates inbound links to your site. Hopefully, you already know that means you will move up in Google's formulas for search prioritization.
One final move to make with these assets is what we call the e-word-of-mouth marketing method. Go identify the top 50 bloggers and tweeters who already have thousands of followers in your market and start sending them links to your digital assets. Bloggers and tweeters are always looking for great content to send to their readers, and they will deliver yours for free -- and some new customers along with them.
Online reputation management
Once you have improved the volume of people falling into your digital marketing net, you only have to maximize the perception of your online reputation in order to close deals.
You could do everything else right, but if you fail to build a positive online reputation, you can lose it all. As mentioned, we now live in a recommendation economy in which people make the bulk of their decisions based on what the Internet herd or their friends say about a product or service.
You might protest that this is unfair or dangerous because of the chance of fraud, but you would be whistling in the wind. The reality is, consumers have for centuries been the victims of unhappy surprises regarding poor products or performance, and we are all tired of it. We will now consult the Internet tea leaves as our first step in most decision making.
Instead of fretting about this, learn to manage your online reputation, and you will be able to reap the benefits instead of losing business to competitors who have mastered online reputation management.
In the travel space, your online reputation -- your own as a professional and that of your enterprise -- will be formed by ratings systems and online comments about your products, services and skills. The simple formula for managing your reputation is a three-step process:
1) Set alerts for, and closely monitor, any mention of your name, your product and/or service name and your competitors' names.
2) Have an engagement plan for responding to positive, neutral and negative comments. You must learn how to thank people who say nice things and grow that volume, while mitigating the damage of a negative comment or rating.
3) Measure your reputation every month. This means analyzing how many times you are mentioned, where you are mentioned and what the sentiment ratio is, i.e., the ratio of positive comments to negative ones.
To create an environment in which you can close more sales, you must ensure that when you generate interest through your other outreach techniques, they are not dashed on the rocky shores of a bad reputation.
Once you have mastered the ability to drive more revenue, it would be wise to focus on lowering costs and improving the IQ of your team. This can be done through applying crowdsourcing and building rivers of information.
Crowdsourcing is the process of leveraging the Internet herd to do work on your behalf less expensively, faster and with greater creativity.
There are now more than 150 websites that specialize in various forms of crowdsourcing. Examples include sites that will help you produce any creative design (e.g., new logos, website design or brochures) and sites that do everything from helping to raise money to doing research. Many organizations today are using crowdsourcing to cut thousands of dollars from their monthly bottom lines.
One of the most powerful uses of social tools is also one of the hottest these days: the ability to build a vast river of information into your brain.
All of the social tools that enable people to publish information have created an explosion in the volume of information available on any subject. This is certainly true in the travel industry. Every day, terabytes of information on every aspect of the travel space get uploaded, and the more of it that can be aggregated, filtered and retained the better.
The reality is that the travel space is a knowledge economy, and the smarter players win, as do the smarter teams. Yet with all of this information flying around in real time, most people are wasting the opportunity to harvest and digest it. That's a shame, because it costs nothing to use the harvesting tools or access this information. For lack of 30 minutes a day and knowing how to use tools like Netvibes.com, Google Reader, Flipboard, Twellow.com and Blogs.com, people could dramatically improve their travel industry IQ.
And if you are thinking that the volume of information is too great for you to sort out, ask yourself this: Is it really information overload, or is it a failure on your part to properly filter information?
The reality is, we are just scratching the surface of social technologies with this article. The toolbox is vast and growing, and you really don't have the option to just opt out of learning to use the tools. Your competition will surely learn to use them, and the advantage will go to those who use them best.
For those who do choose to become social tech experts, you will find this toolbox to be packed with technologies that can change an economy in chaos to one that is predictable and manageable.
Scott Klososky, a former CEO of three successful startup companies, is a consultant and speaker who specializes in peering over the horizon to determine how technology will affect the future of business. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Awards to honor social ideas
An awards program to recognize the "most innovative and effective uses of social media" by travel industry suppliers and travel agents has been created by Travel + Leisure.
"Did you create a campaign that engaged your fans? Did your ongoing social media outreach drive powerful results?" the magazine asked in soliciting entries for the first Smittys, or Social Media in Travel and Tourism Awards, on its site www.travelandleisure.com/smittys
The award categories are Best Use of a Social Media Platform, Best Single Social Media Promotion and Best Social Media Promotion of Travel Deals.
The campaign must have taken place on any social media outlet and been active during 2011.
Travel + Leisure said winners will be selected by a panel of social media experts assembled by the magazine. "They will be looking at many factors, including originality, creativity, user response and engagement," Travel + Leisure said.
"We just feel that social media has become such a powerful voice in travel and that travel companies are doing such innovative things in this space that we wanted to search out and find and acknowledge some of the leaders," said Richard Beattie, the executive digital editor of Travel + Leisure.
The contest is open to hotels and resorts, cruise lines, airlines, airports, tour operators, tourism boards, car rental companies, attractions and travel agencies and online travel agencies.
Winners will be announced in early June on TravelandLeisure.com
and in the July issue of Travel + Leisure.
Beattie said the Smittys would reward travel firms in the social media space that were "ahead of their time, ahead of companies that are just responding to problems or comments, that are really thinking about how to engage travelers in innovative ways." -- Rebecca Tobin