Social media has been with us for many years, but many readers are still exploring the business opportunities offered by various social platforms and working to transform a static customer list into a vibrant, engaged client community. To help travel agents fully exploit their opportunities, Travel Weekly will be offering a series of instructional content and interactive events in the coming months.

With this issue, we introduce the first of a series of columns by Carrie Finley-Bajak, a consultant who combines her feet-on-the-ground expertise in social media with her many years of experience as a travel agent to offer a unique perspective on ways to apply these rapidly evolving technologies to the agent channel.

In addition to her column, which will appear every six weeks on our editorial page, Finley-Bajak will co-host a series of monthly Twitter chats that will use the #TWchats hashtag, led by Travel Weekly editors and featuring key industry players as guests.

The first of these, on Nov. 14 at 2 p.m. Eastern time, will be an introductory chat titled “Social Media 101,” focusing on best practices for agents, success stories, etc. In addition to offering insights into many aspects of the travel industry, these chats will serve as training platforms for using social media and a place for agents to become comfortable with the ins and outs of Twitter as a community-building tool.

Among the guest hosts of these chats will be Margie Jordan, the travel industry social media guru who leads training sessions on the topic at Travel Weekly’s CruiseWorld & Home Based Agent Shows, including the conference this week in Fort Lauderdale.

In her first column, below, we asked Finley-Bajak to recount her own early experiences with social media and explain the basics of these powerful tools. In future columns, she will focus on specific ways to use each platform to enhance the business of travel retailing. For a glossary of commonly used social-media terms,
click here.  

Carrie Finley-BajakAs an early adopter of social networking platforms for my travel agency, I felt I knew the potential impact that online communities could have on my business, so I invested the time required to develop a significant social media presence. I now have a sizable digital imprint, and in some circles I am perceived as an influencer.

I have learned a lot along the way to building my social media presence: I came to know the importance of quality over quantity; I discovered which travel brands I could count on to engage in an online dialog; I learned which agents and suppliers were willing to jump into an online conversation for the sake of being social.

Where do you fit in?

If you are one of the holdouts who has been secretly hoping social media would go away but was also drawn to its possibilities, read on: I will be sharing best practices with the readers of Travel Weekly to help you discover what the buzz is all about. I have more than 20 years' experience as a technology trainer, and I have been a travel agent, so I can help you get a jump-start in ways that are specifically relevant to your business.

In this day and age, social media must become part of a travel agent's marketing plan. Along with direct mail, cold calls, trade shows, client-appreciation parties and websites, travel agents need to be ready to integrate social media into their marketing strategy.

The difference between all those other marketing tools and social media has to do with the tone and purpose of the message. Social media are tools to help prospects and current clients get to know you better and to introduce you to potential new clients. While traditional marketing techniques are aggressive calls to action, reserve social media to help strengthen relationships.

One key reason to use social media is that a lot of your customers already are. Relationships are the cornerstone of your business, and consumers aren't afraid of sharing online, which means you could be losing opportunities to maintain relationships. Your customers and potential clients are engaging online, and they will continue to engage that way, with or without you.

You owe it to your business to see what is happening in social media, and if you can, you need to get in on the conversations, playing the role of an unbiased third-party expert, the voice of reason. Although this might not close a deal, you will establish yourself as an authority about your travel niche, and that is great public relations.

Travel agents I have met are social by nature, which is a key ingredient to developing a social media presence. Moreover, agents are passionate about their travel niches, knowledgeable and ready to answer questions. Social media offers a way to harness that outgoing enthusiasm and share it online.

In addition, you can use social media tools to track what people are saying about you and your company, generate publicity about upcoming events and to promote yourself, in addition to sharing links to hot deals (although it's best to keep the deals-and-discounts aspect to a minimum).

Getting started

Social media refers to content that is shared online with and among groups of people. The content, which can be text, photos, audio or video, is posted to social network platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Each takes its own unique form, offers its own way of communicating with various parts of your business universe and therefore represents potential for interaction between you and friends, customers and potential prospects.

Whatever the platform, keep it simple. Post photos from your travels, site inspections and fam trips. Comment about favorite destinations. Follow with updates that reveal your personality and business knowledge.

Before you get online

To start things off, I've assembled a general overview for jump-starting your online marketing strategy. In subsequent columns I will focus on specific platforms and offer suggestions about how to get started as well as shortcuts and tips to turn newbies into power-users. For now, here are the basic beginning steps:

  • Find a flattering headshot of yourself (preferably smiling), and use it on all your sites as a sort of avatar, a consistent visual image by which others will recognize you. This will help with branding and reinforce the impression that you are everywhere.
  •  For uniform messaging, create a short bio and use it on all your social networking profiles. Write your bio using links and keywords that best describe your business for search engine optimization, or SEO, which will help people find you online.
  • Research your competition's online presence and determine which among them is best employing social media. Which competitor seems to be everywhere, mixing it up with your target interest groups? You'll learn a lot from this exercise.
  • Using email or a newsletter, create an informal poll asking your current customers what social networks they prefer, then use the results to determine where you should spend your time online initially.
  • Discover what trade media, associations and suppliers are doing online to interact with travel agents and consumers. Look for clues about how each relates to its audience and which might be potential strategic partners.
  • Begin engaging. Monitor what is happening online and get comfortable leaving comments.

Now, armed with this intelligence and experience, determine which of the following social media platforms best suit your business needs:

Major social media services This social media giant is a great place for travel agents to start to build an audience. The platform is based on the concept of interacting with "friends" ­-- people who already know you or who know people who know you -- creating a growing network of potential clients. Because it offers the ability to comb through your email for potential friends, Facebook is the quickest way to start a following. If you have already established a personal Facebook account, consider creating a separate, more public account that can be viewed by anyone on the service. Based on the concept of creating networks of "followers," Twitter is not the easiest platform to understand, but with a little insight gleaned from training and practice, it can quickly become a travel agent's most efficient tool for creating a network and communicating with members of that network. Do you use a smartphone or tablet? If so, make sure you get this free app for photo sharing. Travel agents can take photos or use photos already on their mobile devices, customize them, then share them by linking this app to their other social networks. This platform is a match made in heaven for agents. Travel sellers can appeal to people's dreams by employing Pinterest's visual environment to create "pinboards" of content that appeals to travelers. Members control their own pinboards and share images that are "pinned" to their boards. Links to pins can be shared on Facebook and Twitter to increase impressions. Among the best-known and most widely used social media platforms, YouTube enables members to upload, edit, share, comment on and "like" video content. Travel agents can increase audience reach to attract potential clients and improve their presence on search engines by posting their videos to YouTube.

Google+: This social network is Google's version of Facebook and Twitter. Travel agents should at least tinker with this platform. Though you're no doubt crunched for time and wondering how you will ever be able to keep up with all the platforms, you should, at a minimum, share photos of your favorite travel products on Google+. Ideally, you will use it to plug links to offers and content on your website while you wait for your friends to show up and "hangout," a Google+ feature. Upload your travel photos to Flickr, an online photo management and sharing application that interacts with your other platforms. For example, you can "pin" your best Flickr shots to Pinterest or add them to your Facebook page. This is the premier business-to-business social media platform. While you are probably more interested in business-to-consumer relationships, cultivating your network of business connections is a good investment of time. LinkedIn is also a great place to network and find groups that can help you grow your bottom line. If you don't have a website that enables readers to leave comments and to drive clicks from social media sites, consider opening a free WordPress "blog," essentially, a place to store all your shared content online. Photos, videos and product reviews need to be stored somewhere permanently online where they can be linked to all your other social media platforms. Done right, your blog will attract a wide audience who will leave comments -- the ultimate social network.

A live chat

Seek a better understanding of the various services and how your business might take advantage of them. You are invited to join Travel Weekly and me to discuss social media best-practices for travel agents. Our first online event will take place on, Nov. 14 at 2 p.m. Eastern time. Post your tweets and add the hashtag #TWchats.

Carrie Finley-Bajak is a social media consultant who specializes in building travel industry branding online. Contact her at [email protected]. 

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