Social media: Consumers' new platforms of choice

Among respondents of the Travel Weekly Consumer Trends survey, 92% have an account with one or more social media services. While that represents an increase of about 15 percentage points in total social media use since 2012, the real change is occurring in consumers' choice of platforms.

Three years ago, the platform of choice was Facebook -- and it continues its reign as the dominant social media service; 84% of respondents say they have an account. While impressive, that percentage has remained fairly stagnant; in last year's survey, 80% of respondents used the service.

But in this year's report, social media networks like Twitter (56% of respondents have an account), Pinterest (53%) and Instagram (47%) are clearly gaining ground, all up double digits in usage.

"Facebook has become oversaturated, in my opinion," said Ryan Mielke, travel consultant and manager of Regency Travel in Fort Lauderdale. "Even though Facebook still reigns supreme in volume, I find my posts getting lost in game requests and baby photos."

Douglas Quinby, vice president of research at Phocuswright, said he, too, has seen a leveling off in the growth and influence of Facebook but a rise in the use of other platforms.

"If you're a brand, you may have built up a huge community [on Facebook], but your reach is going to drop, and it is going to continue to drop," Quinby said.

Which is not to suggest that the buzz surrounding social media is fading. As Facebook reaches its saturation point, other networks are taking off.

This is particularly true among those who have used a travel agent in the past year as well as among younger users. The percentages of respondents who used a travel agent in the past year who have a YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram account have shot up at least 19 percentage points. Instagram and Twitter had the largest jumps, up at least 30 percentage points from last year, to 68% and 70%, respectively.

"On Twitter and Instagram, you can narrow in a little more on what you want," Mielke said.

"I find it easier to communicate with certain vendors on Twitter, and Instagram is a great platform for my travel pictures and to gain a following."

Across the board, social media is still dominated by younger users who are more likely to both have an account and to engage actively. These younger users wield a lot of influence; despite being adopted the most slowly by older users, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest have showed the greatest gains in usage in general.

For this reason, travel agents and suppliers are taking advantage of social media to connect to a younger demographic, and they are using more than just Facebook.

Valerie Wilson Travel engages with followers on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, YouTube and LinkedIn, said Co-President Kimberly Wilson Wetty.

She said she believed that "this industry is arguably among the most social," making multiple social media outlets worth maintaining.

"For some time, Facebook was our largest following, but that changed a year ago when our Twitter following really took off and has since surpassed our Facebook following," added Mary Clifford, marketing manager at Valerie Wilson Travel.

Other travel professionals have similar stories to share. Elite Island Resorts manages seven properties throughout the Caribbean, and each resort has a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Google+ profile, according to marketing and communications manager Kelsey Mahoney.

Having different types of accounts allows bookings to stem from many different places. After spiking travelers' interests online, "we tend to take it offline and continue to communicate with them via email, but [on social media] we are always receiving pricing requests, group and wedding inquiries," she said.

According to Mahoney, the reason these platforms are so successful in the travel industry is their ability to highlight an image. A bright, beautiful photo has the ability to "evoke wanderlust and prompt people to look into the resorts," Mahoney said.

She said Pinterest is particularly useful, "as people can create dream vacation boards and plan their trip before they even arrive." She has also noticed an uptick in nonconventional, video-based platforms, such as Snapchat and Vine.

Social media isn't just used during the vacation advertising and shopping period, however. The survey also asked about travel-related activity among those who engage with social media. Respondents said that posting about vacations while traveling and after returning home are the primary reasons for engagement, with over one-third saying they participate in those activities.

Quinby said he believes that social media can and should play a role during the entire traveling process. Before the availability of social media, he said, once a customer went on a trip, the travel agent would often lose contact. But the wish, "wouldn't that be great to have customer support while traveling?" is fulfilled with mobile-friendly social media platforms.

The key to utilizing social media efficiently, he said, is to take advantage of newer, mobile-friendly designs.

"There is an expectation of more instantaneous response, so it is more like a real-time interaction, a conversation as opposed to on Facebook, where you post and you wait for people to respond," Quinby said.

While Facebook does have a mobile app, newer social media platforms are being designed specifically with mobility in mind. Users don't want to have to be tied to a desktop to engage with social media.

"It's all about mobile," Quinby said.

Travel agents said that since their clients tend to skew toward an older demographic, they have to find a balance when incorporating social media platforms into their businesses.

Mielke said it's all about weighing old and new traditions.

"I would say though that in the past five years, I've seen this level start to even out," he said. "Our clients are becoming more educated and aware of social media."

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