Importance of social marketing grows for travel companies

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For more information on social networking, read this article by our sister publication TravelAge West.

Savvy travel-marketing people already know that popular social-networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, LinkedIn and others are a valuable extension of any major marketing program.

As the social-networking phenomenon grows and evolves, travel agencies, home-based agents, suppliers and destination marketers who sit on the sidelines may risk missing significant opportunities to engage existing customers, recruit new ones, bolster their brands, undertake market research and, yes, drive bookings.

"We don't have a choice but to participate in these spaces," said Kristen Celko, vice president of marketing and e-commerce for STA Travel, a student and young adult travel operation based in Lewisville, Texas.

Citing data that showed a decline in traffic to traditional travel websites in 2008, Celko said, "We certainly need to get in front of customers in the places where they are spending their time."

True, STA Travel has a more urgent motivation than most travel companies because it focuses on the youth market. But it would be a mistake to assume that social-networking sites are of less importance when dealing with clientele who span the age spectrum.

JetBlue, for example, boasts 132,000 "followers" on Twitter, while Southwest has 64,300 "fans" on Facebook.

MYSPACELOGOMeanwhile, Delta's 13-month-old in-flight safety video, which features a sexy flight attendant waving an index finger and playfully admonishing travelers that "smoking is not allowed on any Delta flight," is approaching 2 million views on YouTube.

Social media, including blogs, podcasts and video logs, are first cousins to social-networking sites, and in typical Web 2.0 fashion, the airline debuted the video in February 2008 on the Delta blog.

Though just a few years old, the online social-networking trend is rapidly evolving and gaining traction. Those who got involved early in this uncharted territory are still learning as they go, and many companies have found that they have to experiment with different approaches to see what works and what doesn't.

But they also realize that if they sit on the sidelines, they are missing out on the dialogue and the buzz.

For example, in about one hour recently on Twitter, JetBlue promoted $99 Manny Fan Fares in honor of the Los Angeles Dodgers' signing of Manny Ramirez, for flights from L.A. to New York or Boston; TravMediaUSA initiated a poll asking what the meetings/incentive industry needs to right itself; STA Travel asked Sarah of Los Angeles to send the agency a "direct message" (Twitter lingo for a private email) about what had made her angry with the firm; and PhoCusWright analyst Norm Rose solicited questions for a panel on mobile-travel applications that he's moderating at the ITB Berlin conference.

(Read more about Rose's panel in Arnie Weissmann's March 16 From the Window Seat column, "Tweet me right.")

Rose's query might appear a tad personal, but that is the essence of social networking: an ongoing conversation between and among people and their peers, companies and customers.

Social-networking sites generally provide forums for people and companies to post their profiles and share opinions, observations, news, photos, videos, journals and blogs. The objective is networking and community. Often, people have a choice of connecting to their favorite social-networking sites from mobile devices or desktop computers.

Facebook, a privately owned enterprise that was formed in 2004, is the global leader among social-networking sites.

Rapidly growing around the world, it is No. 2 to News Corp.'s MySpace in the U.S., though MySpace's recent expansion has been sluggish.

The Web analytics firm Compete pegged Facebook's global monthly visits in January at almost 1.2 billion and MySpace's at about 810 million. Twitter, which like Facebook is rapidly trending upward, registered around 54 million.

Formed in 2003, MySpace was a first-mover in social networking, but many travel marketers said it lost its luster for them because its demographics tend to be younger than Facebook's and because MySpace differentiates itself with a focus on music and entertainment.

While people and companies can create pages, find friends and post status updates (on their moods, activities or anything else on their minds) on Facebook and MySpace, Twitter is a different animal.

Founded in 2006 and privately owned, Twitter is a relatively bare-bones "microblogging" site. As is the case on Facebook and MySpace, users can communicate anything they like, but on Twitter.com they must do so in 140 or fewer characters.

Twitter is much more fast-paced and interactive than Facebook and MySpace, as users can almost instantly view and reply to the "tweets," as updates are known, of people and companies they choose to follow.

LINKEDINLOGOLinkedIn, a forum to post individuals' business profiles, claims more than 36 million members in more than 200 countries. Most people interviewed for this report said they saw it as an invaluable tool for business networking and executive recruitment but viewed it as less worthwhile for companies' marketing purposes.

As might be expected of such rapidly evolving phenomena, the business models and features of the social-networking sites change frequently. Facebook is readying a new home page, news feed and functionality for corporate pages.

Susan Black, managing partner of consultancy Susan Black Associates, said social-networking sites are not all created equal. "You have to know the etiquette," she said. "You have to know the audience. You have to know what's acceptable."

In general, companies can create their own pages on these sites for free, though the staffing needed to maintain a vibrant, updated presence can be expensive.

Countless travel agents and agencies, suppliers and destinations are diving into the social-networking and social-media wave. Here are quick summaries of the experiences of a few pioneers from the travel sector:

Amber Blecker, Cruises Inc.

Amber Blecker, a home-based agent affiliated with World Travel Holdings' Cruises Inc., is an avid photographer with an Elite Cruise Counselor certification from the Cruise Lines International Association.

Cruises Inc.'s 2004 Rookie of the Year and 2005 Agent of the Year, Blecker is an active blogger and credits substantial business, including $80,000 in advance bookings in August 2008, to clients whom she connected with through her CruiseResource News Blog.  

Blecker's agent website has a link to her blog, which features her take on new ships, itineraries and other industry news as well as offering a widget for cruise bookings provided by Cruises Inc.

Blecker said her blog "grew exponentially" when she posted updates and photos from a Star Princess cruise to the Antarctic in January 2008. The blog, which has attracted almost 55,000 visitors, including 200 to 300 unique visitors per day, resulted in several group bookings.

"The number of visitors to my blog isn't huge, but for travel blogs, personal blogs like this, it is significant," Blecker said.

The majority of Blecker's advance bookings in August 2008 were for the opening of sales of Royal Caribbean International's Oasis of the Seas, for multiple Caribbean sailings in December 2009 and for the Coral Princess CruiseTour to Alaska in July 2009.

Blecker said she had blogged about the ships and "was one of the first to post deck plans" of the Oasis of the Seas.

Her new clients "came to me because of the blog," she said. "Social networking is where people are communicating now. It is where people find people."

Because her blog is healthy and growing, Blecker said she has been able to cut back on email marketing, which makes the email more valuable: "People are tired of receiving constant specials from email," Blecker said. "I put the information on my blog and people can access it when they want to. My clients know if I email them, it has to be about something pretty special."

Steven Hattem, vice president of marketing for CruiseOne, a franchise business, and its sister company Cruises Inc., a host-agency enterprise, said Cruises Inc. provides agents with a variety of websites and content, but it began emphasizing blogging in 2007 as a way for cruise agents to differentiate themselves. For example, it made available to agents a presentation on the benefits of blogging.

"Some of the agents use the blogs regularly to reach out in an individual manner to consumers and to promote themselves as experts on certain topics," Hattem said. "On the Cruises Inc. side of things, Amber Blecker has a very successful blog."

JetBlue

JetBlue's 132,000 followers make it one of the most followed travel companies on Twitter. Morgan Johnston, a manager of corporate communications for the airline, spends much of his time "tweeting" to customers and anyone else who chooses to follow the carrier.

TWITTERLOGOJetBlue began using Twitter in May 2007, but its openness to social networking grew out of the positive experience it had with YouTube after the infamous snow and ice storm of Feb. 14, 2007, when many of its jets were grounded, leaving passengers stranded on runways for hours.

Then-CEO David Neeleman released a video on YouTube telling customers how the airline planned to address the crisis.

"YouTube was our impetus for engaging in social media," Johnston said. "For those of us watching the recovery, we were watching the pain that David was going through, and we wanted our customers to understand."

JetBlue stumbled a bit at the beginning of its Twitter involvement, at first viewing it as a means to post route announcements and fare sales; the effort didn't get much traction with that approach, Johnston said.

"The tipping point came when we ran out of ideas and got a conversation going with the audience." When the company asked followers what they were looking for from the airline on Twitter, it generated "an amazing response," he said.

"I don't see Twitter as a billboard but as an information booth," Johnston said. "Blast-out marketing-speak doesn't resonate with the Twitter community. It is the conversation that resonates."

Johnston said Twitter's primary function for the airline is to gauge brand perception and to listen to what customers are saying. "And there are lots of chances to affect customer experiences, almost in real time," he said.

For example, passengers who are stuck at an airport because of a delayed or canceled flight or who are unsure of where to drop off a bag can send a tweet to JetBlue, which can contact staff members at the airport or point the passenger to a solution, Johnston said.

And, in early January, JetBlue changed its policy on foldable bikes when a Twitter user/passenger alerted the airline to a problem. The passenger was being charged a $50 bike fee even though the bike fit into a standard-size bag, which gets checked in for free.

"If it looks like a standard bag and acts like a standard bag, we should probably treat it like a standard bag with a bike in it," Johnston said. "Within 24 hours of seeing this post, we changed policy and alerted crew members."

Johnston doesn't view Twitter as a means to attract incremental revenue for the airline.

"If you are going to approach Twitter as strictly a way to wring money out of people, you are not going to be successful," Johnston said. "If you are going to approach it as building engagement with your customers and working to turn your customers into brand advocates for you, then there is a great deal of value in it."

Of course, some Twitter followers will go negative on a company from time to time, but Johnston sees that as manageable.

"Negative would happen whether we are there or not," he said. "It is best to listen and to explain your side. If a reporter says something erroneous, we would reach out to them. So why wouldn't you want to do the same with customers?"

JetBlue is also in the process of building a Facebook page. "If we are going to get involved in social media, we want to set something up and not let it go on autopilot," Johnston said.

Like others interviewed, Johnston said JetBlue uses MySpace more as a branding effort than a means to engage customers, because MySpace users are busy in a different conversation. He said JetBlue primarily uses Flickr, Yahoo's photo-sharing site, and Google's YouTube as channels to "open our company up to our customers" by posting photos and videos about the airline's crew, terminals and fleet.

STA Travel

STA Travel, an agency specializing in trips for students and young adults, has almost 24,000 fans on Facebook, where it has had a profile since April 2006, and nearly 2,200 followers on Twitter, which it began using in September 2008.

FACEBOOKLOGOBut one of its most successful social-networking ventures has been on YouTube, where STA Travel posted a video, at no cost, soliciting video applications for its 2009 World Traveler Interns program, which promises winners free trips through Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe.

STA's own video and applicants' video submissions triggered more than 350,000 views, said Celko, noting that the company compares those no-cost views with what it would have had to pay for advertising to get that sort of viewership.

The value of the exposure can't be measured in directly related sales, Celko said.

"No one has found the magical way to drive a tremendous amount of transactional traffic" from social-networking sites, she said. "But if you look at it as putting value around engagement, then compared with traditional advertising channels, it quickly means this is a place where everyone should be operating."

STA Travel has learned through trial and error what works and what doesn't. For example, Facebook said it adds about 140 software applications from developers daily, and STA Travel wrote a couple of its own.

It is fairly common for Facebook users to send virtual gifts to one another, so STA launched a Travel Gifts application in March 2008 as a means of getting more brand exposure. Celko characterized the Travel Gifts application as "a big flop" because it attracted a mere 40 monthly users.

On the other hand, a Trip Countdown application, launched in July 2007 and featuring an STA Travel-branded clock that counts down the hours, minutes and seconds until a user's trip, was a "big win," Celko said. It was featured as a Top 50 Apple download when it was released and was taken up by more than 400 monthly users on Facebook, she said.

Celko said Twitter is part of STA Travel's mainstream public relations program, and the dialogue is managed by a marketing communications coordinator.

STA posts promotions on Twitter, responds to inquiries and also researches what other companies are doing and what people with large followings, known as "high-influencers," are saying.

"Our communications in all of these social networks are balanced between providing information about travel, about STA Travel and a commercial component," Celko said. "You can't be commercial only, or people won't engage with you."

Island of Nevis, West Indies

The Nevis Tourism Authority recently added a Facebook page, which is handled by Cheryl Andrews Marketing Communications, based in Coral Gables, Fla.

The page has a link to the tourism authority's website, displays some notes about a new spa and resort, has a list of upcoming events and gives its more than 300 fans a place to post their own Nevis photos, videos and comments about the destination.

Ashley Norman, who handles luxury leisure and business accounts for the agency, noted that the vast majority of its clients are involved in social networking. "But you have to have a dedication to focus on it," Norman said. "You can't let it sit there for two months without putting active content on it."

Shannon Schiner, who focuses on tourism and hospitality marketing for the agency, concurred that social networking should be part of a well-rounded marketing plan.

"You wouldn't just buy an ad in the [Fort Lauderdale] Sun Sentinel," Schiner said. "With the state of the economy, people are looking for alternative ways to market themselves."

The Nevis Tourism Authority sees Facebook as a dynamic way to reach out to a strong base of repeat visitors as well as a means to attract new guests.

Schiner said the Nevis Tourism Authority chose to use Facebook and not MySpace because Facebook is growing faster and tends to attract more college graduates and "people who might actually be taking a vacation."

Whether using Twitter or Facebook, a company has to strike a balance between the commercial and the personal, Schiner said.

"You have to become part of the community," she said, "although you probably are not going to talk about your boyfriend's proposal last night."

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