Experts urge agents to consider non-Facebook marketing efforts

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Experts urge agents to consider non-Facebook marketing efforts
Photo Credit: Chinnapong/Shutterstock

As attitudes about Facebook shift, travel agents are being advised to start diversifying their social media presence to avoid the full impact of what some researchers see as a declining user base in the U.S.

Facebook remains the platform of choice for the vast majority of travel advisors. However, public trust in the social media giant has been waning following a spate of negative headlines about data breaches, misinformation, disinformation and myriad other issues. 

"I don't know if there's a reason to panic yet," said Rosemarie Reed, vice president of marketing and strategic partnerships for Dream Vacations, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc.

Reed said she still believes Facebook is a good platform for advisors, but she acknowledged there have been shifts in consumer attitudes as problems like data breaches have been revealed. She said the platform has not seen a significant enough decline in its U.S. user base to signal that it's time for agents to abandon it entirely, but she said now might be a good time to become familiar with another platform.

"If [agents] don't diversify their particular online footprint and they focus all their effort on Facebook, should something like that happen again in the future and they see a bigger decline in users in the United States, then we have a real problem," she said.

Should that happen, she said, "We'll be playing this quick catch-up to get people onto a different platform."

Social media is an important marketing arena for travel advisors. In Travel Weekly's 2018 Travel Industry Survey, social media was second only to email in popularity as a marketing tool, and 70% of respondents reported using social media to attract new clients. That was up from 39% in 2011, the first year social media use was included in the survey.

Among advisors who use social media for their business, Facebook is far and away the most used platform. In the 2018 Travel Industry Survey, 95% of social media participants used Facebook. Instagram was a distant second. 

Since 2016, when Travel Weekly first polled agents on the use of specific social media marketing platforms, Facebook has remained relatively consistent in popularity. Conversely, Instagram use by advisors is on the rise: In 2018, 46% of social media users surveyed were on the platform, an 11-point jump from 2017.

Facebook's numbers

Agents aren't alone in their Facebook use. On the company's fourth-quarter earnings call in January, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said more than 90 million small businesses use its products, "and of those we surveyed, half tell us that they've been able to grow their businesses and hire more people since joining Facebook."

Daily active users of Facebook continue to increase. Last week, Facebook said that number was up 8%, to an average of 1.56 billion; in its fourth-quarter earnings call, it attributed an increase in that same metric to growth in India, Indonesia and the Philippines. However, some studies are indicating that users are leaving the platform, while others believe the growth in adoption of social media platforms is slowing.

When asked on the January earnings call if negative headlines at the end of 2018 had impacted Facebook's user base, CFO David Wehner responded, "We saw that we are growing in all regions, albeit we're bouncing around in the developed markets like the U.S. and Canada."

The Infinite Dial 2019 study, part of Edison Research's series of reports covering consumer use of media and technology, determined that in 2019, 61% of Americans age 12 and over -- an estimated 172 million people -- are using Facebook. 

The platform's usage peaked in 2017, at 67%, but the study found there are about 15 million fewer Facebook users today than at its peak.

From 2017 to 2019, Edison Research said, the number of Americans ages 12 to 34 using Facebook declined from 79% to 62%. Its use among older people remained relatively stable, with an uptick from 49% to 53% among users age 55 or older. The Infinite Dial report was released in March.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in January and February found that while the number of adults using Facebook (69% in 2019) had remained relatively steady in recent years, there is evidence that the growth social media platforms have seen in the U.S. in the past decade is slowing. A separate Pew survey conducted in 2018 found that Facebook is no longer the dominant social media platform for teens.

Social media alternatives

Andy Ogg, marketing manager of Ogg Marketing Group and Brands, said he believes there has been a decline in Facebook's user base recently.

"I believe that's heavily [led] by distrust, and there is fear now associated with social media," he said.

Ogg said he does not believe there will ever be another social media platform to achieve the size and scale of Facebook at its height, but he also said advisors have a lot of opportunity with smaller, more local social networks, like Nextdoor and Yelp. He also said Instagram presents a number of opportunities.

"If you can market the content with hashtags and tagging and dive into that realm, I think there's a fantastic opportunity there for travel professionals to do well," Ogg said.

Reed said Instagram, too, holds a lot of opportunity. Its visual nature lends itself well to travel, and while its user base is smaller than Facebook's, that base appears to be growing. Instagram is owned by Facebook, but Reed said that because the negative attention has been directed squarely at Facebook, public perception of Instagram is better. Its user base also tends to be more engaged.

Ogg encouraged agents to diversify their social presence.

"I think for a lot of agents, they're scared, because they know how to work Facebook now," he said. "They know how to post and to do things and make content. If they're not seeing the results they want to, it may be time to learn something new. Education can be a little scary at times, but it doesn't mean that it's bad. It just means that it's time to learn more and grow themselves."

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