Five free tech tools
Scott Klososky, a technology expert who trains organizations to use tech tools and trends to communicate and stay relevant, recently offered what he believes are the top five free online tools that people should take advantage of (although he said it was not an easy choice).
TweetDeck describes itself as "air traffic control" for users' contacts in Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.
TweetDeck gives users control over how they see their messages by splitting them into columns (friends, clients, DirectMessages, Replies), a very helpful tool when one is following hundreds or thousands of other Twitterers, friends, etc.
TweetDeck is multi-platform (Windows and Mac) and is available for desktops, Android, iPhones and iPads.
2. Social Mention
This free website will aggregate and analyze users' social media presence.
It enables users to receive daily social media alerts about their brand or company, a competitor or any other topic. It will locate mentions of chosen topics in videos, blogs, microblogs, events, bookmarks, comments, news, etc.
The website states: "It allows you to easily track and measure what people are saying about you, your company, a new product or any topic across the Web's social media landscape in real time."
The site is multi-platform but not yet available for smartphones.
3. Google Alerts
Similar to SocialMention.com, but Google Alerts will email updates of the latest relevant Google results (Web, news, etc.) based on users' choice of query or topic.
This can include information about travel deals, a user's own brand and website, a competitor or anything else.
WordPress is an open-source, self-hosted blogging tool that enables users to create their own blogs or websites for free.
This popular system makes it easy to design and integrate a blog into a website. Experts say it's versatile and fits the needs of those who want a basic, personal blog or a professional one.
It is multi-platform and available for desktops, Android, iPhones, BlackBerrys and iPads.
Netvibes enables users to create a single page with the most important online information to which they want access.
A customized Netvibes page will have the user's chosen newspapers, blogs, email, videos, photos, social networks, podcasts, etc., on a single personalized Dashboard that automatically updates every time it is opened.
It is multi-platform and available for desktops, Android and iPhones, BlackBerrys and iPads.
This is the first of a two-part report on social networking for travel agents. Click to read part two.
Think you can avoid a social presence on the Internet and still be a relevant business?
Social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter are crucial tools for marketing to and connecting with existing and potential customers.
Consider these statistics: Facebook's 350 million users share more than 3.5 billion pieces of content every week, according to Econsultancy.com, a company that quantifies and trains people on digital marketing and e-commerce best practices. Twitter has 15 million users who tweet on a regular basis, and the average number of tweets per hour is about 1.3 million.
Businesses are taking note. More than 700,000 local businesses have active Facebook pages, Econsultancy reported, and there are 3 million active Facebook pages, with a total of more than 5.3 billion fans.
And worldwide, nearly half of the most active mobile device users would welcome the opportunity to pay for goods and services using their mobile phone, according to recent research by Accenture.
What all this means is that businesses without a strong Web presence could ultimately be left behind, and "Web presence" long ago ceased to mean a website and email address. Today, it means understanding the opportunities on the Web that enable businesses to grow their relevancy.
And yet, most people are unaware of the vast array of online social technologies beyond social media, Scott Klososky told travel sellers in a keynote session at Travel Weekly's LeisureWorld 2011 Show and Conference, held in February in Las Vegas.
"There are many different facets of social technology, and they accomplish many different goals," Klososky said recently. "If you only focus on, or are aware of, one aspect, then you will only get the benefit of that one tool. It is like thinking that a screwdriver is the only tool in the toolbox."
Even when considering only the social media aspect, which Klososky defines as documents, pictures, video and presentations, most people do not realize that this content must engage the reader to increase one's online relevancy.
"Most people do not understand that at all," Klososky said. "They do not see these other channels of media content as ways to improve search rankings, or the chances of being found. Nor do they realize this puts content into links that can easily make it portable and viral."
So what is a technologically immature but sales-savvy travel agent to do?
Unfortunately, there is no one right answer. Travel agents who have become expert in social media admit that there are myriad ways to start the process of becoming a member of the Twitterati, the term for Twitter members who attract tens of thousands of followers.
The one piece of advice that these experts consistently give is that content is king. Before setting up a Facebook page, a Twitter account or a blog, consider what your message will be.
"It's a mistake to think about tools and not content," said Carrie Finley-Bajak, president of CruiseBuzz.net and a former travel agent who now helps other travel agents implement social media. "Travel agents who specialize in certain destinations or a special niche of the travel industry really need to figure out what it is about that niche that they want to talk about, and then talk about it over and over again and layer in their content."
Finley-Bajak, whose 17,174 tweets have earned her 9,084 followers, said that without the right content, social media is "just a bunch of wasted time." And most travel agents, she noted, don't have time to waste.
"We've already determined that we don't care what people ate for breakfast," she said. "Giving worthwhile information about content that shows them as the expert is step one."
Many people in business think that simply having a Facebook page with their information on it will drive people to their business.
However, consumers need a reason to visit those pages, and interesting content helps that happen.
Travel agents who have achieved some success with social media advise others to remember that good content does not mean asking people to be your customer. It means providing useful information and, ultimately, convincing people that you are an expert in what you are blogging, tweeting or posting about. Ultimately, expertise is the value you provide to them.
"When [people] value my information stream, then I have influence over them," Klososky said. "Influence translates into sales generally or at least means I've done a good job with my brand. ... When people choose to do business, they search first, and they want to know your online reputation. That's your social relevance. Are you an expert? Do you have a good reputation online?"
Of course, it might not be immediately apparent what kind of content does that.
"A giant mistake people make is forgetting what we want to read and what's interesting to us," Klososky said during the LeisureWorld presentations.
He advised agents to consider the tone of voice they use online and to remember that "corporate-speak is really boring."
Rey Alton, the leisure marketing director of Houston-based Almeda Travel, manages its online publication, Urban Navigator, which Almeda describes as a guide to destination travel that features "real people, real places and real travel experiences around the world."
Alton posts useful information on Urban Navigator's Facebook fan page, such as "What to Pack: First-Aid Kit" and "A Few Key Italian Phrases," as well as pictures from his own recent trips to Las Vegas and vacations he helped organize.
Alton does not attempt to sell anything on his Facebook page, which has 800 fans, or in Facebook-speak, 800 people "like" the page.
"I am not opposed to posting deals or sales," he said. "But when speaking with people in the Facebook community, they told me they wanted travel tips, testimonials and advice."
Margie Jordan, CEO of ASAP Travel in Jacksonville, Fla., also makes ASAP's Facebook page (524 likes) a place for people to find tips.
She links to articles ("Have you ever wondered what to do when your luggage goes missing?") and invitations: "Is your group or family thinking of sailing on a cruise ship this year? Join me on Feb. 19 aboard the Carnival Fascination in Jacksonville, Fla., for a ship tour and a fabulous lunch."
She mentions a sale that also has news value: "Norwegian Cruise Line plans to raise cruise fares up to 10% on April 1. The company also will extend its 'Free Upgrades for All' sales event through March 31."
"I use the Facebook page not to try and make sales but to engage clients and try to find new ones," Jordan told a room of travel agents at LeisureWorld. "If I'm trying to sell something on Facebook, I'll buy Facebook ads."
Too much of a good thing
Beyond the content itself, a social media user has to consider the frequency of posting it, and where to do it.
Post too often, Klososky said, "and they tune you out. And not often enough and the stream is not valuable."
Unfortunately, there's no right amount, he said, adding, "You have to figure out the frequency."
Alton said he posts every day, offering "good information" and "good travel stories."
Finley-Bajak said she posts "all the time" and that "people don't have to look if they don't want to see it."
She added: "I'm not selling anything, I'm sending out content. It's layering into the big puzzle. Everything is reachable, and that helps with search engine optimization."
Having an online presence means taking the initiative instead of just waiting for people to find your Facebook page.
As Finley-Bajak explained, agents have to go to where their customers are.
"Travel agents need to be willing to go out and participate in other people's networks instead of waiting for people to come to them," she said.
Often, that means at the suppliers' Facebook pages or blogs.
"If you're a cruise specialist, you should be a fan of the different cruise lines," she said. "You need to be where your consumers are, and they are interacting with all of those brands directly."
When you do so, she said, it engages people with your content who could eventually go back to your website and increases your overall online relevancy.
The online toolbox
The technology component of establishing an online presence means setting up some of the basic tools in the social technology box, such as a website, perhaps a blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account.
However, Klososky said, there are hundreds of online tools that are also very helpful to businesses, but most people don't know they exist.
Speaking at LeisureWorld, he said a huge number of free tools are available that can be especially useful to small businesses, including the majority of travel agents.
"These tools have a wonderful ability to level the playing field between smaller organizations and larger organizations," Klososky said.
He encouraged agents to look beyond Facebook and LinkedIn to a range of online tools that can help them compete in ways they could never afford to compete before (see box, Page 17).
"One person can talk to 2 billion people for free for the first time in history," he said. "[All] businesses can do that, but sadly, most of them are wasting that capability."
To build up one's "online social relevance," he said, it is necessary to look beyond having a good website and Facebook page.
Building that relevance, Klososky said, requires an understanding of many facets of online presence, because businesses need to be able to communicate with individual consumers using the platform they most favor, whether it's Twitter, a website, a blog or a text message.
Adding to the clutter, Klososky said agents need to have a mobile strategy, as well, because "more than half of Google search this year will be on a mobile device."
The first step, Klososky said, is to take the time to learn what's available.
"You have to stand out and be a cut above," he said. "Invest a little time to use them and learn them. Free tools help you build a river of information about your brand. This is a knowledge economy, and the smart people win."
In the next issue: Tactical ways agents can make social media part of their business plans.