This is the second of a two-part report on social networking for travel agents. Click to read part one. 

So, like most businesses today, you have embraced social media to some extent, or at least dipped your toe in it, probably by establishing a presence on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or YouTube. But are you ready to step up to the most sophisticated levels of social media deployment?

In part one of this two-part look at social media as a travel seller's tool, we reported that to be effective with social media platforms, you have to first accept that content is king.

But even once a business aims the right message at its audience, it faces sundry challenges in harnessing the power of social media at a higher level. Taking it to the next level will mean different things for different businesses, depending on their audiences, their messages and their resources.

Go fish

Jamie Turner, chief content officer of the 60 Second Marketer, the online magazine for BKV Digital and Direct Response, described social media as "a great way to fish more efficiently."

"If you are a fisherman with one hook in the water, and social media allows you to put up to 10 hooks in the water, the likelihood of bringing home a boat full of fish goes up," Turner said.

He observed that when it comes to buying travel, the first thing customers do when they want to go somewhere is to search for that destination or cruise on Google or Bing.

So, clearly, he said, "You want to show up in that search. If you don't get into social media, your company will not show up on that Google search as high."

A business that has effectively used social media tools will not only show up on the search but will probably "reel in and keep" those customers, Turner said.

For example, he said, a user might get hooked on an agency's YouTube videos about safaris. "And if you have another section about travel to Europe, they will come back to you when they are thinking about that trip," he said.

Choosing the right tools

Not all social media tools will suit every business, and some might not be worth your time.

This is especially important to keep in mind because social media is commonly misperceived to be free. While it's true that many of the tools themselves are free, the time and effort it takes for a business to engage customers properly with social media has a cost.

Turner said that businesses expecting to make an impact with social media have to anticipate that 25% to 50% of one full-time employee's time will be spent on a company's social media campaigns.

"Can you go into social media with less time than that? Yes, but you won't have much impact," Turner said. "It's like putting out a house fire and all you have is a garden hose."

Erica Swallow, an associate editor of partner content at Mashable.com, a blog that covers social networks, recommended that businesses use their resources carefully.

This might, for example, mean paying attention to whether the efforts you are making on Facebook are getting the same results that they are getting on YouTube.

"If you have time constraints, you have to limit [your efforts] to the platforms that are going to have the biggest return for your business," Swallow said. "I don't recommend spreading your resources thin. Pick a few key platforms that could have high potential and see where those lead."

A first step, she recommended, is to inventory your strengths: "Do you produce a lot of videos? Photos? Go from there. If you are strong at photos, maybe use a social sharing program like Instagram. If it's video, obviously the biggest search engine is YouTube."

One of the conundrums many business owners come up against when deploying social media is that tracking its efficacy isn't always easy, and can be quite costly.

The biggest challenge is correlating cause and effect.

"There isn't a direct correlation in some cases," Swallow said. "Someone might be following you on Twitter for a month, and they purchase something, but you can't really [know for sure] that that's why."

Tracking programs exist, but they eat up time and money (see article at right). Web analytic programs determine how much traffic comes directly from Twitter and Facebook.

Larger companies often hire outside firms to craft their social media campaigns, which often include designing landing pages on Facebook and using sophisticated tracking programs.

Another potential source of advice are suppliers that are themselves adept with social media. Norwegian Cruise Line, for example, encourages agents to "join in the conversation" and provides them with advice on how to do it. The line has set up an email address ([email protected]) for agents to reach out to NCL if they want help in setting up accounts or tips and tricks on how to use social media channels.

The next level

After you feel you are a savvy user on the main social media platforms, there are ways to take it to the next level.

Foursquare, for example, is used by companies around the world to offer consumers discounts on meals and even hotel bookings for engaging with those properties on Foursquare.

Foursquare enables users to "check in" to places such as hotels, restaurants or even cities. In return, that check-in process gives those establishments the opportunity to engage directly with those consumers once they are on their property.

A 2010 article on Mashable, "The Future of the Hotel Industry and Social Media," reported the various ways that the Wynn Las Vegas was using Foursquare to communicate directly with its guests. When Foursquare users checked in to the Wynn, they were sent a coupon for a complimentary glass of champagne at Blush Boutique, one of the hotel's nightclubs.

The hotel has a team that responds to every guest who checks in on Foursquare or tweets about being on the property.

Using Foursquare, those guests are then given facts about interesting areas of the hotel.

E-commerce experts advise that social media platforms are an increasingly important customer-service tool that companies still often overlook.

"Businesses should treat social media platforms like any other kind of communication with their customers," Swallow said. "If someone emailed you, would you respond? If they called on the phone?"

She pointed to airlines, which increasingly use Twitter to respond rapidly to passenger problems.

"They all respond to tons and tons of tweets every day, and treat it just like a regular customer-service line," she said.

Several studies have revealed that even when the issue is negative, issuing any response at all increases the positive perception people have of the company.

Swallow pointed to a survey of business owners done by the review site Yelp. Respondents said that in instances where a Yelp user posted a negative review of a business, if that business offered a response explaining the situation, the reviewer was more likely to go back and give that establishment a higher star rating.

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