My view is that many companies in the travel industry are not embracing social media and are just “playing at it”. There are plenty of dead travel communities full of sales speak that bear witness to this. Several travel companies have had to take down their social sites as they were not able to cope when they launched their Facebook pages as they had not thought through how they would respond. The sceptics reading this may well point to the recent plateau in the number of UK and US Facebook users as evidence that the social media bubble has burst as UK loses 100,000 of its 30million users in May 2011. However the issue is the myriad of ill conceived pages launched and not that social media is not powerful.
Source: Flickr sourbrew
Social media is about “two way conversations”, relationship management and “cultural change” and there are few UK travel companies that fully understand this. Virgin and Center Parcs are focused on engagement but many others pay lip service. This does not only mean the two way customer conversation with the organisation but the conversation between customers and influencers. Many brands have chosen to ignore them and my questions to Thomas Cook and TUI at the Institute of Travel and Tourism conference in Venice prove that few companies and tourist boards are actually monitoring these travel conversations. Questions go unanswered, incorrect brand perceptions become reality and broken links continue to plague third party customer review sites where the travel conversations are happening. To add to this many hotels ignore their poor reviews as it’s all too difficult to engage. The same conference presentation from Trip Advisor showed that when customers are faced with two similar reviews they are more likely to pick the property where the owner or manager has responded to any negative comments rather than one where they have remained silent.
Look outside your sector for best practice
I think the industry needs to work with other industry sectors to understand how to move their business to become more social by empowering employees to be social. This is where training, company policies and processes will differentiate the possible winners from the losers.
Cross functional effort and evangelists needed
If you want to succeed at social media you have to first map out how social media is going to support your overall business and customer objectives. You need to work in cross functional teams and work hard on educating the board on how these channels have changed customer buying behaviour, so you need evangelists.
Focus on customer pain points
You need to focus on how social channels can help to solve any pain points that your customers have. You have to look at a long term view as embracing social networks has far reaching impacts on your company culture, traditional structures and ways of working. You can choose to view this as exciting or too scary and stick to how you’ve always done things and see your business slowly eroded by a new breed of competitor with “crowdsourcing” business models like Groupon or Living Social and auction sites like Priceline.
Forget silo campaigns
Social media that is driven from a silo PR or marketing perspective is doomed to failure. Those agencies focused on social campaigns and throwing up Twitter and Facebook pages without a strategy are taking their clients down the wrong path. Putting up a page with fancy graphics is the easy bit – the hard bit is what you are going to do about the customer feedback you receive.
No quick fix solution
It is not easy – there is no quick and dirty way to do social media. You need to process map how you will deal with the types of customer feedback you will receive on these channels and speed up your responses to meet their expectations. 28 day response times to customer issues demanded by snail mail are no longer acceptable. You can’t predict all that will happen but you need to see that embracing social can provide a myriad of benefits to all areas of your business including innovation, new products and services and motivation of your staff if they are recognised by your fans and followers and rewarded appropriately.
What’s the end game?
Whilst the number of fans and followers are important it is not the end game. The key important metrics are advocacy and engagement with your influencers and customers who are influencing potential customers. The value of the experience that you deliver on these social channels will drive advocacy and engagement and companies cannot continue to broadcast as before – it does not work. Customers want to be treated as individuals.
Plenty of proofs
If you read about the Financial Times strategy they have learnt that they earn more from their social media referrals than from any other source . They claim that Linkedin users are 6 times more likely to subscribe and Facebook referrals are 3 times more likely than other sources to subscribe. There are plenty of proofs on the value of social media but many companies have just dumped it in the “too hard” box, buried their heads in the sand and brought in a junior marketing exec to throw up their social pages. As we know social media overtook search traffic last year accounting for 12.4% of all time spent online in the UK.
Those companies that have embraced social media channels and have trained and empowered their people to use social networks are the ones that are having the most success. Companies that still ban most of their employees from using social networks and who are not using social tools internally to improve collaboration, responsiveness and innovation are the ones that will lose out.