My opinion of social marketing has not deviated a great deal since I first looked at the potential of Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media as marketing channels for travel agents. Some agents report good results, most have yet to garner significant business. Of those who have had successes, Facebook and participation with various online communities seem to hold the most promise.
The venues are new, the actual return on investment difficult to measure, and the case studies few and far between outside of very high profile brands. There is little doubt that for some companies with a tight niche market, tangible products or a well-defined brand, social marketing has been an extraordinary and exciting new way of creating buzz among consumers. The return on investment for most travel professionals is more difficult to assess.
Social marketing wrongly implemented can be a productivity and time waster. Many well-intentioned travel agents simply try to do too much – Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Myspace, Online Communities and blogging – time that could and should be spent elsewhere if the return is not evident and growing. Therefore, travel agencies are well advised to layer on social marketing not as a primary marketing channel but as one that supplements a well-grounded repertoire of fundamental marketing tactics like networking, public relations and advertising. Social networking is cost-effective as most networks are free to join. However, each effort requires an expenditure of time and energy.
Social marketing is marketing that seeks to raise the profile of a company with a target audience by leveraging or creating networks of consumers. In essence, when you join the Chamber of Commerce in your local community for business purposes, you are social marketing. There you will meet many new people and some of them are potential clients. You will introduce yourself in your travel professional persona and have a great many conversations about a variety of topics. In your Chamber activities, you will attempt to create an association in the minds of the other Chamber members between travel and your company and thereby raise the visible profile of your company. Social media on the internet seeks to do the same thing. By joining or creating online communities of people, you will thereby encounter many who are potential clients for your business. You will also better retain those clients over the long-term by keeping them engaged in your company’s story.
The essence of social marketing on the internet is creating a conversation with the other members of the communities you choose. Those conversations will often, perhaps even most often, not be overtly commercial or even about your business. Social marketing conversations frequently cover topics of a much wider scope or application than your need to promote your business. In fact, the key to keeping your audience engaged in conversation has everything to do with their needs, not your own. So to the extent that the conversations you foster are of immediate and real benefit to the other members of the community, the more engaged they will feel and the more likely you are to realize conversions from conversations to actual sales opportunities. So, avoid aggressive marketing and incessant promotion. In your conversations, share your insight, share your expertise and the rest will follow.
While you might want to experiment with a number of social marketing venues, you are well advised to find one or two and stick with them. Each different opportunity will involve your time and energy and those are limited resources. Spend them wisely. Once you have adopted a venue, make it an object of study – become an expert in the media, not just a dabbler.
- Target your community and then target your conversations! If your target audience is not on a given community, it does not matter how large the community is. Niche social networking is smarter than simply going where the crowds are – think about blue ocean strategies.
- Be interesting! – don’t just pump one “travel special” after another over the channel. Anyone can do that. Can you imagine a conversation with a person where their every sentence was not about the weather, the news or some interesting aspect of their life, but was instead a stream of travel specials? Engage clients in a conversation. Pick a news item from the Travelgram and talk about it. See who joins in.
- Develop a consistent persona. Who are you? What is your brand? What image do you want to project? Just as when you meet someone in person, you will carry a personality into online social marketing. Your brand must be clear, and while you probably will not want to be overtly commercial, do remember that you are on a business mission. Your online persona will carry your brand into the online community, so spend a lot of time polishing and working on perfecting the image you want to project.
Exercise – Read the introductory articles on social media and decide if any of them fit your personality and whether you want to incorporate it into your 2012 marketing plan. Develop a plan and stick to it. Sophie Bujold and Nolan Burris have done terrific No Limits Webinars available to you in the TRO Community that is a “must see” for getting started and for developing a strategy. Resist the temptation to make social media a major portion of your business plan unless you have had real results with it to this point. Experiment with it and, if it works for you, then by all means run with it. But most travel agents cannot expect to substitute a virtual community for the real one just outside your door.
Note – Travelgram will not publish the last two weeks of December. However, we will wrap up this series of articles on your 2012 Marketing Plan, so visit this column here on the TRO site next week for our final few installments!
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