Tweet me with respect

Using social media is the ideal way for travel destination to initiate branding that leads to repeat visitors

Travel-marketing experts already discovered the value that popular social-networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, LinkedIn, Hubpages, Tbd, Squidoo, Mashable, Splashvision and many others are adding to any major marketing program. On our sister website we publish daily articles on how these media have taken information and communication by storm and are changing the landscape of doing business, worldwide. If done properly, a congruent representation on social media websites will replace most of the need for traditional newspaper advertising and what’s more, the world is the sounding board.

As the social-networking phenomenon grows and evolves, travel agencies, home-based agents, suppliers and now also destination marketers who sit on the sidelines may risk missing significant opportunities to engage existing customers, recruit new ones, bolster their brands, undertake market research and, yes, drive bookings.

Self respecting professionals don’t have a choice but to participate in these spaces, as it would be a mistake to assume that social-networking sites are of less importance when dealing with clientele who span the age spectrum.

The airlines already knew this as JetBlue, for example, boasts 132,000 “followers” on Twitter, while Southwest has 64,300 “fans” on Facebook.

Meanwhile, Delta’s 13-month-old in-flight safety video, which features a sexy flight attendant waving an index finger and playfully admonishing travelers that “smoking is not allowed on any Delta flight,” is approaching 2 million views on YouTube.

Social media, including blogs, podcasts and video logs, are first cousins to social-networking sites, and in typical Web 2.0 fashion, the airline debuted the video in February 2008 on the Delta blog.

Though just a few years old, the online social-networking trend is rapidly evolving and gaining traction as the main influencer of opinion. Those who got involved early in this uncharted territory are still learning as they go, and many companies have found that they have to experiment with different approaches to see what works and what doesn’t.

But they also realize that if they sit on the sidelines, they are missing out on the dialogue and the buzz.

For example, in about one hour recently on Twitter, JetBlue promoted $99 Manny Fan Fares in honor of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ signing of Manny Ramirez, for flights from L.A. to New York or Boston; TravMediaUSA initiated a poll asking what the meetings/incentive industry needs to right itself; STA Travel asked Sarah of Los Angeles to send the agency a “direct message” (Twitter lingo for a private email) about what had made her angry with the firm; and PhoCusWright analyst Norm Rose solicited questions for a panel on mobile-travel applications that he’s moderating at the ITB Berlin conference.

Rose’s query might appear a tad personal, but that is the essence of social networking: an ongoing conversation between and among people and their peers, companies and customers.

Social-networking sites generally provide forums for people and companies to post their profiles and share opinions, observations, news, photos, videos, journals and blogs. The objective is networking and community. Often and growing rapidly, people have a choice of connecting to their favorite social-networking sites from mobile devices or desktop computers.

Facebook, a privately owned enterprise that was formed in 2004, is now the global leader among social-networking sites.

Rapidly growing around the world, it is No. 2 to News Corp.’s MySpace in the U.S., though MySpace’s recent expansion has been sluggish.

The Web analytics firm Compete pegged Facebook’s global monthly visits in January at almost 1.2 billion and MySpace’s at about 810 million. Twitter, which like Facebook is rapidly trending upward, registered around 54 million.

Formed in 2003, MySpace was a first-mover in social networking, but personally I think it lost its luster because its demographics tend to be younger than Facebook’s and because MySpace differentiates itself with a focus on music and entertainment.¬† Although don’t underestimate its power. 810 million visits in January is more than half of the combined number of 13 billion websites get in a year.

While people and companies can create pages, find friends and post status updates (on their moods, activities or anything else on their minds) on Facebook and MySpace, Twitter is a different animal.

Founded in 2006 and privately owned, Twitter is a relatively bare-bones “microblogging” site. As is the case on Facebook and MySpace, users can communicate anything they like, but on they must do so in 140 or fewer characters.

Twitter is much more fast-paced and interactive than Facebook and MySpace, as users can almost instantly view and reply to the “tweets,” as updates are known, of people and companies they choose to follow.

Fast riser LinkedIn, a forum to post individuals’ business profiles, claims more than 36 million members in more than 200 countries. Most people say it is an invaluable tool for business networking and executive recruitment but viewed it as less effective for companies’ marketing purposes.

As might be expected of such rapidly evolving phenomena, the business models and features of the social-networking sites change frequently. Facebook is readying a new home page, news feed and functionality for corporate pages.

But to operate successfully on the social-networking sites you have to know the etiquette, you have to know the audience and you have to know what’s acceptable.

In general, companies can create their own pages on these sites for free, though the staffing needed to maintain a vibrant, updated presence can be expensive. Not as expensive as a spot on Prime Time TV of a page in the leading trade publications, but still substantial for a newbie to the internet world, still with one and a half foot in traditional marketing and advertising

Yet, countless travel agents and agencies, suppliers and destinations are diving into the social-networking and social-media wave. And their general experience is that visitors and sales conversions have grown exponentially.

The primary reason is that social networking is where people are communicating now. It is where people find people.

A great case study on how Social Networking grew into the power house it is today, here is the story of Jetblue’s entrance into the Twitter World.

JetBlue’s 132,000 followers make it one of the most followed travel companies on Twitter. Morgan Johnston, a manager of corporate communications for the airline, spends much of his time “tweeting” to customers and anyone else who chooses to follow the carrier.

JetBlue began using Twitter in May 2007, but its openness to social networking grew out of the positive experience it had with YouTube after the infamous snow and ice storm of Feb. 14, 2007, when many of its jets were grounded, leaving passengers stranded on runways for hours.

Then-CEO David Neeleman released a video on YouTube telling customers how the airline planned to address the crisis.

“YouTube was our impetus for engaging in social media,” Johnston said. “For those of us watching the recovery, we were watching the pain that David was going through, and we wanted our customers to understand.”

JetBlue stumbled a bit at the beginning of its Twitter involvement, at first viewing it as a means to post route announcements and fare sales; the effort didn’t get much traction with that approach, Johnston said.

“The tipping point came when we ran out of ideas and got a conversation going with the audience.” When the company asked followers what they were looking for from the airline on Twitter, it generated “an amazing response,” he said.

“I don’t see Twitter as a billboard but as an information booth,” Johnston said. “Blast-out marketing-speak doesn’t resonate with the Twitter community. It is the conversation that resonates.”

Johnston said Twitter’s primary function for the airline is to gauge brand perception and to listen to what customers are saying. “And there are lots of chances to affect customer experiences, almost in real time,” he said.

For example, passengers who are stuck at an airport because of a delayed or canceled flight or who are unsure of where to drop off a bag can send a tweet to JetBlue, which can contact staff members at the airport or point the passenger to a solution, Johnston said.

Case in point…In early January, JetBlue changed its policy on foldable bikes when a Twitter user/passenger alerted the airline to a problem. The passenger was being charged a $50 bike fee even though the bike fit into a standard-size bag, which gets checked in for free.

“If it looks like a standard bag and acts like a standard bag, we should probably treat it like a standard bag with a bike in it,” Johnston said. “Within 24 hours of seeing this post, we changed policy and alerted crew members.”

Johnston doesn’t view Twitter as a means to attract incremental revenue for the airline.

“If you are going to approach Twitter as strictly a way to wring money out of people, you are not going to be successful,” Johnston said. “If you are going to approach it as building engagement with your customers and working to turn your customers into brand advocates for you, then there is a great deal of value in it.”

Of course, some Twitter followers will go negative on a company from time to time, but Johnston sees that as manageable.

“Negative would happen whether we are there or not,” he said. “It is best to listen and to explain your side. If a reporter says something erroneous, we would reach out to them. So why wouldn’t you want to do the same with customers?”

JetBlue is now in the process of building a Facebook page. “If we are going to get involved in social media, we want to set something up and not let it go on autopilot,” Johnston said.

Johnston said JetBlue uses MySpace more as a branding effort than a means to engage customers, because MySpace users are busy in a different conversation. He said JetBlue primarily uses Flickr, Yahoo’s photo-sharing site, and Google’s YouTube as channels to “open our company up to our customers” by posting photos and videos about the airline’s crew, terminals and fleet.

Now to be honest, no one has found a consistent magical way to drive a tremendous amount of transactional traffic from social-networking sites. In some case my company has booked some success with some green energy products presented in video clips to an appreciative niche market audience, but if you look at it as putting value around engagement, then compared with traditional advertising channels, it quickly means this is a place where everyone should be operating.

It is something I like to see develop for Amelia Island and all its hospitality and leisure providers. Communications in all of these social networks are balanced between providing information about travel, about the destination and a commercial component. You can’t be commercial only, or people won’t engage with you. Provide relevant and important information and smartly slip in the call to action.

Another example is the Island of Nevis, West Indies

The Nevis Tourism Authority recently added a Facebook page, which is handled by Cheryl Andrews Marketing Communications, based in Coral Gables, Fla. which also handles the fabulous Four Seasons Resort and Golf Course on the island.

The page has a link to the tourism authority’s website, displays some notes about a new spa and resort, has a list of upcoming events and gives its fans a place to post their own Nevis photos, videos and comments about the destination.

Social networking should be part of a well-rounded marketing plan today. With advertising dollars tight people are looking for alternative ways to market themselves.

The Nevis Tourism Authority sees Facebook as a dynamic way to reach out to a strong base of repeat visitors as well as a means to attract new guests.

Maybe an idea for Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach to give some extra attention to without overburdening the budgets.

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