Social Media Marketing in the Tourism Industry

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Social networks have grown lately to rule all aspects of life, such as news, interaction, politics, advertising, etc. The majority of people have access to social media, which is why by 2013, it had replaced television as the top platform used by people for social activities, according to the time they spent using the media. In November 2014, users consumed online media for more than 1.2 trillion minutes, and comparable numbers were reported throughout the year (Deloitte, 2013). Such growth level of social media is unprecedented, and this creates beneficial conditions for marketing. Numerous companies are realizing the potential of this source and adopting it. Travel agencies can also take advantage of this platform to increase their visibility and expand their client base as opposed to traditional methods of advertising.

Traditional methods of advertising are one sided where the companies simply pass a message across to the customers who have no means of sharing their feedback. More modern methods such as social media have become popular because they engage the customers and generate interactions between seller and buyer. There is no accepted definition of what social media is, but the general concept is user generated content. Social media or web 2.0 has been defined as the common internet platforms that allow users to connect with each other, create and share content (Yazdanifard and Yee, 2014). One of the main advantages of social media marketing is a significant number of potential audiences. A successful marketing campaign depends on numbers which is why companies can no longer ignore social media in their marketing. Another advantage is the personal touch that the platform offers to marketers. The company is mixed with the customer’s friend’s posts and this personalizes the company making it more appealing, social, and therefore more likely to get its message across to the client. The platform is also free and therefore cost-effective to the company as a marketing strategy (Si, 2015). It enables companies to share their knowledge on their products, access customer knowledge, facilitate customer assistance and pass the business message along quickly.

Review of Different Social Media Channels

There are different types of social media, each with its unique audience that visits it and each with the various applications for the travel agency marketing strategies. They are distinct from the other regarding technology, target audience and how it interacts with the user. Chan, Cho, and Lee (2013) show that the four main types of social media channels include:

Social networking sites which are websites that allow users to create accounts update information (text, video or photo) and share it with their networks such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and LinkedIn.

Blog or Weblog which are online pages that resemble personal journals where personal stories in video, text or image format are shared and that include links to other websites for instance Blogger.

The wiki which are online platforms for creating content that require group collaboration in editing and posting the information such as Wikipedia.

Message boards or forums which are topical platforms that encourage conversations around a common topic, e.g., Travbuddy forum.

A more inclusive list of social media channels should include Virtual realities such as second life, podcasts and educational platforms such as MIT education. Essentially, the social media keeps changing as technology advances and as tastes and preferences keep on changing, and therefore the above list will keep growing. Social media users are categorized into four groups, watchers that account for the largest portion, sharers, commenter and producers with decreasing numbers. A successful marketing plan targets all these groups of social media users. Also, not all the platforms mentioned above apply to travel agencies, and therefore some will not be analyzed.

Social Networking Sites

The first social media platform is the social networking sites that have the largest number of internet users compared to other social media platforms. Facebook alone had over 1.01 billion active users by 2012 that were almost a quarter of the world’s population then (Jin, Chen, Wang and Hui, 2013). Concerning content, Facebook allows users to share stories, images, and has a more profound room for travel agency marketing that involves the sale of experiences from the destinations. Facebook also allows the users to post videos and sometimes acts as a website providing platforms that enable bookings, comments from satisfied customers and links to other pages. The social network sites allow instant feedbacks on posts and adverts through technologies such as like buttons and also post comments to the posts. Social networks also allow the travel agencies to find their target audience through direct access where the audience follow their pages or through the media’s advertisement solutions. Adverts can be customized to different users in the various regions so that they are regionally relevant which enriches the marketing strategy.

Another serious social network channel, especially in recent years, is the video-sharing sites such as YouTube websites and Vines. These sites allow users to upload videos that are available for free to other users of the website. YouTube, in particular, is very popular because it has an estimated ten million unique viewers daily and it does not limit the size of the video. Vines, however, limit the video size but are popular among smartphone users. The video websites are important to travel agencies because they are visual and allow them to show videos of destinations and allow the users to leave comments. Some travel agencies encourage travelers to take videos and post them through competitions which market the agency’s services and tour destination. Videos can go viral which is a situation where a video generates media attention making it popular as more people seek to watch it. Through taking advantage of this, the travel agency can post adverts or popularize the destination, and this can make the marketing plan a success.

Another type of social network sites is the photo sharing site such as Instagram and Flickr. Users take photos of themselves in different situations or of their environment and post it online where it is accessible to millions of users. The photo sites are a good platform for marketing especially for the travel agencies because they can take photos of travel destinations and post them online. Through these photos, they will generate interest in their products and services thereby improving their sales. They can also encourage their clients to take the photos themselves and give their opinion which will also create interest and discussions about the destinations and experiences the clients had. These customer responses also have the potential to inform the travel agents about their products so that they can improve them and customize them to enrich the user’s experience. The posted photos also make them stand out above the others who are not using such tools for marketing.

When to Use Social Networking Sites

The decision on when to use the platform depends on various factors that are related the aim of the marketing strategy. An important consideration for whether to use the platform is the target audience. Although the social networks contain all types of people and ages, some have a younger demographic, learned type while others have professional audiences and this should be considered when planning the marketing campaign. LinkedIn, for example, has a professional audience and therefore more effective for business travel related customers. Other than the audience the travel agency must offer high-quality services to succeed in social media marketing. According to Invesini and Masiero (2014), the success of any social media marketing strategy depends on other factors such as the quality of services offered, the type of social experience encountered in the social media and the company’s website quality. These factors complement the success of a social networking marketing plan, and they should be of high quality before considering marketing in the social media. Due to their visual nature, travel agencies should always use the video sharing websites and complement them with their other marketing strategies.

After the decision to use the social networking sites has been agreed upon, it is important also to consider how to use the sites. The first and the cheapest for the travel agency method is to create their account and to generate a network of customers. Using this approach, the agencies can target the kind of clients they want and encourage the creation of content through creating conversation and debates. This way they gain valuable customer insights by engaging them one on one. The second method of using the social media is through the respective companies advertisement platform that allows the agencies adverts to reach more users. This approach has the advantage of reaching many users who are not necessarily part of the agencies network.

Weblogs (Blogs)

These are interactive online posts that feature as single ideas that are interactive and interesting to the audience. They act as online personal journals that store stories and interesting articles. Because of this the blogs can be an excellent complement to the Agencies website and can help attract traffic to the website. Due to their informal tone, the blogs are the best in giving travel advice, showcasing travel destinations and marketing the travel agencies product to a large customer base. There is so much information online nowadays especially in the travel industry such that the customers are well informed about most of the destination sites. The travel agent needs to pass their specific information and thereby create a reputation in that niche and the best platform to use is the blog. They also help the travel agent stand out and be unique, and this is good for business because customers will identify with them. The advantages of using blogs are first that search engines prefer blogs because they are updated more frequently, and this translate to visibility to the travel agent. Secondly, the blogs will establish some form of credibility to the travel agency especially if updated regularly. Another advantage is that blogs overcome the static aspect of the company’s website because they are updated more frequently and are more interesting, so users prefer to use them over websites. They also create trust among the users, and they sometimes attract media attention (Kashyap and Satija 2013).

With all these advantages, blogs should always be used by the travel agent to supplement other marketing strategies. The blogs should be used by the agency whether the agency has a website or not because they move together one providing more information on the other. The blogs should also be used when the travel agency has information that they can keep updating to maintain the viewers of the blog and make it grow over time. If the blog is not updated frequently, it loses its search engine ranking and also loses its audience because there are numerous similar blogs. Another key consideration is time: blogs take some time to generate traffic and should be a long-term advertisement plan.

Blogs are relatively easy to use because they involve writing information that is interesting and relevant to the customers. The main issue usually is attracting customers to the blog. Several SEO tools are available, but the main thing is that the information contained be interesting and relevant. After people start to follow the blog, then the agent needs to keep updating the blog to retain the clients and grow the network. From then on they can advertise through the blog and link customers to the company’s website.

Forums and Message Boards

Forums and message boards are another channels for social media marketing for travel agencies. This platform is preferred by the user of the internet because it is impartial and is not influenced by mainstream news media (Constantinides, 2004). The quality of the product and in the case of travel, destinations, and experiences can be communicated through forums. The attraction of this form of media is the type of people who usually use them. These are knowledgeable technology experts who are likely to pass the information across in their blogs or social networks. Therefore appealing to this group of people will improve the visibility of the travel agent.

Forums can be used by travel agencies when they are compatible with the travel agencies marketing plan. Most forums are topical in nature so the travel agent should just find those that are related to travel and tourism. The agent should also consider whether the guidelines allow them to market themselves through links and references to their products. Those that allow links are preferred to those that do not. The agency should open an account and then contribute to the conversations whenever they can, and they should provide good information to create a good reputation. After they have created the reputation, they can then place links so that people who want more information can follow the links to the agency blogs or websites and this will make the marketing plan a success.

Use of forums is very easy; it involves identification of a suitable forum by the travel agent. The second step is to create a profile and start interacting with users of the forums. Through this interaction, the agent will create networks that allow them to advertise their products. Networks require patience and trust created through the contribution of important information during the interaction, and this takes time. This way, the agent will take advantage of marketing opportunities that will arise from the interactions.

Other Social Media

The other social media channels include the wiki, podcasts, virtue reality, etc. these are also useful and can be used in the marketing of travel agencies. Nowadays virtual reality has become a popular social interaction where users meet and interact with the virtual world. A good example is Second Life virtual world which is an online world where users use avatars to interact with the world. The world is realistic enough to have cities and rural areas and is very popular though its popularity has been on the decline but still an important virtual platform. Although the world is virtual, the interaction is real; the users are real clients that can be important to the travel agency. The virtual worlds are not only cost-effective, but it is also immersive because it resembles reality. Travel agencies can use this platform to create replicas of their real destinations attractions so that users of these virtual realities get to sample some of their products. Where this is not possible, the travel agencies can place adverts in the virtual worlds and have virtual agents that answer real life travel queries. One example is the 2008 Starwood hotel virtual reality campaign where they created a replica of their proposed hotel rooms so that users could give their opinion on the room design (Kuntze, Crudele, Reynolds and Matulich, 2013). Through this platform, they were able to gain valuable opinions before they made the investment and this can be a good example for the travel agencies. Podcast are audio files that are streamed through the internet or downloaded and are usually place in websites or blogs. They are a good form of marketing, but the industry has not grown very well and therefore is unlikely to be successful when used individually. They can, however, be powerful advertisement tools when used in conjunction with other forms of social media

Virtual realities and podcasts have been grouped together because they represent the less popular forms of social media. They are however gaining popularity as the internet grows and more people become internet savvy and join in. They should, therefore, be used as strategic forms of marketing that complement other forms of social media marketing rather than be used as standalone marketing strategies. They are not as cost effective as the other forms because they do not have as many users and they frequently require some investment in development, equipment, and advertising. They can, however, be used to positioning the travel agency as modern and trendy to reach some of the young customer bases.

When to Use Social Media

In general, social media should always be used by traveling agents as part of their marketing plan. This is because the social media has an untapped customer base that is technologically knowledgeable and will interact with the agencies and help improve their services through providing comments and advice on the services. The type of social media platform that the travel agency should use remains the main issue. The social networking sites should be used to generate networks and not as advertisement platforms because the users view companies as personalities. If the companies advertise throughout, they will alienate the customers, and the marketing plan will not succeed. They should be used when the target audience can be reached through them. The blogs should be used where the business has excellent services and a good website because they generate traffic to the company’s websites. They should have interesting articles on the travel destinations that are often updated. These articles should be informative and at the same time capture the imagination of the customers to make them desire to travel to those destinations. Forums should be utilized when they allow advertisements and links to the travel agents website. The forums should also be used when the Agencies have time to generate networks through meaningful interactions and not as short-term advertisement plans. The virtual realities and podcasts should be used to remain ahead of the pack because this is a growing area in marketing and the travel agencies should stay in the frontiers of marketing.

In summary, the many types of social media can be grouped into four main categories. These are social networking sites, Blogs, message boards and Wikis. There are also less popular social platforms such as virtual realities and podcasts. Social networking sites have the advantage of numerous users and therefore are a preferred marketing channel. They also engage the customers in a friendly manner and generate networks that can be turned into a profitable business by the travel agents. Blogs are also useful in generating traffic to the travel agents website and also for informing customers on all matters related to traveling. Other less popular social media such as message boards, virtual realities wikis and podcasts have an impact on the travel agencies marketing plan. Different factors contribute to when a particular type of social media can be used such as target market, type of destination, time available, and accessibility. Most of the social media platforms are easy to use simply by opening an account and then creating a network of potential clients. Social media marketing involves patience and creativity but pays in the long run.

References

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