How easy is it for start-ups to capitalise on social media marketing?
The Internet offers tools to engage with customers more frequently and actively and customers now have large networks online, which has allowed travel companies to expand the reach of word of mouth about their businesses. Content is very important in online marketing and it is important to produce content that is interesting, relevant and sharable rather than focused purely on product advertisement.
In this context, it is critical to assess how emerging travel companies are using social media marketing to be part of conversations and also engage their target audience as part of their overall marketing strategy.
EyeforTravel's Ritesh Gupta interacted with Alexis Ohanian, Principal, Marketing at new flight search site Hipmunk to know more about the same.
Ohanian, who is scheduled to speak at the forthcoming Social Media Strategies for Travel USA 2011 conference, to be held in San Francisco next year (March 2-3, 2011), said, "We're just doing everything we can to create interesting content on our blog and keeping in touch with all of our users via the typical channels (twitter, facebook, and reddit). No matter what they're saying about us, we want to be part of the conversation."
Significantly, Ohanian believes it's harder for larger established brands to develop a true voice because they have to go through "so many layers of PR and whatnot".
"When you start from scratch and there's no filter, it's easier to build the confidence of your audience. Your users will accept that you're fallible as long as you treat them like adults," said Ohanian.
It is recommended that one can have a rough content plan to guide you but one needs to be topical. Encourage debate and let the community guide you where you want to go in terms of future planning.
Commenting on content generation or initiating conversations across social media platforms, Ohanian said, "It certainly helps to have a theme. For hipmunk, I want the brand to remind people of the agony-free travel search experience we've built. Travelling alone can be frustrating enough, the search part of it should be easy or at least easier than it currently is."
He added, "But that's about it - we're just having conversations with users when it comes to their feedback and building that into our feature roadmap."
From a hotel's perspective, Adam Wallace, director of digital marketing, Roger Smith Hotel, says, "A lot of the content and conversations that we have are related to all of the various activities and communities at the hotel.. Beyond our guest rooms we have a gallery for installation and performance art, a lively restaurant with a young chef and regular live music, a rooftop bar, very active events spaces and a popup shop that carries exciting new designers. All of this activity allows us to have conversations and relationships in the areas of the arts, music, food and fashion."
A company like Virgin America has a cross-functional social media team that consists of corporate communications and marketing teammates. The airline has one primary point of contact reviewing all posts, but it takes into consideration viewpoints and input from a variety of departments before answering some posts. Plus, the team also advises teammates that if they post comments in social media environments they should identify themselves as Virgin America employees.
Ohanian feels it's hard to say what factors should one focus on while allocating resources/ budgets within the organisation and outsourcing work from external partners for social media planning and execution.
He said, "I've always done it in-house, but I'm biased because I've always worked with small start-up budgets. There should definitely be someone monitoring all of it from within who really understands social media and is willing to participate in it on a regular basis (consuming and creating). The production of certain projects can probably be outsourced pretty effectively, though."
Given the immediacy of social networking, it's imperative that the strategy and execution don't end once it's out the door. The ability to quickly adapt and modify the approach is important based on that monitoring. One needs to approach this as an ongoing initiative.
From Hipmunk's perspective, Ohanian said, "All of those things are useful metrics for success, but ultimately you'd like it to be tied to a conversion (in our case, booking a flight). That's what we're aiming for.. But along the way, any chance to strengthen the hipmunk brand - even without a clear path to conversion - is worth taking."
And commenting on how should travel companies go about evaluating a metric like engagement as part of social media RoI, he said, "It's really fuzzy when you look beyond conversions. Traditional metrics like pageviews and uniques aren't even showing you the whole picture. It's going to depend on the business, but every company ought to be thinking about the end goal of the campaign and work backwards."
All such efforts can yield a positive result and work out very well for travel companies.
Wallace said, "We have found that people who we engage with online who have a positive experience at our hotel naturally share this experience to their networks. We have not had to really force this, people who know us and like us end up talking about us."
He said the important part is having an active voice online, engaged relationships and deliver positive experiences and with this, people will talk about your product/ service to their networks.
Social Media Strategies for Travel USA 2011
Head of Digital & Content