Photo: Paul Hudson via Flickr
Keeping your online marketing program ahead of the curve requires more attention than ever before, travel professionals say. But it’s well worth the effort. There’s no question that a properly designed program can drive real sales.
In the 20 years since Microsoft launched its Expedia travel booking platform and reshaped the way customers interact with travel agents, successful travel agents have learned how to adapt to their online competitors. They’ve launched their own online marketing to advertise their businesses and establish their brands.
But it is getting increasingly difficult to keep up, many say. Search engines and social media websites keep altering their algorithms and programs, and agents must constantly monitor the online space and refashion their marketing strategies.
Step One: Your website
Lorraine Ball, marketing strategist for RoundPeg a social media consulting firm in Indianapolis that works with many travel agencies, says the very first step is to build a strong website that merchandises your special services, key suppliers, and expertise—and also conveys the core values of your agency.
Next you’ll need to grow your traffic. One of the most cost-effective ways to attract existing and potential customers is through a blog that supports the rest of your website’s content. Ball recommends 400- to 600-word weekly installments, with two to three pictures per post, tagged with proper keywords. When an article is published, be sure you share it across all of your other social media properties. You can even repost the blog URL on your Facebook feed by rotating the pictures, freshening up the post through the week.
“Without a steady stream of new content, it’s hard to drive repeat traffic,” Ball says.
Travel is an “aspirational business,” Ball said, so whetting your customers’ visual appetite with crisp, beautiful photos is key. If you can obtain high-quality video, hosting original content at a YouTube channel and embedding it on your website also can help.
Indeed, agreed Colleen Gillette, president of New Paltz Travel Center in New Paltz, NY, it takes a broad online presence to drive repeat traffic. “I feel that I need to be involved in various social media platforms, just like I need to have a business card and a website,” she said.
Step two: Facebook
Facebook is typically the first and primary platform agencies use after they’ve established a website, and it dominates the social-media sales channel for retailers in just about every shopping category. E-commerce vendor Custora analyzed data from about $100 billion in sales from 500 million shoppers during the first three months of this year and found that Facebook was the “last click” given credit for a sale or conversion for 81% of sales. Pinterest was second, generating 10.8%, while Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter collectively yielded 5.2%.
Simply based on demographics, travel agencies need a social media presence if they want to appear in front of their prime customer base of wealthier, older Americans. The Pew Research Center reported last year that 77% of adults 30-49, and 51% of those 50-64, used social networking sites in 2015, though only 35% of those 65 and older do. Additionally, 70% of those earning more than $75,000 a year use social media sites, while 72% of those earning $50-$74,999 use them.
Facebook grew so popular over the past five years, reaching more than one billion daily users, that it has had to filter content on its users News Feeds. Its algorithm now limits the number of followers a brand can reach with original content. Users have noticed, and as a result, individuals and others (including small businesses) have reduced by about 21% the amount of original content they are sharing. Travel agents, who have worked hard the past few years to increase their Facebook page fan base, have seen their organic reach and customer engagement drop.
So Facebook is once again tweaking its news feed algorithm to favor more original status updates. Facebook holds its inner workings close to the vest, so it’s difficult to assess what exactly it has done, and too early to estimate the impact for travel agents looking to use unpaid media.
Step Three: Consider other sites and partners
As any travel agency owner likely has found, creating and managing social media content is a full-time job. That’s why savvy agency entrepreneurs use social media management sites like Hootsuite, Buffer, and Sprout Social. Gillette uses ESP by Passport Online, provided to her by her web hosting vendor. Among other things, ESP autoposts to Twitter every post that appears on her Facebook page.
Twitter also is becoming a solid, low-cost social platform to engage and lure in customers. One year ago, travel insurance provider Allianz Global Assistance created scheduled “Tweetups,” or “Twitter Chats,” as a sort of online Q&A session to reaffirm its brand.
The company has grown its Twitter following nearly 30% over this time by offering discussions on topics ranging from travel hacks and tips to dream vacations. Its most successful chat generated 15 million hashtag impressions.
“The great thing about twitter chats is that there is no financial investment required,” said Allianz spokesman Daniel Durazo. “One person can effectively run a twitter chat if they know what they’re doing.”
Even though they are a large company, Allianz chose to accelerate growth in its Twitter following by leveraging travel influencers. It has hired Johnny Jet, Lee Abbamonte, and Gary Arndt as ambassadors, helping expose the Allianz brand and offerings to 300,000 additional Twitter followers.
RoundPeg’s Ball recommends that agents focus on local “social influencers.”
“Go to a meeting of the local social media club. Meet the influencers in your market,” she said. “Then create a collaborative relationship, a two-way street where you’re helping them and they’re helping drive customers to you.”
This is the first part of a two-part series on online marketing for travel professionals.