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 Special Features                      Issue 30 | July 2009

Social Media - Friend or Foe?

Iris Hillier, TEAM Associate.The days of carefully planning and strictly managing your brand are over. Once your communication gets on the web, any illusion of control you might have had is gone. Like it or not, the consumer now controls a large part of where your brand is going.

Social media facilitates a conversation, a two-way channel of communication that is open to almost anyone. People can blog about you, rank and review your products and even remix your advertisements. While this may be frightening for some, particularly those who are not familiar with the tools of social media, this also provides an exciting opportunity for the proactive.

So, how to take advantage of these changes?

Produce original, new and creative content

Content needs to be adapted to social media, re-shaped for Web 2.0, optimised for search engines and translated into several languages, in order to compete on a global scale.

As the demands of travellers evolve, marketing messages based on experiences and feelings will have a far greater importance in travel decisions – what can you do at the destination and what will the personal benefits be? More focused tailor-made and personalised products will be necessary. It will become more important to identify and exploit your unique selling propositions (USPs). You need to ask yourself what you do and what you have that is interesting to share with others. Consumers are looking for unique experiences.

Ensure promised quality

Social media – friend or foe? Photo © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.With social media, the fact is that you�re at the mercy of a traveller, potentially affected by whatever he/she feels like writing. And not just that... through social media, consumers have access to the experiences of other travellers. They have complete visibility into what you promise, what you deliver, and the difference between the two. They have more choices than ever. If travellers read that experience of your product falls short of their expectation, the next option is only a click away. In many respects, the consumer has taken on the role of the travel agent, and is a potential critic and reviewer. Tripadvisor.com is quickly becoming the most influential source of recommendations when researching a destination, hotel or restaurant. Negative reviews can undermine your brand and drive potential travellers away from choosing your destination. Communication has atomized; it is more viral then ever. This means that all players in the destination will have to ensure the promised standards of quality and service, offer a solid product and know their customer.

Provide transparency

The key to credibility in social media is transparency. This means being honest about your product and service. Your own content is important, but suppliers are not the only ones creating or distributing that content. That is why building trust by offering valuable content and connecting with potential customers is more important than ever. Your destination is not as hot as others? Don't pretend it is. Instead, emphasise why people should visit your destination and what makes you unique. Be truthful and your customers will appreciate and trust you. Focus on what you are really good at. Let consumers make a choice by giving them all the information they need.

Exploit social media for consumer research

Social media provides a novel and interesting way to tap into the DNA of the consumer; unexpressed consumer behaviour and beliefs become more visible. We are in the business of selling experiences - not generating inquiries and distributing brochures. It is important that destination marketers accept the fact that their brands will be 'socialised' whether they participate or not. Recognising that the conversation has a place in brand marketing is not a new concept; it is just that there are tools to do this more efficiently. Besides, destination marketers have never had such access to consumers in their selection and planning phases. This creates huge opportunities for those who take the initiative.

Relinquish some brand control

Integrate content created by your consumers into your marketing materials and message. Photo © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.With so many ways for consumers to access your brand, you cannot expect to completely control it anymore. Delivering your message the way you used to will become increasingly difficult. Release some control over content and marketing messages. Integrate content created by your consumers into your marketing materials and message. A powerful example of this is the HelloBC website of British Colombia where they mix their own content with user generated content by inviting outsiders to post their thoughts, photos and videos about what to do in the destination and share reviews of hotels and restaurants.

Provide the orientation necessary for customers to plan their holiday. Partner with businesses that offer the best services for your customers, not the biggest cut for you.

Know your online presence

Even if you decide that social media is not for you, you need to know what is being said about you. The case of Istria is a good example. When searching for Istria on YouTube, one of the most viewed videos last year was that of a BMW meeting in Porec. Porec is a pretty coastal town with cultural monuments that are listed on the UNESCO world heritage list, potentially an attractive holiday choice. The video however showed BMW cars driving around a remote and deserted parking space. It was dark and rainy. Not a very attractive sight for a potential traveller interested in Istria. And most certainly not the picture the Istrian Tourism Board would like to paint.

Integrate social media with your communication strategy

Having emphasised the importance of social media, we also need to remember that people live both in the online and real world. The conversation that started online can continue in the real world and vice-versa. An integrated communication strategy is therefore necessary. Traditional marketing activities should obviously still be a valid portion of your marketing budget. It can be an excellent way to drive more qualified traffic to your website.

Invite bloggers to visit your destination. Photo © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.The techniques used in the past to seduce and convince the travel agent to recommend a destination can also be applied to the consumer. Invite influential bloggers to visit your destination. They can be identified on sites like Technorati and most of them are willing to review travel. Show them how unique your destination is to create a buzz and consequently join in the conversation.

Before you start...

Here are some key questions you should answer before using social media:

1. How should you use social media?

There is detailed high-quality user generated content out there that can and should be leveraged. Ask yourself how you can use this content. Should you integrate user generated content directly into your official site? Or should you partner up with TripAdvisor, for example, to draw in user generated content? Or would you place an ad on a popular social network community such as Facebook?

2. Exactly what do you want to get from social media?

Destination marketers should exploit the numerous benefits that social media marketing provides them. Social media, like any other online marketing channel, needs to be used for the purpose of generating leads. Ask yourself what the underlying goal is and how social media can be used to achieve that goal before you continue.

3. Is your organisation ready for social media?

Are you able to deal internally with the speed at which social media moves? Determine beforehand what processes and resources need to be in place for your engagement to be timely and effective. Furthermore, are you ready to make positive changes in your organisation once you have received feedback from consumers?

4. Can you make social media create value for your destination, consumers and other stakeholders?

Marketing activities carried out by destination marketers should create value for the destination, consumers and stakeholders. Social media activities are no different. How can you create that value and, more importantly, measure the success of a social media campaign? And how can you ensure that your partners and suppliers deliver the promised experience and provide the demanded transparency?

There’s no time like the present...

Destination marketers who fail to invest in, and experiment with, social media now might find difficulty in catching up with the competition later, especially as competitors increase their understanding of this new marketing opportunity and establish strong consumer relationships. Destination marketers, hoteliers and stakeholders in tourism should all start experimenting with small social media projects as soon as possible.

Although social media requires more innovative thinking than a simple media buy to achieve success, some marketers are creating targeted, cost-effective, meaningful consumer connections through social media. Instead of worrying about the inevitable loss of some brand control, be glad if people think about you enough to want to write about you and create their own content about your destination. It's a whole lot better than being ignored.

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Iris Hillier is a TEAM Associate with over 10 years experience in international marketing management and consultancy in the tourism and media industry. She has developed strategic and operational marketing plans for destinations and has been responsible for national and international promotion of products and services. She now develops social media strategies for tourism organisations through TEAM.