The evolution of social media in the travel industry

15 years ago, most travel plans started with a guidebook, some recommendations from friends and maybe a quick search on the internet. Today, it probably starts with a ‘like’. Whether it be a photo that sparks wanderlust, a friend’s post about their recent trip, or a tour operator promoting their specialist knowledge and customised itineraries, social media is often the first port of call for travellers when it comes to planning a dream trip.

Social media is now ubiquitous in our society; with an estimated 3.2 billion users expected by 2021, double the 2013 figure. For those of you thinking ‘but my type of customers don’t use social media’ we’ve got news for you too! Social media is no longer just a game for millennials, more than one-third of Instagram users are over the age of 30 and over 60% of seniors over the age of 65 are using Facebook – stats like these are only expected to grow. There is absolutely no reason why social media shouldn’t be part of your digital marketing strategy for your tour operator business.

If you are new to the world of social media, or you just want to build your online presence, this article is your go-to for boosting your social media presence and ultimately help you sell more travel.

10 years ago, an effective digital marketing strategy might have made use of email campaigns and Google Ads, while social media wouldn’t have even made it near the list. Nowadays, social media is an integral part of marketing, with the platforms and strategies available diversifying and expanding.

Not all business models are compatible with effective social media use, however, travel is certainly one of the markets that can thrive on social media.  In fact, travel is one of the driving themes of Instagram; there are over 400 million posts (and counting) on Instagram with the hashtag #travel alone.  Lucky for you, this trend is reflected across most social media platforms; people love to share their travel experiences with the world.

More than a third of travellers use Instagram and other social media platforms as part of their travel process. This could be from getting inspiration and planning their trip, to sharing photos and experiences during and spreading positive word of mouth about their adventure afterwards.

As the saying goes, ‘fish where the fish are’, and with over 3.6 billion monthly active users across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, there is certainly no doubt that your prospective customers are active on social media in one way or another. If your tour operator company isn’t utilising at least one of these platforms, you could be missing out on a huge opportunity to connect directly with current and potential customers.

The most obvious way to use social media for your travel business is as a digital marketing tool, helping you to sell more travel.  While most consumers are becoming less receptive to traditional digital advertising such as Google Ads, studies show that social media advertisements and influencer marketing are much more effective at capturing people’s attention. The primary reason for this is because social media allows businesses to create personalised, hyper-targeted adverts making them far more meaningful to those that receive them.  

Setting up paid advertising on social media is very straightforward and can be an easy way to get customers to your website. Instagram reports that almost 80% of users follow at least one business account. Instagram also allows travellers to book directly through your business profile too.

Influencer marketing is another effective way to create highly targeted marketing campaigns for an already engaged audience. Influencers are personalities with a high number of followers. Their status enables them to influence the purchasing decisions of the people engaging with their content. Influencers in the travel industry are often sponsored to take trips, visit destinations and stay in hotels, whilst promoting them to their millions of followers. The reason that these types of advertisements are successful is that they are highly personal, and come with a level of trustworthiness. Depending on the size of the audience you want to reach, influencer advertising can be surprisingly cheap relative to the return on investment you can expect to see.

Ultimately, every bit of effort you put into your Instagram presence, can all stem back to increase your sales. Aspire to grow your presence, increase your followers and establish a reputation for posting awe-inspiring pictures that help people remember your company when it comes time to design and book their next holiday. Don’t, however, expect your revenue to triple overnight; building your social brand can certainly be playing the long game. Rest assured, with a bit of determination and consistency you will see results.

Directly increasing sales isn’t the only reason for a tour operator to take the plunge into the world of social media. We all know just how competitive the travel industry is – getting the opportunity to put your brand in front of thousands of aspiring travellers is an excellent way to ensure your brand is top of mind when it comes time for those viewers to finally book their trip.

If you use social media yourself it’s highly likely you’ve encountered a brand running campaigns prompting users to share posts, use a specified hashtag and to tag their friends. From a business point of view, there is more to these campaigns than meets the eye. When executed well, they help increase brand awareness and foster the growth of a digital community surrounding your brand and what it stands for. This option can be particularly powerful for tour operators servicing a niche market as you are already hyper-targeting a very specific group who are likely to find your messaging aligns closely with their values.

Social media is collaborative and communicative, rather than traditional methods of advertising at someone. This presents a unique and interesting opportunity to engage with current and potential customers, encourage interaction and build a digital community around the type of travel your business offers. If you do this well, your followers can become your very own brand advocates, increasing your digital reach and promoting your brand through positive word of mouth, referrals and recommendations.

Delighting your existing customers is just as important as attracting new ones. We’ve talked before about the importance of customer service and retaining your current customers. The customer service experience doesn’t end when your travellers head off on their trip, it continues right throughout and hopefully afterwards. Social media allows you to stay fresh in their minds; delighting them with new content and inspiring them to travel with you again!

Following and connecting with your customers on social media platforms is a must! Encouraging them to tag you in their travel photos and re-posting, with their permission, acts as another online review. Travellers love to see the journey that they could have, first hand, from those who have gone before. Re-posting, commenting and liking the travel shots they spent so long deciding on will make them feel loved and will be more likely to travel with your tour operator business again. Remember, repeat customers are worth their weight in gold!

Social media is an interesting place to navigate, especially when you are just starting out. If you need some inspiration, here are some great accounts, all using slightly different tactics to prompt engagement and grow their brand!

Tourism Australia InstagramTourism Australia  has over 3 million followers and posts stunning and creative photos, most of which are user generated. They do a fabulous job of prompting engagement on their posts, asking questions, making jokes and collecting an average of 100,000 likes on each post!

Contiki InstagramContiki’s target market is the demographic most highly represented on Instagram, so it makes sense that their feed is filled with inspiring travel shots reposted from their customers. Travellers love to see the journey that they could have, first hand from those who have gone before. So following and reposting photos from your customers is a must-do!

Abercrombie & Kent InstagramAbercrombie & Kent are a luxury travel brand who do a brilliant job of showcasing both their own tours and the destinations they sell to. Check out their use of ‘story highlight’s to feature their spectacular tours from the traveller’s perspective.

Resources for tour operators

Find out more about the importance of customer service

Why you should have a digital marketing strategy for your tour operator business

How to integrate social media, paid advertising and more into your marketing strategy

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