Love it or loathe it, Facebook continues to be an important player in the travel sphere, as was recently highlighted in its list of the year’s most popular topics, events and places. In fact, travel came in second position of most talked-about events we share with our network. Here are the top 10 shared events worldwide in 2013:

1. Added a relationship, got engaged or got married
2. Traveled
3. Moved
4. Ended a relationship
5. First met a friend
6. Added a family member, expecting a baby or had a baby
7. Got a pet
8. Lost a loved one
9. Got a piercing
10. Quit a habit

In fact, Marketing Week magazine recently said Facebook is planning to woo the travel industry with a series of events, research and ad targeting refinements in the coming months as it looks to turn one of its fastest growing advertising verticals to one of its biggest in 2014. The same article went on to claim that a study, conducted by research agency Sparkler, found that Facebook appears prominently during the five stages of taking a holiday: dreaming, planning, booking, experiencing and reflecting. I beg to differ, considering most other studies so far have demonstrated that Facebook certainly plays a role at the dreaming, planning and experiencing stages, but not at the booking stage.

Another study conducted by Facebook in the UK, and reported by the Daily Mail Online, surveyed some 3,000 regular users who had gone on holidays in the past 12 months to come up with these findings:

  • 42% of stories on their timelines were tied in to travel, whether photographs uploaded on their last jaunt overseas, or simple day-dreaming about the need to get away.
  • 51% of users put posts about ‘holidays’ as one of their top three types – above food, pets, family life, babies and even weddings.
  • 83% of us enjoy viewing holiday photos posted by friends and family, and will look at them even if we are not planning a holiday ourselves.
  • And over half of those surveyed (52%) said that, thanks to postings of Facebook, they start dreaming of holidays even when they do not have a trip in the diary.
  • 97% of those surveyed use Facebook if they need to find out information – news, travel tips, weather – while they are away.

A REVIEW SITE?

Facebook Rating SystemAmong many recent developments, Facebook launched a new rating functionality, even though nobody really knows how it works, nor if travel brands can actually manage comments made here. This new feature came about a few weeks ago without much fanfare, contrary to Facebook’s usual practices to announce things first, launch them second. Remember the announcement for newly redesigned newsfeed? Still waiting for that to happen. Or last February, when Facebook announced the rollout of the new Graph Search? I got it in April, but I know of many people who have yet to get this feature on their Facebook page. Will this new rating system actually be a part of a larger travel strategy for Facebook, perhaps to go head-to-head with Yelp and TripAdvisor on this front and lure more potential travel advertisements? It’s not clear at this stage, and we’ll have to see if Facebook users actually pay attention to these reviews in their decision-making process.

PAY TO PLAY

“We expect organic distribution of an individual page’s posts to gradually decline over time as we continually work to make sure people have a meaningful experience on the site”, says Facebook, as quoted in AdAge

Then, there’s the most recent admission by Facebook officers that organic content is bound to gradually disappear from newsfeeds, paving the way to paid content only as a means to communicate with fans of your page. Fans for which you most probably paid to get in the first place, either through traditional paid ads, boosted posts of sponsored stories, for example. Oh, you missed this recent admission? It’s a biggy, for sure. (Click here for the AdAge article) You know how it was thought that Facebook’s EdgeRank blocked on average 84% of your regular (organic) posts? Well, it seems brand pages don’t get that 16% success rate anymore, on average. Nope. Many pages that used to get similar results are now achieving… 3-5% only of their community seeing posts.

“We’re getting to a place where because more people are sharing more things, the best way to get your stuff seen if you’re a business is to pay for it”, confirms Facebook

So where does this leave Facebook in travel brands’s online strategy? The social media giant remains a powerhouse, but there are many, in particular within smaller and medium-size businesses (SMB) that will reconsider their investment, both in terms of time and resources. With all other digital tools available, not only with social media but more importantly with email marketing and newsletters and having a fully-optimized website (ideally on responsive design for mobile travelers), brands will have to reconsider their approach in 2014.

INSTAGRAM TO THE RESCUE…

Don’t expect Facebook’s fall from grace just yet, though. For travel marketers at least, the acquisition of Instagram in April 2012 appears like a strike of genius, considering its rate of adoption since then, as it now boasts over 140 million users. Visuals are a key component of social media success in general, across all demographics, worldwide. In fact, it’s been demonstrated that posts including a photo get 39% more engagement on Facebook, where over 350 million photos get uploaded and shared… every day!

In this context, recent announcements by Instagram become particularly interesting and relevant for travel marketers, in particular Instagram’s new Direct feature, acting as messenger between users who can now share pictures privately.

It seems like the future of social media is not only going mobile, but also in messaging capabilities. No wonder applications like WhatsApp, Vine or Snapchat are all the rage, in particular the latter for which Facebook made two acquisition offers already – the last one, reportedly at 3 billion dollars!!

WHAT ROLE FOR FACEBOOK, THEN?

As mentioned earlier on this post, Facebook is not, and was never about, driving direct sales in the travel vertical. Sure, contests and offers, when properly managed, can drive traffic and redemption for various industry players, such as spas, golf or ski resorts, etc. But because of the very nature of travel & hospitality, Facebook tends to play a key role addressing the following objectives:

  • Customer service: Since 80-85% of page fans are present or past customers, travel brands ought to think of their Facebook page as a retention and loyalty communication channel, where they can engage conversations, answer queries and comments while showing they care. Sadly enough, too many brands fail to address this and envision their Facebook presence as sales-push channel only.
  • Research & Development (R&D): Savvy hotel and restaurant social media managers will tap into community knowledge and wisdom to get insights for what new amenities or menu could work, suggestions, and so on. Again, the very nature of Facebook lends itself wonderfully for this, yet very few brands seek input from their loyal community members.
Melia Hotels International Facebook Suites

Melia Hotels International designed new Suites based on a Facebook campaign

  • Communications: This is the part most affected by the decrease in organic content reaching a page’s fanbase, but Facebook still holds tremendous power because of the penetration and reach it has in most mature travel markets. By boosting a few posts, Facebook complements other PR initiatives and public affairs channels in getting a brand’s message across.
  • Promotional offers: After all, it is said the number one reason why people “like” a page is in order to get a deal, a discount or exclusive offer. So sharing promotional offers, in particular when it’s exclusive to Facebook fans or newsletter subscribers, is a sure way to build a strong community and following, which in turn can be of help to achieve business objectives.
  • Multiplatform enabler: Facebook cannot and should not be used in silo, and ought to be used across platforms. For example, a newsletter will include info about a Facebook contest, while there is an application on the Facebook page to subscribe to the newsletter. A given tweet can refer to a Facebook image, while Instagram pictures and hashtags are shared via a Facebook page, and so on.
NCL newsletter subscription form on Facebook

NCL newsletter subscription form on Facebook

  • Employer brand: Hospitality is a tough industry to hire and keep quality staff, as high turnover rates tend to demonstrate. Some travel brands do a great job of using their social media outlets, in particular Facebook, to showcase why it’s fun or different to work for a certain company, by sharing behind-the-scenes pictures, employee BBQ events or Christmas parties, for example.

In other words, Facebook should not be pigeon-holed as a one-dimension sales tool, or communication channel. Travel brands need to make sure they have a strategy in place, from monitoring their online reputation to pushing promotional content to executing flawless customer service. In 2014 and beyond, however, it will be interesting to see if recent changes within the Facebook newsfeed – namely, the gradual disappearance of organic content – will impact many industry stakeholders, in particular SMBs who don’t have the biggest marketing budgets and certainly have a keener eye on getting more bang for their buck…