Tim Frankcom – Mastering the tools of the trade

With the popularity of user-generated content sites and travel applications rapidly rising, social networking and experience-sharing is increasingly on the consumer travel agenda.

Indeed this trend ties in well with the theme of this month’s edition of Travolution – Generations – and raises the question: are social networking sites solely the province of the young?

Certainly, the most heavily engaged social networkers are the young, but with more than 45% of Yahoo! Travel’s unique visitors aged over 45, according to ComScore, it would be a mistake for operators to assume social networking is solely for the young.

But while different generations tend do the same things, they do them differently. For example, mature Internet users seem to use social networking for specific purposes – such as LinkedIn for career networking or WAYN for meeting and staying in touch with travel companions. Whereas, younger users tend to use sites such as Bebo and Facebook to reflect their personality and individuality.

This truism was highlighted to me by a friend (in her 20s) who recently met a couple of septuagenarians while travelling around South America. While they were all following roughly the same route for their respective holidays, they had booked them in different ways.

My friend had used a number of forums, networks and travel search sites to organise her backpacking trip, while the septuagenarians had booked their cruise through a high-street agent.

However, like my friend, the septuagenarians were equally keen to share their experiences and were not only using photo-sharing websites to do so, but were also enthusiastically working out how to link up a soundtrack to their online photos.

But while the ultimate goal of travel firms working within social networking sites is to harness the urge to share experiences to influence travel planning and booking decisions, there are some challenges.

The length of the travel planning process has often hindered efforts to track the impact of early influences on travel purchase decisions. Furthermore, while many sites offer marketing opportunities for businesses to exploit both these stages (pre-trip planning and post-trip sharing), few sites have tied up this loop enabling advertising partners to reach engaged users at all stages of the travel process.

One of the goals of Yahoo!’s new Trip Planner site was to implement sharing technology to create a bi-functional travel toolkit to tie this loop. Many of the tools have been available for some time (photo sharing, mapping, trip journals, forums, reviews and ratings) – and a number of travel firms have made excellent use of them – but what was missing was their cohesive application for travel planning.

However, as we have learnt, adapting and combining these tools for this specific purpose is not a simple task and an investment that only a handful of companies could justify. Yet in the travel search business it makes perfect sense. As a Travolution blogger recently pointed out, one of the key challenges in using hosted applications is how to ensure the user who has registered on your site to download the application actually starts using your site.

For Yahoo!, integrating our Trip Planner functionality within Yahoo! Travel means highly engaged consumers can pass from Trip Planner through the Yahoo! Travel comparison facilities and third-party travel guides before moving on to our advertising partners’ sites in a position to buy.

For me, the story of the septuagenarians underlined the universal appeal of practical tools and applications that facilitate everyday tasks and the willingness of all generations to master them. While for the so-called Internet generation mastering new tools may come more naturally, those who have invested time in mastering them often become the most avid users.

As more applications and tools emerge, consumers will inevitably select and combine services to best suit their specific purposes. As users become more sophisticated in their selection and usage, so too can travel advertisers in their targeting.

Tim Frankcom is general manager, Yahoo! Travel Europe

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