The popularity of social networking sites has boomed in recent times. Yet it’s not just the younger generations who are logging on – older surfers are getting in on the act too. Rob Solomon reports
The benefits of the online travel revolution for consumers has been both independence and choice. Today’s traveller has options galore, and consumers no longer have to rely on the advice they are given by agents or what they read in a brochure.
However, they are now faced with another dilemma – information overload – from the hundreds of travel sites and endless user-generated content from sources who may or may not be like minded and share similar values.
It is the travel sites that both embrace and help users filter this information that will triumph with both young and old.
A SideStep survey conducted among UK consumers with Tickbox.net last month indicated that half of the people using the web to organise their travel are finding the amount of options available online overwhelming. It would be easy to assume it is digital immigrants who are responsible for this figure but, in actual fact, figures suggest that despite their digital native status it is younger people who are finding the online travel experience overwhelming (70% of people aged under 25 years expressed stress over the multitude of options presented to them).
The 18-26-year-old demographic, according to a Forrester Research report in July 2007, currently represent a significant share (nearly 20%) of the European online leisure travel market, but it is their future value that is of interest to most online travel companies – both as the leisure and business travellers of tomorrow.
So, it’s no wonder that there are currently more than 100 travel-related applications on social network site Facebook.
Social network user demographics alone are more than enough to whet the appetites of online travel companies. However, this coupled with user disposition to share information and recommend products among friends and other users, has seen senior travel executives challenge their programmers to create innovative and exciting applications to engage with users.
And SideStep was no exception to this with the creation of Trips.
However, this activity needs to be more than just a quick reaction to the social network phenomenon and form part of a wider strategy that also engages with the other 80% of the market – whatever their age.
Forrester’s Henry Harteveldt sums up the 18-26-year-old ‘Millennial Traveller’ succinctly when addressing the needs of this audience alongside an older demographic: “Millenials…are more likely to engage with online travel than ignore it. No surprise. When it comes to researching and buying travel online, Millennials are more than present and accounted for.
As is the case with older generations, plenty are Bookers – travellers who both research and buy their travel online. What’s also important to note is the high percentage of Lookers – online travellers who research travel online, but don’t buy anything on the web. A high percentage of Lookers isn’t a bad thing though – even if they’re not buying online, they are active and aware.”
Online travel booking behaviours vary a great deal when comparing the habits of different age-related demographics. Sidestep research, commissioned in July this year, found that, on average, 57% of the 55+ age demographic plans and books their trips well in advance; only 23% within that demographic said they are spontaneous when planning trips.
On the flip side, 36% of those within the 25-34 demographic report being spontaneous trip planners, and only 42% report taking time to plan and book trips in advance. We also found that when booking flights and hotels, live help is more important to the 50+ set; videos and photos are a bigger priority for 18-24-year-olds.
Simultaneously giving a wide range of consumers what they want must be at the heart of the strategy when selling travel online – family package holidays for the 35-year-old mother of two; cruises for recently retired Mr and Mrs Jones; and budget flights and hotels for 20-something John and his mates planning a stag do.
Despite the importance of pricing in making travel decisions, merely offering cheap deals is no longer enough.
Travellers of all ages demand value from online travel companies beyond price. For example, they require reassurance that the accommodation they are booking is going to suit them, as well as advice on destinations and activities. The dramatic rise in user-generated content and the success of hotel review sites such as TripAdvisor and TravelPost.com are testament to this.
Practicality and ease of use cannot be underestimated. A clear user interface with obvious navigation and signposting to allow users of different generations and interests to find most relevant products, with minimal effort, is essential.
The ability to personalise results either based on saved customer data or filtering of products by age-related facilities and reviews will also ensure the needs of different generations are catered for. Yet it would be dangerous to presume that a hotel suited to a 60-something wouldn’t be of much interest to a 20-something, so a degree of flexibility needs to be built in.
Generation gaps have dramatically reduced since our parents’ and grandparents’ generation. So, despite differences in preference among age demographics, perhaps it is more appropriate to concentrate on commonality rather than difference, while also recognising that the older population is more conservative in their buying habits, while digital natives are more at ease using user-generated content such as reviews and social networking sites to influence their decisions.
Of course, traditional marketing techniques, such as merchandising of offers by customer demographic and partnering with third-party sites that have a specific generation audience, still have a role. However, all of us, no matter what our age, live busy lives and don’t have the time to deal with sites that aren’t easy to use.
The successful online travel companies of the future will embrace new media trends and channels – social networking, blogging, user-generated content – and integrate them into their overall marketing plans. However, companies must not get distracted by it and forget the basics. Sites that can help users cut through the chaos, gain consumer trust and own the travel decision-making process, while offering consumers what they want, will be winners.
Targeting online travellers – from Digital Natives to Silver Surfers
As Internet users around the globe choose to socialise with different generations and social groups like they would in the offline world, social networking may well one day become the first generation-less application for travel.
Popular social networking site Facebook, the sixth most-frequented website in the US, has seen a recent boon in sign-ups, leading to more than 30 million registered users. ComScore reported in June that the most dramatic growth was within 25-34-year-olds – up 181%. Registrations from those aged 35 and older also saw a large growth spurt – 98%.
In terms of social networks, most travel companies need to learn to walk before they can run. The advantages are obvious. Social networks potentially offer broad exposure and a rich word of mouth, user-generated content and even a new sales channel for travel brands. However, social networking – particularly marketing to social networks – is still in its infancy. Getting interactions right is the first priority.
Charlene Li, vice-president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, discussed important points for marketers on social networking sites in a July 2007 report, noting that “most marketers use traditional marketing tactics like run-of-site advertising and static microsites to push messages into these networks. Instead, to realise the full value of marketing [on social networking sites], marketers should be prepared to engage in a personal relationship with users by providing something of value. Promotions are good in this context, but even better is information or brand elements that users can pass on to their friends.”
An August 2007 report from eMarketer predicted social networking sites’ future claim on online advertising dollars. The company predicts that by 2011, US online social network advertising will have risen from $900 million to $2.5 billion. According to the report, “that figure is likely to rise, at least in the short term, but if advertisers simply go for the low-hanging fruit of banners and search instead of reaching for the exponential effect of pass-along, much of the promise – and potential – of social networking will be lost.”
As these social networking sites continue to evolve, understanding of these sites’ users and their online and offline behaviours becomes more prevalent. Research firms across the globe are publishing data that will allow businesses to evaluate these behaviours in a meaningful way. For larger companies, this research is merely a starting point. However, this insight becomes even more significant when considering the number of smaller companies with no or limited in-house research resources that are also looking to target these audiences and as quickly as possible.
SideStep is striving to gain a better understanding of social network users and their preferences after its initial success with the launch of its first Facebook application, Trips. The acquisition of TripUp by SideStep allowed the company to garner insight from early creators of a social travel network, as well as introduce travellers to TripUp’s travel-focused social networking features.
SideStep has combined its own expertise in the travel industry with recent learnings around social networking to develop its current application strategy: identify useful concepts that map well to the travel needs of the varied and rapidly expanding social networking audience. The Facebook platform is an amazing tool, and SideStep will continue to spend time experimenting to see what apps have long-term growth potential. Meanwhile, we continue to build applications based on what we know now, and we are looking to acquire applications that fit within our strategy as well as hire talented application developers to build next-generation travel apps.
The sheer number of people using community and social networks demonstrates that these sites are becoming a more important part of today’s digital lifestyle, but the need to truly understand these networks alongside your own brand goals cannot be underscored. Success goes deeper than just marketing to users of these sites; interacting with these users on an ongoing basis will be key in developing a brand identity within these social networking realms.
By its very nature, the power of social networks resides solely with individual users – an application or service of genuine interest will be embraced; if not, it will be rejected, and quickly. Relevance is therefore the challenge that travel companies face; careful planning and a true understanding of social networks and how your company can play a vital role within them is vital.
Getting it wrong, at best, leads to indifference; getting it right can transform a brand’s success virtually overnight.
Rob Solomon is president and chief executive of SideStep Inc.