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The way consumers purchase travel and holidays has changed radically. Gone are the days of going into your local travel agent and picking up a brochure, now, for many people, booking a holiday takes place entirely online. For travel agents this represents a huge mind-set shift in how they reach and communicate with consumers and establishing an online presence is crucial.

 

The wealth of opportunity to build an online profile, from large social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, to niche blogs and forums and review sites, it can be daunting. The key to all of these platforms is understanding the nature of the consumer. People go to these online destinations to share and gather information from others. They are called social networks because at their very core they are about connecting people and enabling social interaction. If travel companies are going to build a respected and trusted presence online they must engage in these conversations and provide information to consumers that is useful, relevant and interesting.

The key to all of this is making sure that you have clear objectives before you get started. Who are you trying to reach? What does success look like? Why is engaging with social media the right thing for your business? How does this fit into your overall marketing plan? Without having a clear strategy the return on investment in social media will be low. Social media is not a 'bolt-on' to marketing activity, but should be a fundamental part of engaging with consumers. Choosing the right platform is dependent on what the overall objective is. Twitter, for example, is great for customer service as it enables travel agents to handle queries and complaints directly from their customers in real-time and respond to any issues before they get bigger. Facebook allows agents to establish a personality and share information with fans, helping to build a loyal customer base and brand advocates.

Building a Facebook profile 
For many consumers Facebook has become and regular part of their everyday life. In fact it has roughly 37million unique visitors monthly, spending an average of 23 minutes on the site (stats from Google AdPlanner). Facebook users are interacting with friends, sharing stories, pictures and information of interest and, most importantly, they are constantly looking to be the first to share a piece of news that will encourage their friends to comment on their wall. This presents a huge opportunity for travel companies to provide that information and become part of the conversation. The recent introduction of timeline on Facebook means that there is a greater scope to offer more visual content in terms of images of holiday destinations and pictures from fans' holidays.

Recommendation-based purchasing
A large proportion of holiday purchases are made because of a recommendation from a friend or a trusted source. The rise of recommendation-based purchasing online has come about because of social media. Websites such as TripAdvisor are a good example of the power of opinion and offers a great place for travel agents to build up trust with consumers by recommending hotels and destinations as well as advising on the less good ones.

Ultimately travel agents should aim to have a presence across all of these platforms online, as well as keeping up with new trends. Pinterest came almost out of nowhere and now hundreds of people share pictures everyday of places they'd like to visit, what better place for travel agents to engage with consumers. The big step is getting started and dedicating the resource to managing an online profile. But the rewards are there to be reaped and not to be involved would be a bigger mistake.

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