Travel customers make for a demanding audience.  Holidays are a treasured time in anyone’s annual calendar, and nobody wants the joy of an upcoming trip fettered by worries about high costs, complicated booking procedures or service errors. Arguably more than with other types of customer transaction, if someone’s travel experiences are compromised or less than fully satisfactory, it becomes extremely hard for a brand to win back that customer’s trust and their all-important advocacy.

As we’ve seen with Eurostar and the Icelandic ash cloud issues recently, brands can be severely damaged by companies failing to handle what are sometimes unavoidable situations in the right way. In the case of Eurostar, even with an active social media strategy in place and a Twitter feed full of marketing messages, the company missed a huge opportunity to use the channel as a means to communicate with passengers stranded in the tunnel or indeed anxious media or loved ones. Spokespeople have now admitted that they could have used Twitter far more effectively in this situation and have learned the hard way the scope of opportunity that social media channels present.  As the impact of the volcanic ash cloud was felt, and confusion reigned, social media could have been better utilised by airlines, travel companies and even airports, to ensure that customers had some form of instant access to information and updates on the status of their travel plans.

The key is to keep in mind that just as customers now have an increasing number of touch-points through which to book holidays and interact with their travel providers, they can also use these outlets as a means of expressing their feelings and experiences, whether good or bad.  What brands must grasp is that if they are going to present themselves as a fully functioning ‘social’ operator, they must invest the time and care into ensuring that their online relationships with consumers are open, honest, and - most importantly- two-way. If not, they may find themselves on the receiving end of some very public criticisms.

Brands which engage successfully with their customers online understand that personalisation is vital, in order to avoid a sense of ‘mass marketing’ and instead adopt a more conversational and interactive approach. When people feel as if they are actually contributing to a dialogue and are being listened and responded to, it is far more likely that they will engage again and again with the brand, and, in turn, talk about these positive experiences with their peers.

Using social media as a marketing tool can be a risk as well as an opportunity; consumers choose to follow or become associated with brands online because they love the products and services provided or because they feel the brand has something interesting to say. If in turn that brand simply uses these media to fire off marketing messages, this dramatically increases the risk of turning off those followers who were expecting a meaningful dialogue or an abundance of informative, engaging content.

Travel companies have a great deal to think about in terms of communicating with consumers, from making sure they alert them to great deals, to sending reminders about check-in details, to notifying them of any changes in schedule or delays. But it’s important that they also take a more ‘live’ approach to their online communications. If a problem occurs or there is an issue that customers need to learn about immediately, the instant power of social media can be invaluable in reassuring customers that their wellbeing and satisfaction is front of mind for brands.

Of course not every customer will be using Twitter or Facebook, and it would be foolish and short-sighted of brands to ignore more traditional forms of marketing when communicating with their audiences. For those consumers who do engage with social media, however, it’s vital that they feel a connection, based on trust and information, with the brands they have chosen to associate themselves with, and don’t simply suffer a barrage of irrelevant and impersonal messages which serve only to tick a brand’s ‘must do social media’ box.

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