In March of this year, eMarketer reported that 63.7% of US internet users will use social networks on a regular basis, amounting to nearly 148 million Americans in 2011. Social media channels are now firmly established and it is no longer a question if travel brands and destinations should use social media, but rather what channels should they engage in.

And there is no shortage of supporting data on the tourism industry and social media. Recently, L2 Digital published their Digital IQ Index on the travel industry. A key finding that stood out to me is that “while traffic to brand sites in the study was down eight percent in March 2011 versus March 2010, travel industry Facebook pages grew 20 percent in the first quarter of 2011 and 78 percent of the brands registered Facebook as a top-eight source of referral traffic.”

One of the key reasons for the growth, in my opinion, is the immediate conversation and advice offered through social channels. Michelle Higgins of the New York Times said, “it’s no surprise that travelers tend to trust the advice of people they know. Now, several new travel sites are trying to put those inclinations to use by allowing travelers to use social media sites for targeted trip advice.”

Higgins is right. Word of mouth marketing is important to travel brands, and a key component in consumers finalizing their travel plans. From the power of ratings and reviews on sites like TripAdvisor to the comments and discussions on any travel destination’s Facebook page.

So, what are the most effective social media channels, strategies and tactics for travel brands? The obvious channel choices include Facebook and Twitter, but there are also many others to consider. Here are some recommendations on where to start when developing a social media strategy for travel brands and destinations.

Social Media Framework

The most important piece of the puzzle must begin with your web site. For large travel brands and destinations I would also recommend that your web site be mobile friendly. I know, it is a no-brainer but you would be surprised how few sites are mobile friendly. While your iPhone and Android application are great, you should also consider people reaching your site from a mobile browser.

That said, when developing a framework for your social media strategy you will want to lay out your objectives. You may start by asking what is most important to the potential consumer when traveling with your brand or to your destination? Or, how can you crowd source content creation to further influence travel decisions.

In my experience I have firmly seen a travel brand’s website as a long-term travel planning tool. This is where someone may make a short-term decision as well, but in general the tools, content and recommendations are always available for long-lead planning.

When considering social media channels, a travel brand or destination can focus on offering short-term travel planning ideas and advice. The content topics should normally drive traffic back to your website so a consumer can finalize their travel plans. When developing a content calendar and framework, here are some thought starters:

  • Seasonal content that focuses on some of the most important topics to consumers.
  • Upcoming events, this is especially important when you consider the events functionality on Facebook.
  • Ask questions of your community to crowd source the best travel destinations for a particular topic (wineries, b&b’s, etc).
  • Share questions or travel advice from your consumers. So if John Doe asks where the best winery is, reach out to your community to provide further recommendations.
  • Crowd source a collection of great photos and videos. The collection of additional visual content allows consumers to see a destination before making a final travel decision.

Other considerations in developing your social media framework should be post frequency, how to provide customer service, developing a plan for reputation management, and an engagement strategy to interact with your community and reach out to invite new members.

And with all of your content, you should be prepared to evaluate your content strategy by measuring the success or your posts.

Channels

As I mentioned earlier, Facebook and Twitter are likely the two primary channels you should consider when developing a social media strategy. But there are also many other sites and services to consider, here are some potential channels to include:

  • YouTube. The largest video sharing site on the Internet should be considered both as a content repository and a great place to find videos created by consumers. If you travel brand or destination is mentioned, I would recommend monitoring those posts for opportunity or perhaps to embed the videos themselves in your content calendar.
  • Flickr. While Facebook has become one of the largest photo sites in the world, Flickr is still one of the most popular sites to upload photos of destinations. By properly naming and tagging photos, you give the consumer a new way to experience your brand and all receive the benefit of increased search engine optimization.
  • Instagram & Hipstamatic. Mobile photography is taking off, so don’t forget about contributing or your curating photos of your travel destination on these services.
  • Foursquare. From travel brands and destinations, location-based services like Foursquare give you the opportunity to create rich destination listings or curate to-do lists for the consumer. Bonus if you offer a loyalty program through Foursquare or other services.
  • Social Travel Sites. Sites like Nerdy Day Trips, Day Zipping, Afar, or GTrot give consumers the opportunity to discover new adventures through social recommendations or other discovery engines. Developing a presence, when possible, on such sites gives your brand another opportunity to drive consumers back to your website or social channels.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when considering what to include in your social media strategy. However, as a starting point, it should give you a foundation to develop and refine your own strategy and framework.

After you have established your brand in social media channels you can begin to test specific tactics to increase engagement, drive content development and eventually fuel organic growth.

Finally, consider developing a blog about your travel brand or destination. Popular platforms include WordPress, Tumblr or Posterous. The benefit of a blog is two-fold. First, it gives you an opportunity to create rich and recent content that you can link to from your social channels. And secondly, Google and other search engines love frequently updated content. Your blog posts should be indexed accordingly and provide another inbound channel to your brand or destination website.

Did I miss any key channels or recommendations? How would you approach developing a strategy for a travel destination or brand?

Disclosure: I work with the Wisconsin Department of Tourism at Laughlin Constable