There has over the past few months been a lot of heated debate about the business value of Social Media.
A lot of it seems to be centred around the commercial ROI of advertising through the various Social Media channels.
Will Facebook start to yield stronger advertising revenues? Will ads on Bebo work? How can you monetize your presence on Flickr? is Twitter a waste of even 140 characters? Why did my wife buy a dog when I last went overseas? (ok, maybe not the last one).
In my humble opinion, I think businesses, particularly those in the travel space, need to look at Social Media from a different perspective and as I've stated "Wake up and Smell the Engagement!".
Here is my take on how Social Media can and should primarily be used by companies on both a B2C and B2B front.
Pop the lid on the people !
Social Media provides a real opportunity to present your brand in a more personalised way, peel back the company skin and position your staff as real human beings.
Companies should encourage key personnel to become engaged, on behalf of their company, but through their own voice, in social media channels that are relevant to them based on their interests as well as the target segments of the company.
You're a trekking company looking to 'engage' with those consumers interested in trekking. You have a staff member who happens to be passionate about photography and sharing their pictures. Why not encourage that staff member to manage your company Flickr account, upload their photos and build a community around trekking photography.
From there you can run competitions, discussion topics etc that build your company and staff profile in a relevant and engaging way, whilst promoting your business, without having to overtly advertise.
GeckoGo and Where I've Been started as Facebook applications and now have created thriving travel communities. Other companies such as BootsnAll, Travellerspoint, Gadling, Nile Guide, TripWolf, TripIt, Matador Travel (the list goes on) have successfully utilised engagement and social media to build active communities.
Turn Engagement into product ideation
A WorldNomads.com journal user was bailed up in jail because he tried to speak the local language, got it wrong and probably told the policeman that "His wife was born of goat". This for us spawned the idea of building audio language guides, which we used our community to assist in building phrases, which have turned into 20 language guides. Over the last 2 years they've been downloaded over 600,000 times and the x-sell to travel insurance has covered the cost of creating them. Our brand is now mobile and our World Nomads have been provided with a relevant and useful travel tool.
The listen, learn and respond technique has greatly assisted our business when applied to Social Media.
Build Positive Word-of-Mouth
We've utilised Social Media channels to discuss (not advertise) both the travel programs we run (eg. Travel Scholarships) as well as disseminate vital Travel Safety information that is not only relevant to our own World Nomads, but the broader travel community as well. By tracking through simple tools such as Google Alerts and RSS feed readers (Bloglines etc) and our own analytics program, we've been able to monitor the levels of influence our content has had, as well as monitor what degree word-of-mouth has on our sales and it's been significant.
We've seen more sales through Facebook as a referring site than any Ad Network we've used in the last 12 months and we're not using paid advertising on Facebook.
Support your CSR (corporate social responsibility) activities
As a brand, we're passionate about travel, but also about giving back to those places less fortunate than our own. We hoped our World Nomads shared the same view so we decided to focus our CSR efforts into building Footprints. A mechanism whereby our travellers could donate, when purchasing travel insurance, between $2-$10 to sustainable community development projects around the world. 180,000+ donations later, 35 projects funded and a 90% donation rate proved just how much our community shared the same values that we did.
So we discussed this initiative through our various social networks and " These projects are great, how do I see more about them" spawned our Positive Footprints documentary series which is now screening on Nat Geo Adventure channel. " I'm an ecomm travel business, how do I get involved" has seen the creation of Footprints 2.0, The Footprints Network. A network of like minded companies funding community projects through the Footprints API and passionate, community minded travellers.
It is the community that drives this initiative, we're just the mechanism to make it happen.
Building business relationships through Social Media
From a B2B perspective I've been shocked at how effective Twitter has been in terms of building our partner base. As Twitter (Facebook to a lesser extend) enables you engage on a far more personal level, you very quickly find like minded peers, companies that share similar values and that makes it far easier to connect and ultimately do business.
We've done market research through GeckoGo, have co-promoted programs with companies such as TravellersPoint and Matador, shared articles through our Travel Safety and Travel Tips section, all off the back of twitter conversations.
Social media has allowed us to connect very quickly on the CSR front with networks such as Business Fights Poverty, Pepy and Just Means. All strong supporters and voices for our Footprints Network.
Social Media is becoming one of our primary mechanisms by which to engage and build business relationships.
Can you wrap it up now !
Social Media is a means by which companies can effectively 'engage' consumers and like minded businesses to position and give personal voice to your brand, develop and build new products and services, support CSR activities, energise your partner development activities as well as meet your commercial and marketing objectives.
You might be able to successfully 'advertise' but don't only focus on this aspect of Social Media, you'll be missing a sizable number of opportunities.
On a side note, I haven't gone too far into discussing 'measuring customer engagement', but here's an excellent article written by Brian Haven, formerly of Forrester Research - Marketing's New Key Metric - Engagement. It's a bit of a bible for us.
Well done for getting this far ! Please leave a comment and let us know how you've engaged through Social Media.
Chris Noble is the General Manager of WorldNomads.com and Co-Founder of FootprintsNetwork.org. He is NOT a Social Media Maven, Guru, Expert, God, Pioneer, Rockstar. He is, in the words Julia Roberts didn't use in the chickflick 'Notting Hill' - " Just a boy, standing in front of Social Media, asking it to love him!"