Meet these rising social climbers …

Meenakshi Verma Ambwani | Updated on March 21, 2013



Can you guess the name of this beautiful Canadian lake? Do you know where the largest deposit of salt on the planet is found? Are these questions all over your Facebook timeline? Do you spend at least a few minutes drooling over those panoramic images of Machu Picchu or pictures of vineyards in Tuscany on Twitter and FB?

If your answer to any of the above is ‘yes’ then you are part of the fast-growing social media community following travel portals. As more and more travellers get on to social media to share pictures of their latest travel escapades in an almost obsessive-compulsive fashion, the online travel business is recognising the potential of the medium. As a study by Unmetric, a social media benchmarking company put it, “Facebook has turned into a tidal wave of paradise beaches and awe-inspiring locations.” Unmetric found that on an average, an online travel firm has at least 415,000 fans on Facebook.

Travel portals admit that social media is fast becoming an integral part of their strategy to talk with their consumers. It’s a two-way street: Consumers are also fast turning to social media for after-sales complaints. While trying to create a community and doling out rewards through contests and discounts, the portals are also bracing for the inevitable negative comments and complaints.

“Travelling is fast becoming social in nature. From sharing pictures to asking for tips and information about locations, consumers are turning to social media platforms to dig out information and this has become almost an interwoven part of their lives,” says Manmeet Ahluwalia, marketing head of Expedia India.

“We are using this platform to engage with consumers in two essential ways. One, by offering them relevant content, rewards through contests, recommendations, and two, by linking our social media teams with customer care and product teams to address their complaints and inform them about deals in an interesting manner,” says Ahluwalia.

The mossad of customer care

Considering that social media is an essential touch point for the consumers, travel firms are making significant investments in setting up teams dedicated to social media. Take, for instance, Goibibo. It has two separate teams to look into complaints and provide engaging content to woo unhappy consumers back.

“We have a ‘Customer Delight’ team, where the very best from our customer care teams are chosen. Their mandate is to address the problems of our customers through social media. The essential focus is to keep the communication channel open and proactively react to even negative comments. They are like the ‘Mossad’ of our customer care, since most of the time, consumers turn to social media after their complaints are not addressed through the other channels of communications,” explains Sanjay Bhasin, Managing Director,, adding that another team looks after content to offer tips, deals and create engaging contests.

Most travel portals also have been using this platform for unconventional initiatives such as trying to form a deeper emotional bond with their consumers or offering them intangible rewards.

Goibibo used social media to identify its consumers and have its ‘Goibibo hostesses’ surprise them by receiving them and making them special. The initiative, called the ‘Superstar’, is being done in phases at some key airports.

Expedia got its community members to contribute to its CSR activity of helping to educate and offer growth opportunities to street children. It managed to grab the interest of hundreds of its Facebook followers who turned up at a painting activity in New Delhi and lent these children a hand to paint posters.

But does this actually translate into better sales? Just as for any other sector, for the travel portals too, that’s the million-dollar question. Goibibo’s Sanjay Bhasin says that while there is no way to measure how much social media activity actually translates into sales, “one can feel it does contribute significantly”.

“Social media marketing is easy if you avoid the cardinal sin of using the platform to deliver a sales pitch. It's counter-intuitive, because marketers want to sell; but the key to success here is not to be selling, but to be building relationships and encouraging conversations around the brand,” says Hrush Bhatt, co-founder and Director-Product and Strategy at Cleartrip.

“The key thing that sets Cleartrip apart is our willingness as a brand to enter the realm of social media without fear. Most brands, established or new, are always concerned about ‘negative’ feedback in social media channels. Cleartrip has never shied away from negative feedback. Starting with our blog and then in our forums, Twitter and Facebook accounts, we’ve always been open and welcoming of all feedback. There’s nowhere to hide on the Internet and we look at all negative feedback as an opportunity to improve our products and services,” says Bhatt.

Travel portals, meanwhile, are also trying to educate the consumer about why certain problems crop up or take time to solve. The biggest complaint or issue that leads to negative comments on their social media pages is, perhaps, ‘refunds.’ Portals are trying to educate the consumer about how it takes time because they are working with two partners that includes banks as well as the vendors which leads to lags.

As Bhasin says, social media helps the portals “plug the holes in their bucket” and that is what makes the social media proposition essential and cost-effective as well as an integral part of their operational strategies.

Meanwhile, Unmetric CEO Lakshmanan Narayanan states in the report that in this hypercompetitive industry which is being rapidly commoditised, the consumer is more price-conscious than brand-loyal, making it essential for businesses to use techniques to differentiate themselves and ensure customers are wooed back.

“While deals and offers are one approach, customer service can be a huge differentiator. When we analyse other service industries like aviation or telecom (compared to travel portals), we see that these sectors have made huge efforts to support social media customer services. In these sectors, brands are replying to thousands of customers on Twitter within minutes and that’s just a flavour of things to come,” says Narayanan.

Published on March 21, 2013

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