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Travel Industry and the Social Media Puzzle

06/02/2009| 3:54:24 PM|

With China's leisure travel market growing at the same time as its online usership grows, it's no surprise that a number of players are looking to capture the attention of travel consumers through social media.

With China´s leisure travel market growing at the same time as its online usership grows, it´s no surprise that a number of players are looking to capture the attention of travel consumers through social media.

The social media tools that are gaining steam--social networking sites, bulletin board systems, microblogging--may be a relatively recent phenomenon, but their function for marketers is based on a tried and true principle, says Mark Inkster, chairman of Yiqilai.com.cn. “You might not believe what you read online, but if it comes from your friends you will trust it.”

From travel booking sites like eLong and Ctrip to airlines and hotel review sites, China’s travel industry players are experimenting with using social media to attract and engage travelers. But the best ways to leverage that are still unclear, and social media strategy--particularly involving online social networking--was a major topic of discussion and debate at the recent China Travel Innovation Summit in Beijing.

"The barriers are quite high for creating a standalone social network," says William Bao Bean, partner, Softbank China and India Holdings, who moderated a panel on social media at the Beijing summit. "Everybody belongs to two or three and doesn´t want to add another."

Lufthansa Airlines learned that lesson when it experimented with creating its own social network for the U.S. market, Genflylounge.com, which failed to generate the interest that Lufthansa had hoped for. Its social media tactics in China are now anchored by a partnership with Xiaonei.com, the so-called "Facebook of China.” Lufthansa uses its presence at Lufthansa.xiaonei.com to interact with young consumers at the same place where they interact with each other.

"We felt that we would rather hook up with an existing social network provider," says Martina Groenegres, Lufthansa´s chief China representative. “We chose Xiaonei because it is the biggest network for students, with 22 million active users. They’re generally well-educated, between the age of 18 and 25 and come from more than 3,000 universities.” Lufthansa’s 1,000-plus “friends” on Xiaonei share travel tips and have access to special deals and contests.

Jason Xie, eLong´s vice president of web and business development, is not so positive on the use of online social networking for travel industry players. Says Xie:  "It´s hard to have success with SNS in tourism because: One, the stickiness is not enough--people travel maybe twice a year for tourism; two, travel itself doesn´t generate sufficient content; and three, travel information is destination-based, so I think that SNS is in conflict with travel information. I don´t care about the ten places my friend has been."

Mark Inkster, chairman of Yiqilai, a travel review site that relies heavily on user-generated content, directly disagreed with Xie. “Because you only travel two or three times a year, you want to come back [to social media] and have fun,” he said. “Dream, plan, book, travel, share--these don’t happen in sequence. We are looking to engage people as they move among these phases of the travel experience.”

Despite his aversion to social networking, Xie said that eLong is working on an initiative with Xiaonei, though he would not elaborate on it. The only program he discussed was eLong´s Yiqifei ("Fly Together") program, which allows travelers to connect online with people who will be on their flight. Ctrip tried and scrapped a similar program in the past, as have several companies like the now-defunct Intown2.com, but Xie seemed confident that Yiqifei would appeal to eLong’s customers.

Inkster, though bullish on the role that social media can play in travel, acknowledges that Yiqilai is still working out its strategy. Echoing Bean, he says, “People are parts of other networks. I’m not too confident in travel social networks, so we´re building a presence on other networks.” Yiqilai allows users on its own site to contribute content through wikis, BBSes and interactive games. Its “Where I’ve Been” map app, which lets users place virtual pins on cities they’ve visited, is available on four different social networking sites including Facebook and Xiaonei, and is a top-rated app on 51.com, Inkster says.

China presents an interesting set of challenges and opportunities to travel providers when it comes to social media. Its rapidly emerging leisure travel segment does relatively little online booking, but is otherwise very active online.

“Online social engagement is higher in China than in the United States and Europe,” says Jens Thraenhart, president of brand strategy firm Chameleon Strategies. Forty percent of China’s online users can be categorized as “creators” Thraenhart says, compared to 14 percent in the United States. Thraenhart considers 44 percent of China’s online population to be critics or commentators, compared to 16 percent of the United States’ Internet users.

Of course, spinning that engagement into air ticket purchases and hotel bookings is not an easy thing. Questions of measuring return on investment for social media projects were raised throughout the Beijing travel summit, and there were no easy answers.

Groenegres says Lufthansa is still waiting to see if its latest experiment pays off: "Will people actually exchange a lot of information and then finally buy something? Do they link with our own site, Lufthansa.com, and book something?"
 

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