Twenty years ago, travelers spent hours on hold with unfriendly airlines; skimmed the same few travel guides at their local bookstore; and relied on friends-of-friends for faint hints of "off-the-beaten path" fun in new cities and countries.

The arrival of social media changed all that, of course — and the peer-to-peer connection it fosters is here to stay. Modern adventurers, especially those in the coveted 18-34 demographic, use social media more than ever for cultivating once-in-a-lifetime experiences with like-minded travelers.

These travelers might rely on each other for advice, but brands and DMOs can turn them on to new adventures, showcase destinations, and connect travelers wherever social networks and trip planning intersect. Here’s a look at the social travel phenomenon — and how to join the broader conversation.

What is social travel?

Social travel coffee shop

More than ever before, we're traveling places because we've seen our friends go there first.

At its most basic, social travel occurs when would-be travelers use social media to discover destinations, plan trips, share their experiences, get feedback, and meet others.

Long before Facebook and smartphones dominated our interconnected worlds, Couchsurfing demonstrated the enormous potential of social travel. Launched in 2004, the service merged budget-minded travelers with hosts offering spare couches, beds, and air mattresses—all for free. Today, Couchsurfing lays claim to 14 million members in 200,000 cities around the world.

Couchsurfing signaled a shift in how travelers approached their adventures. No longer were they beholden to phonebook-like guides for the same "touristy" experiences; rather, travelers could now pick their hosts’ brains for truly local recommendations, meet other “couchsurfers” on the road, and find new experiences in the process.

In the years since Couchsurfing’s meteoric rise, a number of factors have solidified social travel as an accepted way to travel, no less vital than booking airfare or hotel lodging. The explosion of social networks made it easy to connect with like-minded users and share information; smartphones made on-the-road connections easier to plan; and, most recently, free-falling technology costs made mobile technology, spare battery packs, and data more accessible—and cheaper—than ever.

Putting the "social" in social travel

Social travel Instagram

Instagram has proven to be a valuable marketing tool for adventure tourism businesses.

Technology might have made social travel possible, but travelers’ thirst for connections and trusted opinions helped it explode. "More and more, these trusted sources are friends, friends of friends, and recommendations from friends based upon personal relevance," said Ty Sawyer, co-founder and chief travel officer of Jetzy, a geo-location-based mobile app that connects like-minded travelers.

As Sawyer sees it, modern travelers eschew traditional advertising for more personal connections.

"Today's travelers want recommendations from people that have actually had the experience and can relate that without a third-party bias. - Ty Sawyer, Co-Founder, Jetzy

"Most of the noise on the Internet comes with advertiser bias, so finding authentic experiences and relatable recommendations has actually become more difficult—unless you turn to trusted sources."

The rise of photo-based social media platforms such as Instagram, which practically begs its users to show off their travel and recreation experiences, has only sharped the focus on social media as marketing platform. In short, travelers look to this and other social media platforms to find out where to go, when to go, and what to do, see and eat when they get there. In return, brands on social media can play a key role in influencing travelers. According to a 2016 survey commissioned by research firm Ask Your Target Market, 64 percent of respondents said that seeing social media posts about a specific destination made them want to travel there.

With its faster user growth than Facebook, Instagram is poised to become an even bigger platform for marketers in 2017 and beyond — not that Facebook’s nearly year-old Dynamic Ads for Travel aren’t worthy of investment. On the contrary, the use of these carousel ads is up among travel brands, including Expedia, many DMOs and more recently, airlines. However, the forecasting for Instagram is clear; a 2016 report from NY digital media consultants L2 found that luxury hotel brands that feature user generated social media content in their Instagram posts see six times more interactions per postthan brands that don’t. A plethora of research shows that users view these as more authentic, organic and trustworthy than traditional advertising, making them a win-win for consumers and marketers who know how to use UGC to their advantage.

How can you reach social travelers?

Social adventures

Where are your customers going for information? Meet them where they are.

In assisting social-savvy travelers, DMOs and travel brands have several opportunities for creating new connections, building affinity, and sparking new ideas. Here’s just a sample:

Use Social Media: A presence on social media is vital to your organization’s reputation and bottom line; according to a 2016 survey conducted by research firm Ask Your Target Market, 53 percent of all users said that social media posts can sway their opinions on specific travel brands.

Meet travelers where they are: Twitter isn’t just a service where users gather to critique the Super Bowl halftime show; for many travelers, it’s the easiest and quickest way to connect with a company’s customer service channel. A 2015 Twitter study found that users send more than 100,000 questions, complaints, and comments to major U.S. airlines every month. The study also found that fast responses led to more revenue, and that satisfied users were apt to spread the word about positive experiences.

Assist with crowdsourcing opportunities: Social travelers are less likely to seek brands out for ideas and suggestions, but that shouldn’t stop you from following relevant hashtags and chiming in when travelers crowdsource their trips. They’ll appreciate ideas that take their specific requests into account and speak to their interests. "You don’t market to millennials, they market to themselves," Sawyer says. “It’s imperative to connect with them on a human level with something that is relevant to their lives and needs.”

Offer 1:1 connections: Modern travelers don’t want to hunt down a 1-800 number, fight through a sprawling phone tree, and spend hours on hold. Some organizations, including Hyatt Hotels, use Facebook Messenger to answer customer questions, while others rely on chatbots, using artificial intelligence, to simulate instant online chats. Services such as Cheapflights, Kayak, and Expedia all use chatbots to help users plan and book trips.

Whether you’re already a savvy social media marketer or you’re looking to up your game, the power and influence of social media marketing is poised to continue its dynamic growth, making it imperative that brands understand how to use it to their—and their customers’—advantage.

Originally written by RootsRated Media.

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