To a child of the ’80s it still seems unbelievable that vacations today are researched and booked almost exclusively online. I remember visiting travel agencies with my parents. I can recall flipping through the glossy pages of snazzy magazines, always trying to sneak that Disney booklet into a place of prominence on the agent’s desk. I can picture how every “Sunshiny Holidays” guide was divided into country-specific sections, and hotels had a single picture depicting what they were all about. One picture. That was all. To help with the limited visuals were 5-7 sentence descriptions written by the proprietors themselves. So you’d thumb through the guide, gaze at the photos and dutifully try to convince your parents to choose the spot with the best-looking pool. All the while the agent typed away on her keyboard, telling you what was available and at what price.
It felt like a simpler time, even if it was a comparatively powerless one for consumers. Alas, I won’t be offering the same memories to my kids (hey!…remember when Mom spent 4 hours staring at her cellphone reading reviews for our one-day getaway to Great Wolf Lodge?). The limited technological sophistication available “back then” unfortunately meant very limited access to accurate, reliable information when booking a holiday.
Transforming the Industry
The transformation of the Tourism & Hospitality industry caused by the influence and upsurge of social media is nothing short of astounding. Approximately one-fifth of leisure travelers worldwide turn to social media platforms for inspiration within different categories of their travel planning including: Hotels (23%) Vacation activities (22%) Attractions (21%) Restaurants (17%). Along with these sweeping changes, the Travel Marketing Industry has had to adapt to the ever-shifting landscape, finding innovative ways for determining how to create desirable experiences, and secure a high number of bookings.
As early as 2011, Ryan McElroy, a recognized leader in the travel and hospitality industry, discovered that many travel agencies were still operating from old blueprints. They were missing opportunities to generate bookings because they weren’t harnessing the social media and digital platforms available. As a solution, McElroy created Travel Agency Tribes. Travel Agency Tribes is a SaaS (software as a service) company that creates all the technology required to make a travel agency’s online presence dynamic, easy to update, and adept at crossing all the new channels that today’s savvy travel consumer expects. This Canadian company has its ear firmly glued to the ground. It’s leveraging the very best that social media has to offer, developing services to help travel agencies exceed their highest performance goals.
Social Listening for Product Development & Design
McElroy notes that when building software for the Travel&Hospitality sector, one of the first places his team heads is to social media. He explains, “we join the Facebook groups where all of these conversations are taking place. We need to understand what’s going on in that ecosystem. What are the issues being identified?” He expands further, “we look for consistent themes. When we identify those themes, we’re able to develop a software solution.” In social media practice, the activity McElroy describes is commonly referred to as social listening.
Social listening is the process of monitoring digital conversations to understand what customers are saying about a brand and industry online. Social listening allows companies to prioritize and evaluate feedback from the public. This feedback can be used to create more appealing product and service offerings. Social listening allows companies to try to assess the potential of a new product beforehand.
McElroy illustrates in greater detail how Travel Agency Tribes uses social listening: “Once we identify a potential client, we follow them on social platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter, and we ‘like’ their Facebook business page. We listen to what’s important in their lives, from a corporate and personal perspective. Our particular objective is to be authentic, to create a relationship and a context for future interactions.”
Given that McElroy’s operates in the SaaS industry, he also mentions that “when developing a new product, whether physical or virtual, it’s important to question the market before you develop the prototype.” Gaining insights into product development through tapping into these kinds of conversations is particularly important in the current marketplace. Today’s generation of social media-fatigued consumers have forced companies to shift their businesses toward designing experiences, not products.
Now…Let’s Get Focused
Another way organizations use social media as part of their product design and development is through creating online focus groups. These groups are typically an appropriate research method for consumer and business-to-business research. McElroy notes that his company already uses analytics and heat maps to understand its audience, though he certainly envisions the possibility of online focus groups playing a role in product design and development.
An interesting and emerging type of online focus group is one where there are only single participants, with no moderator (unmoderated online focus groups). A system invites pre-screened, qualified respondents to participate on a first-come, first-served basis, and to conduct a task or series of tasks such as interacting with a website or website prototype, reacting to an online ad or concept, viewing videos, commercials (whether for TV or online production), etc., while at their home or workplace. While the participant is conducting the assigned task, his or her own webcam is recording their face, and at the same time, every action taking place on the screen is being recorded. After the task is completed the participant is asked to answer a series of post-task survey questions such as “What was the message being conveyed by that ad? Why did you stop viewing that video? Why were you unable to complete the goal?” etc.
In future, these unmoderated online focus groups could help shape and refine the software design and development process for companies like Travel Agency Tribes since such groups offer companies a window into how users interact with their products.
Lessons for Others
A recent study conducted by international consulting firm Kalypso discovered that nearly half of the companies it surveyed (46%) have gained new product ideas from the use of social media in product innovation. And roughly the same percentage (43%) have benefited from these ideas.
Monitoring social networks and online focus groups are extremely insightful for effective product development. Product designers can learn what customers like and don’t like about their products, and get ideas on which new features and functions might appeal to consumers in the future.
Many organizations are still finding their bearings when it comes to creating a social media strategy to drive sales, let alone one to influence product design and development. It can be challenging for companies to see where, and how to leverage social listening when so many of these conversations are taking place across a number of different platforms.
While social media functions often fall under the Marketing department, those responsible for product design and development would do well to participate in the social listening process from the outset, and at each step along the journey. And with a journeying expert like McElroy at the helm, Travel Agency Tribes is poised to remain a leader in its field.
Travel Agency Tribes
Industry: Software As A Service (SaaS)
Name of Organization Contact: Ryan McElroy, CEO
Authored by: Jennifer Deschenes
If you have concerns as to the accuracy of anything posted on this site, please send your concerns to Peter Carr, Program Director, Social Media for Business Performance.
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