Lata Subramanian, CMO, Sterling Holidays, talks about the brand’s digital and social media activities. She also talks about how they try to leverage social media so it has the maximum positive impact on their business. In this interview she also talks about a few of the Sterling campaigns and the changes within the social media framework that can effect brands in future.
How important is social media for travel and hospitality brands?
I would say social media is the most important medium today for travel and hospitality brands. The way I see it – the fact that e-commerce in India is estimated to be around $13 billion in 2013; the fact that
- 2013 was a 80% growth over 2102
- The online travel segment contributed over 70% of the total consumer e-commerce transactions in 2013
- Travel planning, research and information related queries on search engines are growing almost twice as fast as transactional queries
- Leading OTAs are seeing figures as high as 25% of their value transactions now coming through smart phones
- A Review site like Trip Advisor already clocked 3 million users last year and has rolled out a meta display feature, which shows hotel price comparisons on a single page
All the aforesaid facts add up to say that travellers in large, growing numbers are now researching and making their decisions online.
In such a scenario, social media plays an important role in attracting and engaging consumers in a manner, which gets them interested in the brand. It’s no different from the classic AIDA model of advertising. Except that it is Social Media strategies and campaigns that have to gain the attention, interest, desire of consumers based on which they will hopefully act to purchase a product or service.
How does the operations of a travel company change post the rise of social media in India? How do you manage your social media activities?
The core operations don’t change. A travel company still has to design a travel or holiday experience that is delightful, value-for-money and is favourable when compared to competitors in its segment. That’s the core of marketing and does not change. What changes is the speed of response because social media is a 24*7 medium and one that can spread ‘the word’ like wildfire. A travel company has to now, more than ever, work harder to build a positive reputation through service that delights, and responds instantaneously to customers and that too, in a thoughtful and not robotic manner.
At Sterling, we see social media as integral to our operations and the key to our brand image and reputation. Our ORM is managed in co-ordination with our Resort, Customer Relations (including Customer Acquisition relationships) functions. Our Social Media campaigns are integrated with, and have sometimes led to 360 degree marketing communication campaigns. When we launched Holiday Beats, we conducted ‘Holiday Beats’ at our resorts, in our Customer Acquisition programs and on Facebook. India Unveiled was first launched on Social Media platforms and then edited into videos for Resort TV screens and for our Fun Rangers (Holiday Activities personnel) to incorporate in their Edutainment programs.
Then there was a Bagful of Memories campaign. Sometime late last year, we realised that our guests and members were sharing their holiday moments on their personal timelines. While we were pleased about this, we wanted to bring all those memories collectively together on one platform and build a community feeling. The Bagful of Memories campaign did that by affording Sterling guests and members a channel from where they could share their holiday moments with the Sterling community and on their personal social networks. Naturally, this was a campaign that was launched only at our resorts and from there onto social media.
As for operations, Isobar is our principal agency for Social Media but we do farm out a lot of work because the volume is otherwise not manageable. Social Media may be just another communication channel but it is a demanding one requiring a lot of thought and attention to detail if one has to succeed in capturing the attention of a customer and thereafter retaining interest enough to build the desire over time for brand Sterling!
What are the three or four must do activities on social media for you as a travel brand?
I would say the must do activities are daily social media updates designed to fulfil traveller interests and engagement through relevant and periodic social media campaigns generating goodwill, buzz and enhance the standing of brand Sterling. Everything we do is aimed at offering travellers and holiday enthusiasts assistance by placing at their disposal interesting and relevant travel related information. Plus reiterating our commitment to customer satisfaction.
How important is it to have a blog for a brand in the business of travel? What are its benefits? How do you populate your blog?
As mentioned earlier, a key social media objective for us is to place interesting information at the disposal of travel enthusiasts. That being the case blogs, both by Sterling and travel writers/bloggers, play an important role. Indeed, it is this thinking that led us to launch our blog over two years ago. We publish new blogs every month and even send out regular thematic blog newsletters twice a month. Over the two years, we have seen organic traffic growth to the blog site and are pleased to see the number of emails that come in post every newsletter.
Travel being one of the most social topics and easily the most talked about on social media, does it make it easier for you to market your product?
Absolutely. I even call travel a trending category!
Do travel writers play a significant role in your social media strategy? If so, why?
I have already talked about blogs by travel writers being important earlier. Why? Well because good travel writers are professionals who cover destinations and holiday experiences with an analytical eye. Plus, let’s face it, travel writers are important influencers and the good ones do have a large following on social media. We host many travel writers at our resorts. And have always seen value in the coverage they produce. It is important to mention here that we make no attempt to influence the writers and give them total freedom to blog on subjects of their interest.
What do you think of Twitter influencer campaigns and how important are they in bringing about an awareness of your brand?
I would say Twitter as a medium is highly influential as social movers and shakers tend to use Twitter as their principal social media channel. Stands to reason, then, that Twitter influencer campaigns can enhance brand awareness levels in an important socio-economic strata, which, in turn, influences opinion across the market pyramid.
Which social platform is most effective in your marketing strategy? Please elaborate.
At the end of the day, a marketing budget is finite. Like any media plan, you have to strategize and allocate resources wisely. We decided early to focus on Facebook for obvious reasons, namely, user base and because Facebook is a more visual led medium.
How have Facebook’s changing algorithms affected your Facebook ad campaign strategy?
We have always focused on a content rich strategy. Facebook’s changing algorithms simply meant that we began spending money on promoting content. We focus on engagement and not blind fan acquisition.
Can you share some effective tips/secrets on effective content strategy for a travel company?
And invite competition in – lol! Jokes apart, the principles are no different from classic advertising principles. You have to understand what information your customer is seeking and/or would be interested in following. In other words, consumer insights are key here as well. Once you have the insights, you have to develop content that arrests attention – be it visually or in terms of copy! That means your content has to be relevant, interesting and unique
How much of your marketing budget do you set aside for social media?
Classified and my lips are sealed!
What is your plan of action in case of a crisis situation? Does your social media presence have a role to play when you have a company crisis?
Thankfully we have not encountered a crisis to date. How will we respond if we do? I think that it has to be on a case-to-case basis because so much will depend on the nature of the crisis.