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After Facebook’s disappointing listing in May many commentators questioned whether the social networking giant had missed the boat – especially when it came to mobile. Some even wondered whether Facebook has had its day. But as Pamela Whitby finds out there is still life in the social networking giant

Facebook’s Head of Travel Industry, Lee McCabe is clear on one thing: “We haven't missed the boat. We are building the boat.”

With 604 million active mobile users – a number that is growing fast – it is fair to say that Facebook still has everything to play for. “We see mobile as a very important channel and one that will be even more important for the travel vertical,” says McCabe.

According to McCabe one the most effective solutions Facebook now has is Mobile App Install, which offers marketers a “very efficient way” to get their app onto devices in volume. “This is important,” he says. “In travel apps, I think first mover advantage is key. The great digital land grab of the past 10 years has been domain names. I think the next 10 will be about handset real estate.”

Social disruption

New developments aside, McCabe admits that technology has disrupted each stage of the travel purchase path, but believes that social has disrupted the paradigm. “Now sharing is at the heart of the process and evident at every stage,” he says, adding that recommendations from friends and family are far more influential than standard advertising. This is something Facebook is “enabling at scale”.

He backs up his thinking with some stats:

•         92% of consumers trust earned media, such as recommendations from family and friends.

•         Only about half (47%) trust TV, radio and newspapers.

“Facebook is well-placed to help global travel brands such as Best Western, harness these opportunities,” says McCabe. Best Western worked with Facebook to make its annual ‘stay four, pay three’ spring promotion more social. Its ‘Be a Travel Hero’ campaign let guests design dream vacations and invite their friends and families to join them through an app on Facebook. The brand used ads on the homepage and sponsored stories to raise awareness of the campaign. The only thing Best Western did differently this year was to include Facebook in the campaign. And the result: it saw more than a 20% increase in revenue year-on-year, representing a figure in the eight digits and making it the most successful spring promotion in Best Western's history. According to Richard Lewis, Chief Executive, Interchange & Consort Hotels; Best Western Hotels Great Britain Best Western’s success on Facebook is due to its early adoption of new marketing opportunities. “We were the first hotel brand worldwide to be fully bookable within the Facebook site and we have just surpassed 500,000 followers,” he says.

Interestingly though, McCabe refers to how Facebook can help ‘global brands’. Another criticism often levelled at Facebook is that it has missed opportunities from small-to-medium businesses. However, it seems that might be changing too. This week the social network released updates to its Nearby app which is accessed via the Facebook mobile app. It promises to create new ways for people to discover local businesses, which have always relied on word-of-mouth recommendations to gain new customers and grow their sales. Today many small businesses depend on social endorsements to be discovered so recommendations from friends become even more important. In the US 150 million people visit pages on Facebook each day and half of those do so from a mobile device – this represents a huge and growing opportunity. In addition to showing which friends have checked in at a particular place, Nearby now helps people discover places near them based on their friends’ recommendations. So according to Facebook if you have a page on Facebook with a location, your business now another way to be discovered by its 600-million plus mobile consumers.

Emerging trends

For the McCabe the top trend going forward will be “that social will be proved unequivocally, not to be hype. I see more and more travel companies just ‘getting it’”. 

Travel companies are increasingly approaching social with a very clear strategy that is tied to existing objectives and focuses on solutions that fit travel well. He cites Custom Audience, Mobile App Install, Offers and Facebook Exchange as examples.

According to McCabe MGM Resorts International has been testing Custom Audiences to provide deals on stays to repeat guests for properties including Aria, Mirage, MGM Grand and Luxor. After seeing returns on advertising spend ranging from 3x to 15x, they're expanding the use of the product to market more of their properties, he says. 

Likes aren’t the be all and end all

A figure released recently and quoted countless times is that Facebook has had over1.13 trillion likes since February 2009. But increasingly brands are recognising that likes are not the holy-grail. “I completely agree. Fans and likes are only an intermediary to success,” admits McCabe. But this is one of the most common mistakes Facebook see its partners making. “If fan acquisition is your only goal, then success is unlikely,” he says. 

Instead what is needed, he says, is a balanced strategy spanning what is known as the CEII framework:

Connect:Everything begins with the connection but avoid gimmicks and incentives that cause non-customers to dilute your base

Engage -You need to create a compelling page experience

Influence – Encourage your loyal fans to tell their friends

Integrate - Finally leverage the social graph to make your business better.

For McCabe, 2013 looks to be a great year for social in travel. We’ll be watching this space.

 

Lee McCabe Head of Travel at Facebook will be speaking at EyeforTravel’s Social Media & Mobile Strategies for Travel 2012 event from March 18-19

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