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Social experiences in tourism: Think beyond social media

Social media and digital causes smart people to make stupid decisions. When we hear 'digital', we think technology and websites first but tend to forget about the experience the user will have with our products.
This is a flaw that many businesses, not only those in the tourism industry, are making when they enter the digital and social media realm. Like many businesses, tour operators and travel agencies start the process with a digital agency by saying 'we want our site or social media page to look amazing!' What needs to be understood is that the appearance of a site or page is really just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The interactive aspects of a site are far more important and should receive more attention, but are often hidden beneath the surface. Businesses need to start diving down and placing more emphasis on these aspects and the social experience they offer. This is where digital agencies can start really offering their clients value.

The tourism sector is all about experiences. Why do people travel - because they want a new, life-changing experience. Unfortunately the travel industry is following the trend of 'just adding social media' without considering the social experience involved. It's time to think beyond just being on Twitter or Facebook and thinking about how social fits into the entire holiday experience; from looking for ideas to reminiscing afterward.

To get a deep understanding of users' thought processes and pain points in areas of their day-to-day life, Proctor and Gamble use mental modeling, a design ethnography tool pioneered by Indi Young. NATIVE, in conjunction with SA Tourism, worked with real holidaymakers to create mental models of people who visit South Africa on holiday. This helped the digital marketing team to understand a person's thought processes and pain points from the time they first think about going on holiday, right through until they return from the trip.

Using this model, the team could go beyond using social to sell holiday ideas. They could start thinking about more interesting problems like how holidaymakers use social networks to solve visa issues or brag about a holiday to pre-empt post purchase dissonance. The point is that there are far more opportunities for the tourism sector to engage and interact with the holidaymaker throughout the entire holiday process.

The key insight for SA Tourism and the travel industry in general, lies in understanding that where possible, people extend their offline social behaviours into online in social spaces. Here are five examples:

Firstly people curate and collect holiday ideas. In real life, people find pictures in magazines and books of destinations they like and collect these images. offers a great digital analogue for this type of behaviour. On Pinterest, people can pin up their dream destinations and others can view these destinations. It is surprising that tour operators haven't joined the Pinterest conversation since Pinterest is the new 'shopping' gallery for online users.

Next, people love telling stories about their holidays. Blogs, Flickr and YouTube are great tools for story telling. The tourism industry should move beyond just posting photos and get involved in creating platforms for story telling. Perhaps partnering with a company like to help holidaymakers create shareable video slideshows of their photos is a viable option.

Before leaving home, people like to prepare for holiday activities like hiking or skiing. The first place they look is online. As a hotel or tour operator, you probably have access to expertise on certain activities in your area. Why not assist travellers on the 'how to' of certain activities by posting YouTube videos.

When they get home, people share their opinions of their experience, but the best time to get feedback is during or immediately after an experience. You want people to talk about you, so empower travellers to review their experience by giving them free access to Facebook, Twitter and TripAdvisor while at your facility. This will increase the amount of content they post about you.

People will enquire about holidays on forums and travel chat sites. Select a few relevant ones, and be available to offer answers and be seen as an authority on destinations. Authenticity is key, so only honest, non-commercial answers will do.

The entire holiday experience, from dreaming of ideas to reminiscing, has social aspects. Being social is not about collecting friends and followers but thinking about relationships between people - how they share and act in the social media space. When people are in a holiday mood, it is the ideal time to encourage and enable them. OUTsurance has seen the benefit of this approach. When OUTsurance pays its OUTbonus to customers it asks whether they have any friends or family members who they think would like to receive an OUTbonus. Because customers feel great at that moment they will gladly hand over the details of friends and family members to OUTsurance. Why not harness the jovial holiday spirit and ask for a review of the experience and connect with potential travellers in this way?

Think about identity too and understand that what people share on social media sites says something about them. If you want people to share your info in their social media circles it needs to be cool, beautiful and interesting. This leads onto the idea of creating social objects. Take Apple for example. Apple doesn't even have a Twitter feed and yet is constantly spoken about. How did that happen? Apple has done one of the best social media campaigns ever by creating products that are worth talking about i.e. social objects. People have been congregating around social objects long before social networks came into existence. Facebook and Twitter merely brought these conversations online. Social objects make people want to interact. This means that the social media content we create needs to be about social objects. Photos, for example, need to be interesting enough to encourage conversation and interaction. Think beyond a typical beach shot to something unique, weird or wacky. Images can still be beautiful but need to have a wow-factor to really become social objects.

Flickr and Pinterest, as previously mentioned, are great places to post amazing photos that generate conversation. Tripadvisor offers the platform for interesting reviews about your resort or destination. Foursquare is the platform to place local offers and Groupon, for example, is worth looking at for deals for your travellers. Use these platforms to share your social objects.

The rule of thumb is to ask yourself 'would this be worthy of conversation in the real world?' If the answer is no then it's not worth posting in the social media space.

Travel and holidaymaking are inherently social activities. The time is now for the tourism and travel sectors to go beyond collecting Facebook Likes and Twitter followers to really understanding how the real world social activities around holidaymaking translate into online social experiences.


About the author

Farai Madzima, User Experience Designer NATIVE.

NATIVE VML's press office

NATIVE VML is a digitally-led full-service marketing agency that strives to forge deep relationships between its clients and their customers.