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Monday, 17 November, 2008, 10 : 00 AM [IST]

Social Networking Sites: Emerging Marketing Tool

The deep penetration and popularity of social networking sites across all age groups has led advertisers across industries to stand up and take notice of this potential marketing tool. Krupa Vora examines the potential of these sites for the travel and hospitality industry to showcase its products and events to the concerned audience.
Every Internet user is believed to be a part of at least one social networking site, be it Facebook, Orkut, MySpace, Hi5 or LinkedIn. Reasons may be many. Some want to keep in touch with old friends, while most others look for friendship online. Through these sites one also keeps track of  the latest happenings in one’s area of interest. These sites also provide huge opportunities for business networking to its users and most importantly now pose as great marketing tools. Groups and communities on social networking sites are being increasingly used to showcase product offerings of various companies who wish to strike a chord with their potential clients. Strangers sharing common interests get ample opportunities to network and many  times strike good business deals.

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In the Indian market, social networking sites like Orkut, Facebook, Hi5 and corporate websites like LinkedIn and Zing have a great fan following. Apart from maintaining regular contact with friends, users can avail of features that allow them to make new corporate contacts. Going by reports on Wikipedia, as of May 2008, India ranked second with 16.97 per cent users and 18 per cent traffic to Orkut. Facebook has more than 110 billion active users worldwide, whereas LinkedIn, as of last month more than 30 million registered users spanning across 150 industries. Catering to head honchos in the corporate world, LinkedIn launched a mobile version of the site in February 2008 in six different languages with features which can be accessed and used on a mobile phone.

Users, part of groups or communities of personal interest, are targeted by companies that have started using these mediums to market their products relating to those particular interests. Updates of music events, menu launches at restaurants across a particular city, special events at hotels and also travel specific information and forums are marketing efforts already being undertaken via websites. Circulating a single post about a particular event automatically spreads the word among users and their contacts, thus acting as a strong tool for communication. Public can be informed through the domino effect set out by threads of information passed on from one user to the other.

Banner ads on a website are also fast gaining importance as channels to reach out to the end consumer. Companies set out their product offerings through these ads thus targeting the exact audience for the product. These banner ads are used for special deals, events, promotions of products etc. wherein the user is re-directed to the company website to gather more information. “Advertising online is seen as a good proposition considering its user base and penetration potential. Its cost effectiveness also cannot be ignored as the amount spent on advertising on networking websites is considerably lesser as compared  to other media of communication,” said Akash Sheth, CEO, Raj Travel World. Across travel verticals in India, companies have realised the potential of marketing through these networking sites.

Even car hire companies are looking at the opportunities of marketing through these websites. “With the target audience that we have, we might look at a possibility of placing banner ads on social networking sites wherein users are re-directed to our website to book cabs. We are considering the option and may implement the same in the coming months,” informed Gavin Dabreo, Vice President Marketing and Sales, Meru Cab Services.

Though the channel of marketing is still at a nascent stage, many companies are hesitant to adopt the medium in the current scenario, but are positive about the potential that networking sites hold.

Cost Effectiveness
Free access to social networking sites makes them extremely cost effective for companies willing to adopt them as marketing tools. The web offers less expenditure to market events, special deals and products offered by companies. It also connects to the right target audience directly without any misplacement of information. “In case of print advertising, it is very mass specific advertising and if the product is very niche, it does not serve the purpose. We have a community on Facebook which updates its members with our latest products and offerings,” explained Yogesh (Yogi) Shah, CEO, The Backpacker Co. The Backpacker Co. group on Facebook enables single travellers to meet other travellers visiting the same destination at the same time, thus facilitating better exploration of destinations with company.

Right audience, right product, right content
Not all products can be advertised on social networking sites. Any and every product may not click online or give the desired results. A fundamental rule to keep in mind is targeting the right product at the right audience. For instance, Orkut users mainly constitute of young school and college-going students. So, it is much more feasible to market packages or travel products related to students’ trips, youth travel or also volunteer travel. “It will not be feasible for me to market group tours on social networking sites. One needs to identify the right audience and eventually disseminate information related to your offerings,” stated Sheth. Raj Travel World does not undertake marketing on social networking sites, however it has realised the potential of this medium and might look at promoting its products online in the future.

Another critical aspect of advertising online is presenting content that is interesting and at the same time useful to its potential users. The content has to be able to grab and hold the attention of the user in order to acquire the desired result. A company running its own community is required to post interesting content in order to disseminate information about its products, connect with its potential clients and increase membership to the community. “Creating a community would be as good as having a co-branded credit card wherein you ask people to sign up and use it, but with communities on networking sites one needs to post appealing content to catch the attention of the user. Instead it would be much better to participate in the existing forums and discussions through which you could provide relevant information based on your experience,” said Hari Krishnan, Vice President Corporate Planning and Marketing, Travelguru. The information provided on these existing groups should create the much required brand awareness.

Content generated by users through networking sites can be of great help in tapping and modifying content and offerings of companies to suit the needs of the users. Discussions and forums provide first hand information on the wants of the consumers. “Travellers have views about certain products which they speak about in discussion forums online. When you hear the consumer first hand and later club it with your experience, it just works wonders. We also provide information on sites like Orkut and Facebook with regards to special events and promotions,”  stated Nikhil Rungta, Marketing Head, Yatra.com

Flip Sides
With  many plus points that marketing has on social networking sites, come the challenges too. One of the biggest flip sides is hitting the right audience with the right message and if that does not happen, one’s content may be termed as spam. Also, groups and communities often have miscreants who may change opinions in the wrong direction due to malicious intent. “There are users who tend to have negative approach towards certain things, but the idea is to recognise the right user which can help to avoid such a situation,” said Riyaaz Amlani, CEO and MD, Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality Pvt. Ltd. Perhaps, scanning profiles of users before giving them membership to the group can also be helpful in avoiding untoward incidents. Also having a moderator to the community can be  of  a big help in monitoring the information and discussions conducted within the group. “The objective is to check the profile of the user before letting them be a part of the group. The group where we started marketing our hotel events, actually started with relatives and friends, industry people and eventually the mass audience,” said Geoff Magee, CEO, The Accord Metropolitan. The Accord Metropolitan apart from using popular sites like Facebook also uses local sites which are specific to the city, like chennaionline.com.

The immense potential of marketing through social networking sites cannot be ignored. As an effective tool of disseminating information, these sites take the product to the doorstep of the user. If used with the right approach clubbed with the right mix of content and target the right audience can turn potential clients into actual consumers. All it needs is awareness and openness to accept the channel as a strong mean to reach out to the audience.
 
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Ankit Bhargava 2008-11-26 01:46:19
Just wish to put this Indian Travel Community portal into your notice www.TravelConnect.in Thanks
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