As the number of web users keeps growing, so the internet keeps evolving. It now features much simplified, more flexible and lower‑cost technology that encourages interactivity. Thanks to broader applications, internet users are now truly benefiting from the web’s participatory philosophy, forming virtual communities in which they share information about personal experiences, interesting websites, photos, and so on. Blogs, RSS content feeds, travel journals, meta‑search engines and podcasting have all emerged in the constantly changing new‑generation internet. Welcome to the Web 2.0 era!
The first generation has come and gone
Why is e-tourism evolving so rapidly? It’s important to first understand how e-tourism came about. Initially, it arose as an alternative to the traditional “off-line” reservation methods, and had just one motivation: find the best price. The consumer gained great transparency on prices and fares; this was the era that the firm PhoCusWright today calls “Travel 1.0.”
How Web 2.0 is taking shape will inevitably change the rules of the game for the travel industry. Consumers and businesses alike can now turn to ergonomic and useful solutions of all types that clearly alter the way people surf the web and change the travel-product sales approach. If the Web 2.0 phenomenon were to be described in one simple statement, it would be: “It is how internet users have taken control of the web.”
Now that we’re nearing the point where 50% of American internet users reserve their trips online, consumers’ increasingly intuitive use of innumerable applications enables them to play an active role. There are countless tools to assist tourists as they seek to find, or design, not just the cheapest trip, but the perfect trip.
Another aspect of Web 2.0 involves a rejection of traditional marketing channels as a source of persuasion. The internet user has become difficult to influence with classic advertising strategies, preferring to look for more neutral information sources, such as word-of-mouth recommendations or online forums.
As an example, Carnival added a section to its website called Carnival Connections that invites customers to use a discussion platform to plan a cruise (see photo). Carnival Connections offers forums (private or open to all) that let site visitors organize a cruise in detail, alone or through interacting with other visitors. It also features a journal of comments from past cruisers about their experiences.
What is social networking?
While Web 2.0 is still an incredibly abstract concept for most consumers and companies, 2006 is expected to be the turning point at which consumers and tourism organizations will begin to integrate social networking – a gathering place (virtual in this case, as it’s online) where relationships are formed among a great number of people with the aim of discussing a given subject.
First and foremost, social networking sites let internet users communicate with each other in an extremely efficient way, thanks to applications that enable them to locate specific interest groups. For instance, a birdwatcher can now easily share his passion with other birdwatchers through exchanging information, sharing photos, forming travel groups, etc. – in short, anything related to the interest they have in common.
The “Social internet” is spreading, with specialty sites like YouTube, MSN Spaces, Classmates.com, Myyearbook.com and so on mushrooming. The New York Times even went so far as to attribute the rebirth of Silicon Valley to the phenomenon. The most popular of these sites is MySpace, which has some 80 million members and is clearly a leader. It had more than 51 million unique visitors this past May (30% of the total number of American internet users) and is poised to become, by autumn, the single most-visited website of all. People go to Myspace mainly to swap info about destinations, talk about their latest trip, post their photos, plan a journey with friends, meet like-minded people, etc. According to PhoCusWright, about 10% of e-tourists who buy travel online have already joined such virtual communities in order to get guidance while planning trips.
Multiple Web 2.0 developments
RSS Content Feeds
One word kept coming up at recent conferences on e-tourism: “involvement.” Simplified applications and intuitive user interface allow consumers to play an active role and let businesses know what they want. The best example are the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) content feeds that allow internet users to receive streaming information right in their computers, instead of having to do internet searches. The user employs these applications (feeds) to select particular topics of interest or websites from which he/she wants to obtain the latest information. Once the parameters are defined via a personal profile, the feeds become an alert tool and web content transmission mechanism tailored to the internet user’s needs.
As an example, online agencies like Expedia and Orbitz offer customers the opportunity to automatically receive all new promotions as soon as they’re posted on the site. Another example of the application would be a sports-news fan who receives from Cyberpresse all articles published in the sports section of the site.
Meanwhile, more and more companies are offering feedback forums for customers. Many corporate blogs are set up with the aim of getting more direct feedback from customers, of soliciting their participation and getting their comments. Designated as a community space for the consumer, the revamped Sheraton website is a good example. Visitors are encouraged to share stories, advice and photos relating to their top travel discoveries, favourite destinations, etc. Sheraton management says the portal is a reflection of how people now research and buy their trips. In a context where businesses seek to show as much transparency as possible, such discussion areas help achieve this goal.
Among many other concrete examples of what Web 2.0 has given rise to, the travel “Wikis” are worth mentioning. These are collaborative websites where any internet user can easily participate in authoring the content. The pioneering and most popular of these sites, TripAdvisor, has positioned itself as an encyclopaedia of travel destinations built upon the reviews of real travellers. The collection of all these personal tourist experiences is a powerful tool of influence on traveller decision-making and is enormously popular because of its completely neutral and transparent nature.
Implications for businesses
Now the big question is: what should we do to prepare for the coming Web 2.0 era?
Personalization of online content and community spaces provide whole new marketing opportunities for businesses wanting to target a very precise customer profile. These “involved” internet users, if properly approached, if solicited in the right place with offers pertinent to their profile, are liable to react very positively to product offers.
As most community sites include search applications in the form of a search engine or tags (key words related to content), it is easy to buy advertising space associated with categories that are innately compatible. For instance, many different groups gather and discuss travel-related topics at Myspace.com. In the illustrated example, you can see to the right of the page an advertising banner containing sponsored links related to this theme.
Note that Myspace.com offers participants the option of identifying the information and products that interest them; for tourism companies, this is a crucial component of social networking. Every traveller who uploads a holiday itinerary identified with a keyword (tag) or a personal photo from a trip, or designates a favourite page, is giving managers very pertinent information about his/her personal interests and tourist behaviour.
You may not be familiar with these new players, but some of them are already among the most-visited sites on the web. Experiments on how to best utilize Web 2.0 from a marketing standpoint are only at the embryonic stage. Managers still have much to learn in terms of optimizing the use of these new technologies and the potential interactions with customers. It is perhaps too soon to overhaul your marketing strategies, but you would certainly be well-advised to adopt an open mind in order to properly anticipate the way Web 2.0 will influence how you do business and how to get the most out of it.
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