Social media is a ‘top eight’ driver of traffic for 78% of travel sites according a recent study of the “digital competency” of travel brands, with airlines and hotels dominating the leading brands in the study.

Perhaps more interesting is the fact that people are as likely to return to social media after they have visited the site. Travel sites are part of a social media experience online and brands should do more to capitalise on this behaviour.

The latest L2 Digital IQ Index for travel report evaluates the ‘digital competency’ of brands in the travel industry, from their own site, to their digital marketing, mobile experience and use of social media.

Airlines lead the pack (with Delta, Southwest and American Airlines taking the top three spots) and hotels chains follow. This is no surprise given that nearly half of airline bookings are made online and big efforts have been made to use Twitter and Facebook for customer service in some parts of the airline industry.

The Cruise category lags behind, although is the source of many great case studies such as the way Norwegian Cruise Line uses reviews and communities on its own site to help in the sales process and once a passenger is booked on a trip.

However, the main message coming out of this report is the role of social media in the travel booking process, and the work that those in the industry could still do to get greater value from this.

The analysis of traffic to and from the main sites for the travel brands in the study shows clearly the role social media plays in the users journeys online:

  • For 78% of sites, social media was a top eight source of referral traffic, and overall 7% of traffic to travel sites came from social media.
  • For 90% of sites, social media was a top destination site after visiting their site (accounting for 11% of downstream traffic overall).

This reinforces what we see from the way people use social media when researching, choosing booking travel online. Social is a key part of how customers experience travel online and social media sites are contributing significantly to the success travel brands are seeing online.

Airlines have recognised this and are typically using Twitter, shown by the fact that nine of the top 10 travel brands on Twitter are airlines. Many have been working actively to grow the engagement they are getting on this channel.

A notable example would be Air New Zealand’s 12 Days of Valentines Twitter campaign earlier in 2011, where followers were encouraged to respond to the question “What is your favorite cuddle position?” every day for two weeks.

The response judged the most creative each day won a return flight to Auckland or London in their new Skycouch seat (designed to allow you to cuddle!) In two weeks they grew their followers on Twitter by 76% in two weeks and also grew the engagement and interaction they were having with these.

Facebook is also well used across the industry. From Delta fully integrating its booking engine into Facebook (a great example of F-Commerce) to Walt Disney World Resorts capturing experiences and offering travel advice and planning tools on its Facebook page.

However, perhaps the most surprising finding from the report, given this central role social plays in the customer’s journey online, is the lack of true social tools on many travel sites:

  • 40% of travel brands don’t incorporate video on their websites.
  • 72% of brands don’t use any social sharing.
  • 80% of brands don’t include Facebook Like.
  • 91% of brands don’t allow reviews on site. 

Whilst we can see the strong role of social media sites before and after visiting the brand site, there is a real need for more social tools and a more social experience on the travel site itself.

If 7% of traffic is coming from social media, then greater use of social sharing (including Facebook Like) would only increase this as links are shared more widely as people find, book and enjoy a travel experience.

Where sites allow user reviews, there was a reported increase in traffic of 24%. They bring more authenticity to the site and can bring a significant hike in traffic to boot.

Travel brands are getting huge benefits from social media and could make it work much harder for them. They are typically using Twitter and Facebook well, but the real benefit long term will come from adding a social layer to their own sites.

Whilst the cruise category is lagging behind airlines and hotels overall, it is the source of many great case studies of adding a social layer like this.

One notable example is Norwegian Cruise Line’s ‘Freestyle Voices‘, an online community on its own site which incorporates reviews from past cruisers, questions from future passengers and the ability to find and talk to people who will be on the same cruise as you.

This kind of social layer adds more value to the brand’s main site. And if used alongside the great work and real results we see from good use of Twitter, Facebook and other such external sites, it will see the travel continue to grow its use of and the benefits it is getting from social media.