Monitoring what your customers are saying about you online can help you develop a better product. However, some travel companies could do more to improve their online reputations.

“You going away this year?” “Been anywhere nice on your holidays?” Familiar conversation openers everywhere, from the hair salon to the dentist’s waiting room. For a nation of holidaymakers, flying off to seek a sun-soaked summer holiday binds relative strangers together with a common experience.

If our travel experiences are shared between us to create micro communities in the real world, it should follow that travel brands are exploiting this and leading the way in creating communities online. Shouldn’t it?

Well, not as much as you might think. We used our Social Media Reputation index to rank the popularity of five of the biggest names in travel, and the results are surprising.

We know consumers share their travel experiences online. As many as 700 hoteliers in the US and the UK are (or are considering) bringing legal action against Trip Advisor for allegedly false reviews posted on the consumer review site, which is a pretty clear indication of the power of consumers online.

Travel companies have long been leading the way in online advertising and search activity. But when it comes to social media, some of the really big players, like First Choice and Thomas Cook, are very late to the party.

We’ve just finished a project to analyse the social media reputations of a handful of the biggest travel brands in the UK to see how they were performing and what lessons could be learned.

Each brand was given a score out of 100 for reach (how many consumers the brand is reaching online) and satisfaction (the satisfaction level of the consumer with the brand); both of these are weighted with a ‘recency’ score, which takes into account how often and how recently the brand engages. These were combined to give an overall score out of 100 that measures the brand’s reputation as measured over social media.

TUI-owned First Choice scored the worst in satisfaction terms, with an overall reputation score of 49. The ‘satisfaction’ score has been dented by a number of holiday disaster stories being discussed online, covered in some high-profile online media and retweeted extensively.

You could argue that with a company the size of TUI, this is going to happen every now and again. But a significant proportion of the negative influence on First Choice’s reputation is generated by users complaining about hidden costs and changing prices on the brand’s website – things that could easily be changed to reverse the negative reviews online.

And although numbers aren’t everything, the company has no clear Facebook presence, and a Twitter account with just 215 followers at the time of writing, which is used to broadcast news, rather than engage with customers.

The reverse of this is Trailfinders, which has the lowest social media presence of any of the travel brands. It has no detectable voice on Facebook or Twitter – not really surprising for a company that still doesn’t take online reservations. But interestingly, it has the highest satisfaction score of all the brands we looked at, receiving high praise for its dedication to customer service and friendly call centre staff.

So, what can we learn from this?

Monitoring what customers are saying about you can help you develop a better product. You can find out – as in the case of First Choice – what’s putting your customers off booking; what are the best-performing resorts and holidays (and which are the worst); and adjust your product offering accordingly.

Listening to what customers have to say can help you right wrongs. But you can’t do that if you don’t have a two-way online presence to start with. First Choice has no conversational route to its consumers online, so can’t address the issues that generate negative reviews and coverage.

If it built up that presence, it could negate some of the negative attention it is generating, and sort out, for example, compensation claims before they reach a critical point in the media.

And, finally, there’s no substitute for getting your product or service right in the first place. Trailfinders, though it has a tiny online presence, has created a loyal base of customers which, if harnessed effectively through communities, could create an army of advocates that would swell the business.