What is the role of social media among companies engaged in ship-based tourism to Antarctica?
During the past few weeks, I’ve conducted an informal survey of nearly 150 social media pages maintained by 26 different organizations that are members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO).
I chose the inbound marketing efforts of IAATO operators for several reasons: I’m familiar with the companies, having served as director of the organization for five years. They also constituted a relatively easily defined universe within the travel industry that shares a unique destination visited by commercial expedition vessel.
But perhaps more importantly, I suspected this group would find social media ideal in connecting with their customers’ interests in a remote environment like Antarctica. It’s a place that visitors are passionate about, one that lends itself to a sharing of experiences no matter how often one has been there.
Antarctica is a vector for topical issues like climate change, the protection of wildlife and the environment, sustainable tourism and scientific research. Wouldn’t it make sense that Antarctic tour operators would take advantage of social media to highlight their profiles and expertise by making a discussion of these topics an important part of their marketing efforts?
The report shows…
- Eight-eight percent (88%) of the IAATO members surveyed engage in inbound marketing, using anywhere from one to as many as nine different social platforms to maintain an ongoing dialogue with their followers.
- Facebook and Twitter lead among this group of tour operators, with 85% and 77%, respectively, using these networking services.
- YouTube rates high, with 73% of the operators posting videos of their Antarctic adventures or educational vignettes.
- Antarctic tour operators also find the visual nature of Pinterest advantageous, with 62% maintaining one of the theme-based, pin board-style collection sites.
- Lesser-used social media are company blogs and Google+ (both 35%), Flickr (23%) and the more recent but increasingly popular Instagram (12%).
I took the report a step further, evaluating all of the companies’ social media sites on two criteria that I’ve labeled Activity Level and Style/Usage. To be fair, assigning values to these criteria was something of a judgment call, considering the diversity of the operators in size and complexity; the breadth and seasonality of their offerings; their market demographics and psychographics; and their marketing budgets.
But inbound marketing can be a great equalizer, providing exposure to a small company well beyond what it might afford using traditional marketing and PR methods. This is borne out in my findings, with a number of smaller companies doing as good or a better job than many of their larger, better-financed Antarctic counterparts in using social media effectively.
The report scores the marketers on a scale of 1 to 3 for Activity Level and Style/Usage for their social media sites, with 3 being active and 1 indicating infrequent postings. Similarly, sites attaining a 3 in style and usage demonstrate what I call the “Four Es” — Educational, Enriching and Entertaining, all of which lead to the bigger E, Engaging. A score of 1 in style and usage, on the other hand, signifies an overtly commercial focus on the company’s products and services.
Scores for Activity Level and Style/Usage, along with the number and types of social media used by each of the 26 companies surveyed, can be found in my report, which can be downloaded here.
Observations and Recommendations…
- It’s not as easy to achieve the Four Es as a company might hope, even one with a substantial budget for inbound marketing, since it’s considerably dependent on the regular creation of thought-provoking content.
- While regularity in posting is a good thing, an over-abundance of a good thing can have unintended consequences. Quality versus quantity also applies to the number of social media platforms used by the tour operators.
- Surprisingly, only 35% of the tour operators use blogs to publish appealing content and “tell their story. “
- “It’s All About Us.” – Fans and followers want to know about a company’s new programs, but when Facebook updates or tweets become nothing other than another commercial billboard, it’s time to rethink the approach. This is an art, not a science, and every tour operator I know has compelling, authentic stories to share.
- The report also shows that the president or CEO of nearly a quarter of the companies surveyed use Twitter separately from their organization’s postings. They frequently use it as a bully pulpit to espouse the underlying principles and beliefs on which their company is built. My report also touches on the value of using blogs by company presidents.
Dragged into using social media…for the better
As an industry group, the Antarctic tour operators did quite well in Activity Level and Style/Usage, achieving composite scores of 2.2 and 2.4 respectively. For both the group and for the individual companies, I consider anything above a score of 2 to be good and above 2.5 to be very good.
Of course, it’s natural to want to do better, particularly in striving for the “Four Es.” One of the organizations surveyed – Students on Ice (SOI), which markets to university and high school students – aced both the Activity Level and Style/Usage tallies with a pair of 3s.
According to SOI Executive Director Geoff Green, “We began our social media efforts about five years ago, but it wasn’t my impetus that got it rolling. Our alumni [past passengers] dragged us into it, so I give them all the credit.” Geoff also notes there is a generational factor that favors the younger SOI audience: “Our customers and alumni check their Facebook and Twitter pages before they do anything else. To keep them connected and engaged, our social media content needs to be relevant, fresh and interesting.”
And it’s paid off. Geoff said that many alumni are now attending conferences on climate change, sustainability and other issues facing polar tourism, having become global citizens in no small part due to their initial encounter with SOI. And their ongoing connection with SOI via social media continues to fuel their passion for polar tourism and its role in making visitors advocates for a better world.
While most Antarctic tour operators can’t expect to attract the younger, social media-savvy generation on which Students on Ice thrives, they are effectively using inbound marketing to strengthen market share, build loyalty and something more: Social networking offers a near-perfect means to actively promote one of IAATO’s core tenets – to create a corps of ambassadors for the continued protection of Antarctica, by offering the opportunity to experience the continent first hand.
To experience it and to share it. And that alone is a very good reason for pursuing an active, engaging social media strategy.