Comment: Travel is social – the booking process must be too

It’s time the industry realises the potential of social commerce, says Joyned chief executive Jonathan Abraham

Post-pandemic travel continues to capture the interest of friends and families this year, as they look to create memorable experiences together abroad.

And better still, consumer confidence in the travel sector remains high, as global tourism arrivals are set to rise by 30% over 2023.

Travel has always been a social experience. In my view, it’s actually the bedrock of our industry, with interaction between friends and family being a crucial dynamic within the booking process.

However, the fact is that the booking experience remains a solitary one. With few opportunities for prospective travellers to facilitate conversations directly on the travel site, the entire experience is significantly less engaging and fruitful than it should be. Fortunately, by leveraging technology, travel sites can remedy the social scarcity which exists on most travel websites today. The antidote to this issue is social commerce.

Already popular within retail, the travel industry is behind the curve in realising the potential that social commerce possesses. Here, I ecplore why OTAs should embrace social commerce to positively transform the online travel booking experience, increasing revenue in the process.

An old idea meets new technology

Social commerce has always been around, it was just known by a different name – just ‘commerce’! Whether you were purchasing a refrigerator in the 1970s, a microwave in the 1980s or a pair of Reebok pumps in the 1990s, all of these purchases were influenced by our friends and family.  Now, the difference is that so much of our booking habits unfold online as e-commerce instead. But where did the ‘social’ go?

“Friends and family are the real influencers when it comes to booking trips abroad”

At its heart is one unchanged point – social interaction, especially between our friends and family, is what influences our spending decisions more than anything. In fact, nearly half of consumers say that recommendations from friends and family members have driven their decision to make purchases. That’s why we have to acknowledge that friends and family are the real influencers when it comes to booking trips abroad.

The retail sector has embraced social commerce having realised this much earlier, meaning ‘social e-commerce’ is widely deployed on their sites, making online purchasing decisions easier than ever. It also explains why the global social commerce market is projected to grow by 27.9% between 2023 and 2028.

But other sectors, including travel, have been far too quick to assume social commerce has little or no relevance to them. The truth is that social commerce represents a major opportunity for the travel sector, as research from Phocuswright has indicated; it is precisely what will “crack the code of developing direct distribution channels, nurture loyalty, and improve marketing efficiency”.

Facilitating two-way communication between consumers increases convenience which ultimately provides a better booking experience for friends and family looking to take trips abroad. This social booking experience has already begun to emerge within the travel sector, with social media also having an important role to play, but uptake of the technology is lagging behind other industries in fully embracing social commerce.

Social Media and Social Commerce: a connection of a different kind

Adopting social commerce requires OTAs to first confront the fact that friends and family are the biggest influencers on our spending decisions. Though influencers on social media and celebrities play an important part in why people choose to travel, nothing compares to the most credible, trusted influence of all – those closest to us. That’s why equating ‘influencer’ to mean only ‘celebrity’ is one of the biggest mistakes the travel industry has made.

But with much of the discussion between friends and family now happening online via social media, how can travel sites provide optimal conditions for friends and family to further drive travel purchases?

Though some see contradictions and conflict in the relationship between social media and social commerce, the truth is that social commerce remains intrinsically connected to social media. After all, social media is a fundamental tool of 21st century communication.

For the travel industry, the story is no different, with Phocuswright’s ‘Under the Influence’ report suggesting that over half of all leisure travellers used social media to make travel decisions, whilst the American Express Global Travel Trends report puts the figure at 75% – three quarters of all travellers.

Social media is so important for the travel industry because it is where much of the ‘inspiration phase’ of the customer buying journey unfolds. This is where groups search for the inspiration for their next trip, often using social media to view pictures and videos as well as talk with friends – not only providing the thrust and feeding the desire to book a trip, but to book a trip together.

The most common type of social media account used for inspiration are in fact those of our friends and family – by a significant margin. And trust is strongest amongst those closest to us, hence we eagerly receive recommendations, inspiration, and advice from them.

The ‘inspiration phase’ leads to the ‘booking phase’

However, though social media chat-based apps like WhatsApp, Facebook and Snapchat are used for travel inspiration, they simply cannot support the kind of interactive experience required to progress the booking experience because they do not provide an easy, seamless experience. Groups of friends and family need to discuss numerous elements within their trips, including destinations, transport, pricing, accommodation and more, so social media can only accommodate part of the customer buying journey – that being the inspiration phase.

We have all experienced how frustrating it can be when attempting to organise a trip all from one group chat. But when social media fails to facilitate ‘social decision making’, this is where social commerce comes in, better enabling the next stage of the customer buying journey: the ‘booking phase’.

When it comes to the booking phase – the point at which prospective travellers begin to find the best holiday option – OTAs have a significant role to play, being the most popular online source in the 45 days leading up to a travel purchase. So with friends and family discussing holidays via social media, simultaneously trawling the web for the best holiday package, we can begin to see how social booking holds the answer in speeding up the travel booking process as well as making it more fulfilling and enjoyable.

“The need for social interaction only grows as you travel down the purchase funnel towards the booking stage”

At Joyned, the past 18 months has provided first-hand experience on just how transformative the integration of social commerce can be for early adopters such as OYO Rooms and RIU Hotels. The frictionless experience that social commerce enables through providing a space for interaction upon the travel site benefits both consumers and OTAs.

For consumers, discussion is enabled in a way that simply wasn’t possible within social media. OTAs, on the other hand, benefit from enabling the conversations to happen upon their site, naturally leading to higher conversion rates and providing the opportunity for sophisticated customer sentiment and data analysis. With access to secure and encrypted data on sentiment analysis, price perception and mapping of the group booking customer buying journey, travel sites can further enrich their offering via tailored offers and promotions. Above all else, an enhanced social booking experience keeps groups happy, increasing customer loyalty and revenue in the process.

While friends and family use social media to be influenced and inspired, social commerce exists to realise their ambitions to travel and, ultimately, proceed with booking their trip. What is clear is that the need for social interaction only grows as you travel down the purchase funnel towards the booking stage.

To conclude, social commerce exists to put the ‘social’ into online purchasing and booking decisions. It acknowledges that the biggest influencers on our spending decisions across every stage of the booking process are those closest to us.

However, as groups of travellers progress from the inspiration phase, largely taking place on social media, to the booking phase via OTAs, they are faced with a number of booking decisions, at which point much interaction is needed and social commerce’s role becomes clear.

When friends and family begin to search for their dream holiday online, a seamless, social booking experience provides them with a space to make those decisions collectively. This speeds up the booking process, increasing conversion rates for travel sites, and boosting customer loyalty through a superior booking experience.

It’s now time the travel industry realises the potential of social commerce and incorporates it into their offering to consumers.

Share article

View Comments

Jacobs Media Group is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

The highest official awards for UK businesses since being established by royal warrant in 1965. Read more.