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  • New survey examines influence of Social Media on U.S. travelers

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Ypartnership/Harrison Group 2010 Portrait of American Travelers survey

Social media are the rage among marketers of travel services, providing an easy, interactive platform to reach and engage large audiences at a modest cost. The theoretical “reach” of social media does, in fact, boggle the mind: facebook alone now boasts in excess of 500,000,000 members globally. The incidence of adults who report posting on the other popular sites pales by comparison. But to what extent do active travelers visit social media sites, consult the content of these sites when evaluating travel service options and, perhaps most importantly, report that the content of what they find on these sites influences their actual behavior?

The answers, as revealed in the new Ypartnership/Harrison Group 2010 Portrait of American Travelers survey, offer surprising insight.

Among all active travelers in the U.S. (those who took at least one trip that required overnight accommodations during the previous 12 months), just under half (an estimated 46 percent) have a page posted on a social site. Facebook has achieved the highest rate of market penetration, followed by LinkedIn and MySpace:

Social Site % Of Active Travelers With Page Posted

* facebook 91%
* Linked In 24%
* MySpace 23%

But theoretical reach doesn’t necessarily translate into influence, particularly when it comes to commercial communications. And in three separate national surveys conducted by Ypartnership, fewer than one in ten active travelers (six percent) has reported that the content to which they have been exposed on social sites has had any significant influence on their final choice of a destination or travel service supplier.

The reason behind this discrepancy probably derives from two additional insights. First, when asked about their primary motivations for the use of social media, active travelers cite the expected: a new and novel way to stay in touch with old friends, to find and make new ones, and to share information, photos and other content about life events. Very few, if any, mention activities of a commercial nature such as sourcing good deals, comparison shopping for products and services, and the like.

Second, the perceived credibility of the content of social media is low relative to the degree of credibility ascribed to other sources of information travelers typically consult when making destination and travel service supplier decisions. This is confirmed by the percentage of active travelers who are “very/extremely” confident in the information they receive from the media sources listed along the “credibility continuum:” according to the 2010 Portrait of American Travelers(SM), the vast majority of active travelers are most confident in the information they receive from family and friends (81 percent). More than half also trust information found in travel guidebooks (57 percent), as well as that provided by online travel agents (54 percent) and on online advisory sites (53 percent). Company or destination websites (46 percent), travel agents (46 percent) and media coverage (43 percent) fall in the middle of the continuum, while brochures (39 percent), blogs (33 percent) and travel advertising land in the lower half. Fewer than one in five travelers now has confidence in the information found on Facebook/Twitter (19 percent) and YouTube (14 percent).

Thus, the true power of social media derives from their ability to reach large numbers of travelers who share some common affinity in an engaging and dynamic way. Traditional sources of information about destinations and travel service suppliers appear to continue to exert greater influence over consumer choice, however, even though their reach is generally substantially less and the composition of the audiences they deliver tends to be more diffuse.

It is important to append this statement with the following caveat, however: this is true today. It may not be tomorrow. Whether and how the influence of social media on travelers’ actual behavior grows may be an entirely different question two years from now given the rapidly evolving nature of the manner in which consumers are discovering and engaging with its content.

The Ypartnership/Harrison Group 2010 Portrait of American Travelers is a national survey of 2,524 U.S. households that was conducted in February 2010. The results provide an in-depth examination of the impact of the current economic environment, social values and media habits on the travel habits of Americans with an annual household income of $50,000 or more.