TRAVEL RESEARCH: The Role of Social Media in the “Purchase Funnel”

Social media’s role in the purchase process is a much-discussed topic among marketers. Several weeks ago, I was treated to the latest iteration of the traditional viewpoint in this debate, courtesy of iconic travel researcher Peter Yesawich. Speaking at a Door County Visitor Bureau member breakfast, Yesawich opined that while social media can play a significant role in the “awareness” phase of the purchase funnel, it should not be used for bottom-of-funnel stages, including purchase.

“It can get the customer hooked,” he asserted. “But it can’t close the deal.”

Yesawich’s observations were based in his firm’s annual Portrait of American Travelers survey, which examines the motivations and future plans of middle- to upper-income adults, as well as their purchase behavior. Three household income ranges were examined: $50,000-$124,999, $125,000-$249,999, and $250,000 or more. Not surprisingly, the affluent group was seen as the leading opportunity for destination marketers, with almost twice as many planning trips than the lowest income segment.

Breaking the data along age lines led to predictable findings, most notably that millennials were the most active in social media and the least brand loyal. Matures, on the other hand, spent the most on leisure travel, stayed the longest at their destinations and had the least engagement with and trust of social media.

Yesawich also examined the exploding role of mobile devices on travel. Nearly three times more travelers used smart phones in 2013 than in 2011, while tablet use increased by a factor of six during that period (from 7% to 42%) and watching video/TV on tablets went from virtually nothing to 23%.

An interesting corollary to this is the growing use of YouTube in a Trip Advisor-type capacity, to get reviews of destinations, hotels, restaurants and so on. Yesawich found that 30% of travelers were now using YouTube in this way, and he expects the video platform to give TripAdvisor “a run for its money” within the next four years. He also expects more video enhancements to come on TripAdvisor in an effort to combat that threat.

As far as social media’s direct role in the purchase process, Yesawich found it is more than twice as likely to play a role in the early stages of the funnel as in the purchase stage. For example, 38% of respondents said they had visited a social advisory site or blog to get travel information or reviews, but only 8% used social media for their actual purchase – including just 1% of the mature segment. Interestingly, he found that 25% of travelers posted on social media to “make their friends jealous,” including 38% of millennials.

Based on this research, Yesawich’s take-away for marketers and media planners is that social media strategy (and spending) should be focused on the top of the purchase funnel – generating awareness and buzz, drawing people to destination’s social channels and eventually to its website.

The B+L viewpoint on this differs slightly from Yesawich’s. Specifically, we don’t see purchase behavior as a funnel as much as a circle. In this circle, the after-purchase experience is equally important, as we are trying to create brand evangelists, stimulate repeat purchases and so on. Obviously, there is a different (and larger) role for social media in that model – something B+L Media Director Lisa Huebner will expand upon in an upcoming B+LOG.