The chimera of social travel

Ever since Facebook set dollar signs spinning in venture capitalists’ eyes, the concept of social travel has been bandied about as the Next Big Thing in travel technology.

First came a wave of “Facebook for travel” sites that tried to build their own social networks, only with a travel focus. Crushed by the weight of the network effect, these all sank without a trace, with the qualified exception of TripIt, which survives more through its slick itinerary-building capabilities than through social networking.

Next Foursquare hit the scene, gaining critical mass through Facebook check-in notifications and proving that there was a market for “social-local-mobile” apps.  The inevitable wave of “social-travel-mobile” copycats followed, all of which seemed primarily designed to lure you in with the promise of useful travel info while actually spamming the hell out of your Facebook, Twitter etc streams to entice more marks into their Ponzi scheme.  A trendily spelling-impaired startup called Tripl has even come up with a pretty yet remarkably vapid infographic to justify its claims of “social travel revolution”, which can be summarized à la South Park as thus:

  • Travel is increasing.
  • Social networking is increasing.
  • Travelers use social networks.
  • ???
  • Profit!

But the question I want to ask is: does social travel actually work?  Let’s consider a simple thought experiment and find out.

So.  I’m going to Milan for the first time and I want to know where to stay, what to see and what to eat.  Will social travel help me?  There are three possibilities.

Case 1: My social network has no people familiar with Milan. 

If I know nobody in Milan, even on a “sat next to them on a flight once, exchanged business cards and added them on Facebook” level, then my social network can have no information about Milan.  And when you think about it, this is actually a very, very common situation: you usually meet people from Milan when visiting Milan, not before.  And even if you have already been to Disneyland, do you know anybody living there?  Or even in Orlando?

Case 2: My social network has a good friend living in Milan.

Let’s say I do know somebody from Milan; maybe we met at university and have known each other for years, or maybe they visited my town on business and I took them around the sights.  So when I visit Milan, gracious host that they are, they will return the favor and take me around in person.  No social travel network needed.

Case 3: My social network has a friend who knows Milan well, but doesn’t actually live there.

My friend Svetlana has been to Milan at least ten times and would love to tell me all her favorite places, like the five-star hotel with a fabulous spa she stays at, all the chic handbag boutiques she visits, plus a wonderful cramped little restaurant in a cellar that serves divine pizza by candlelight.  Kind and generous soul that she is, she’s even taken the time to type all these up on a social travel site, complete with accurate addresses and opening hours.  Surely this is a social travel match made in heaven?

Alas, no.  My budget extends to three stars tops, so her hotel is out; I’m a guy, so I have a distinctly limited need for designer fashion accessories with four-figure pricetags; and we’re bringing along the baby, so late dinners are out and we choose lunch restaurants based on availability of highchairs and staff that won’t throw a hissy fit when Jr. smears pureed broccoli all over the table.  So I can’t actually use any of her recommendations.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, incompatible travel profiles like this are pretty much the rule rather than the exception.  Think back to your last casual conversation with somebody who had recently been to a place you were going to.  How much genuinely useful travel information did you manage to glean from them?  If you were lucky, maybe a burger joint or microbrewery worth checking out, but would it be enough to replace your guidebook?

(The reverse of this explains why local sites that operate where you live and have lots of friends do work: while most of your local friends probably do not share your interest in Japanese food or the perfect cappuccino, enough of them do that they will share interesting new places on a regular basis.  Also, since you’re living there instead of traveling, you’re not pressed for time: if I live in Milan and my local friend recommends a Mexican place, I’ll probably go check it out at some point, but if I’m there only for a weekend, I’ll stick to Italian.)

The final nail in the coffin is that while sharing your favorite spots at a dinner party with someone you know is effortless and fun, it’s fairly tedious to type them up in a social networking site at a usable level of detail.  While on a fully open travel site like Wikitravel you can at least bask in the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing that your handiwork will be read by thousands, on a social network that restricts visibility to people who know you, the odds of anybody actually ever seeing or caring what you write is low indeed.

And that’s it: the inescapable conclusion is that your social network is very likely to be useless for actual travel.  Not a few startups have realized this problem, and have tried to figure out ways to lower the bar.  Maybe they can find you an in-person guide by being a de facto dating service like Tripl and any number of “X with a local” sites tries to do, or maybe they can show everybody everybody’s contributions and hope you can make some sense of it (I’m looking at you, TripAdvisor), or maybe they can sprinkle in lots of content from experts like Lonely Planet and Frommers (hi there, Wenzani!).  But each of these actually involves going outside your social network, and thus loses the main point of social networking: that these recommendations come from people you know and trust, not random strangers.

This is not to say that social networks don’t have their place in a traveler’s repertoire: Facebook is great for keeping touch with acquaintances around around the globe, and any local site can give me good recommendations in places new to me if I can just be specific enough about what I want and where.  There’s also plenty of room for improvement, since most user-generated travel sites out there do a really bad job of using user reputation and nth-degree connections to sort out the bacon from the spam, and I’m mildly amazed that none of the major networks have taken a leaf from Dopplr‘s book and implemented a notification service that lets you know when visitors are heading your way.  But social travel alone is not going to be the killer app for travel.

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13 thoughts on “The chimera of social travel

  1. Great thoughts!

    What about case #4 – less about your personal social network and more about the grander scheme of things. While not all travel brands have mastered targeted listening, mention of places you intend to visit, etc are picked up and overheard in Twitter conversations and virtual strangers butt in with their two cents. Likewise, one can always search for the conversation and ask for recommendations knowing they’re among people qualified to respond.

    Jenn Seeley – Community Engagement, Radian6

  2. Jani, you are my hero.

    Absolutely, without a doubt, the best article written on social travel in the last 5 years. Wonderful, well thought, loved it.

    I have been thinking about the same point for a while, which has only been heighten by the recent release of the Bing / Social Search commercial (http://youtu.be/L-FwaCz4yZ0). If Kevin (guy from the video) does not have any friends in Hawaii, this whole social search thing is pretty useless.

    Social travel advice is only as good as your friends.

    And frankly, my friends are not exactly world travelers.

    Milan? Shit, most have not been to Milwaukee.

    Combine that with the demands of maintaining a social travel profile and we get the current state of social travel.

    A lot of noise, not a lot of advice.

    Brilliant.

    – Troy

  3. Hey Jani,

    Nice post. You make some good points and I completely agree that some travel startups were destined to fail because of a complete lack of how the travel decision process works.

    Allow me to make a few counterpoints or a different point of view.

    You focus on the bottom of the funnel; planning and conversion. And I agree that when it comes to trip planning, your personal social network isn’t always the best source. But people get inspired by others in social media all the time. Your photos of Milan on Facebook or Pinterest might make a friend to put Milan on their shortlist.

    But even down the funnel people will use a variety of sources for trip planning and social has a role to play. To verify or validate their thinking for example. People want to make sure they don’t miss out or visit a tourist trap. They will know who in the circle is best to consult. This can be even friends of friends. It’s about credibility and trust.

    If Svetlana is a friend she knows you’re a guy who travels with a family who’s not interested in designer fashion accessories with four-figure pricetags. She will filter her information and recommendation based on what she knows about you. She can still recommend you visit the Duomo or tell you to avoid certain busy hours when visiting Leonardo’s last supper.

    People will even use information from strangers to verify the information they’ve gathered. Hello Tripadvisor! It’s only the biggest travel website in the world.

    There’s also the paradox of choice. If there are 1000 restaurants in a city and a friend I trust told me such-and-such restaurant is good, and it fits my criteria, I’ll go. And if there’s no friend to ask, Yelp is a great alternative. Why stick with the few restaurants a guidebook recommend and sit with all the other tourists with the same guidebook?

    I live in Canada but was born in the Netherlands. People ask me for advice on Facebook all the time. They even introduce their friends to me who’re traveling there so I can give advice. Based on what I know about them, I’ll give them some pointers and I’ll warn them about tourist traps some guide books happily recommend. I might connect them with a friend in Amsterdam if I think they’ll get along.

    Then there are websites like Couchsurfing. People use couchsurfing not just to find a place to sleep, but also to make local friends or gain local knowledge.

    Social media and travel were made for each other.

    1. Sure, you can plan and share your trips on social media. I just don’t see how you can build a complete travel guide out of it. The fundamental problem remains: the amount of the knowledge in your immediate social group is insufficient for the vast majority of travel you’d want to do; and if you expand that group to be large enough to have sufficient coverage, you lose the trustworthiness of actually knowing the people making the recommendations.

  4. Great discussion and good to see William and Troy’s opinions too.

    There’s two important distinctions that I think need to be made.

    First: For me, the term social travel is much broader than just your immediate social graph (ie first-tier friends on Facebook). People trust people. We’ll lean on others at every stage of the funnel to get a more complete picture of our options. It’s important to recognize that social media is people first and specific online tools last.

    Second: It’s really important to differentiate between the factor that causes travel to a destination, and everything else that happens after you’ve made that decision. So in your Case 2, its important not to forget that Visiting Friends and Relatives is the most valuable catalyst for destination selection and conversion.

    To expand:

    If I’m aware of Milan and don’t know the person in my social graph who’s an ‘expert’, or Svetlana’s recommendations aren’t relevant to me, I’ll go find someone who does. Search engines like google will likely lead me to user-generated content in the form of forums, pictures, blogs and videos that will give color to information I can find on Tourismo Milano’s website. I can always ask my friends and followers if they know anyone who’s an expert too, which gives me access to my second tier network.

    The wisdom of ‘people like me’ is very relevant and credible, whether I know them or not. In April, I wanted to take my girlfriend kiteboarding somewhere warm, with calm water and consistent wind. To help me filter through my options, I found need2kite.com through google. The site let me enter the criteria into a search engine and gave me a list of destinations recommended by other kiteboarders. South Padre Island was the closest so we went there. There are forums online where kiteboarders plan trips together, eg a group from pskite.org plan a trip to La Ventana in Baja together every year. Consumers are drawing each other through the funnel and this isn’t just happening in the kiteboarding community or on Facebook.

    When DMOs need to affect people at the awareness level, the best way in the current environment is to get more past travelers sharing their experiences. If you’re trying to create awareness, you can buy a tiny share of voice through traditional media, or you can figure out strategies to have more past visitors tell their friends. To create more widespread inspiration, its often friends of friends that count most (Grouped by Paul Adams is a great book on this).

    The other thing that I think is worth a mention is where brands (or a destination) become part of your social network. If past visitors love what you’ve got (or they formed relationships with the locals and tourism staff that they met) enough that they want to let you in to their social network after the trip, you have the opportunity to stay in touch with them indefinitely. This is very powerful when it happens. You can affect both advocacy and repeat visitation by staying top of mind.

    Not only will my girlfriend and I go back to South Padre Island next April, but I will tell other kiteboarders (both friends on Facebook, people I know who kiteboard, and strangers on the internet) that South Padre Island is the best place to go learn in April. Plus, I’ll tell my nephew (who hates kiteboarding) that he needs to go to Padre for spring break before he graduates. it doesn’t matter whether its on Facebook, Twitter, on my blog or over dinner. That’s social travel in action.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. With all due respect, I think you’re diluting the term “social travel” into meaninglessness there: if you’re using Google to find random sites, with content written by people you don’t actually know, there’s no social *network* involved any more. Sure, forums and user-generated content are “social”, but that’s because everything humans do in groups is, by definition, social, and friending a brand or destination on Facebook to “stay connected” with them is just the 2000s version of getting added to their mailing list.

      Also, my critique is primarily aimed at the idea that travel advice gleaned from your social network is sufficient for the nitty-gritty of travel at a given destination (how to get there, how to get around, what to see and do, where to eat and drink and sleep), not your broader funnel of choosing where to go in the first place. Word of mouth is obviously powerful, and that includes tweets and Facebook updates these days, but there’s an unwritten post in my to-do list on why the idea of one-size-fits-all apps or websites for “inspirational” travel is much less than it’s cracked up to be.

  5. Don’t expect to be loved for pointing out the obvious.

    “Emperor” and “new clothes” spring to mind!!!!!

    Good article – as Shaw said “The power of accurate observation is often called cynicism by those who do not have it.”

  6. Hi Jani,

    This is an interesting thought. I’m cofounder of TouristEye, you may know our travel app. When we started 2 years ago we were more focused on ‘social travel’, trying to make users share their trips and reviews. We noticed that it was really hard to build something social out of a travel website, because people travel once each 3-4 months. And for being social, you need more frequency. That’s one of the reasons Gtrot changed their focus I think.

    Now, we are totally focused on being the best Trip Planner, with social features but going away from being a ‘social network’. Our main objective is to give travelers the best tool to plan their trips on the web and take all the info with them on the mobile phone. Yes, we have friends and followers to have featured reviews and recommendations. But we take into account all reviews, not only your friends’.

    Looking at our most-well know competitors (Gogobot, Wanderfly, Trippy) we think they are still on the first phase. Gogobot is doing a good job getting reviews, questions and answers; but they still need something more to compete against TripAdvisor.

    I encourage you to try our gorgeous trip planner to see what other travel companies are doing ;) http://www.touristeye.com/planner

    regards!

    Javier

  7. One of the success stories of social travel are hospitality exchange networks. They don’t really fit in any of the three cases presented in your article, so let’s try to put them against your questions “Where to stay, what to see, what to eat”?

    “Where to stay” is one of the main reasons why those sites exist in the first place. If you like the scheme of staying at the home of another member, you’re fairly well served. There will be at least some members of the network in any target city and people have enough info in their profile to make an educated choice whom to contact. You can also use search tools to seek for compatibility in general “Search for members which have some of the same hobbies than I do” or specifics like “Interested in cooking” or “Accepts a family of three and has a separate guest room”. On the other hand, you’ll have to spend time in writing to the people, waiting for answers, and later also spend some time with them. “I want to make a choice in 10 minutes, to book it and not be bothered any more” is not possible.

    If you’re more into staying in a hotel, hospitality exchange doesn’t help you much. If you write to the message forum of Milan, you’re likely to get a few suggestions for low-cost hostels or guest houses, but members are unlikely to have stayed in any of them or to know anything about their quality. Guidebooks and guest reviews on booking sites are much more useful.

    “What to see” – in my experience the networks do have value here. Most members know less sights and less details about them than a guidebook will provide, but they tend to have complementary information – being able to guide you to places you wouldn’t find otherwise. And some are truly knowledgeable about their own city, its history and current happenings.

    You also don’t have to stay with someone – you can choose to stay in a hotel and contact members just for getting information, touring the city or checking out the night life together. That’s what I did when traveling with my parents for instance – we chose a hotel without help from social networking, but used hospitality exchange to meet someone who showed us places in the city.

    “What to eat” – cooking with your host is of course one option, but I assume you’re more interested in restaurants. Members visit restaurants more often than hotels, so they’re also more likely to have useful recommendations of the former. However, not all of them do, and their favourite joints might not serve the local fare. So success in getting tips and their usefulness will vary.

    On the other hand, your contacts can probably help you to locate a local restaurant review site in the Internet and help in translating some of its content if you don’t speak the language. And they’ll probably happily join you to the chosen restaurant if you promise to take care of the bill. ;-)

    At least in my case, hospitality exchange has changed the way I travel, and in particular the social aspect of it. More and more often I’m travelling somewhere primarily to meet someone, rather than to see the place.

    Would be interesting to also hear your thoughts on these.

    Arto

    1. Good to see you here, Arto! I wasn’t thinking of hospitality exchange when I wrote this originally, but to me it feels essentially like a variant of case 2, the local friend who lives there and can take you around. Sure, you’ve only met your “friend” online, but it’s still essentially the same, as it’s the *person* who is giving you tips about what to see, eat etc, not the website itself.

      1. I agree, it’s essentially a variant of case 2. An important difference though is that thanks to the network, you’ll have “friends” in pretty much every city around the world – you’re much more likely to find someone who can help than by doing a search amongst your Facebook friends.

  8. Hi Jani,
    This is an interesting post and if social travel was actually working we would probably already see one website dominating this space. However I think the question that comes to my mind is what is “Social travel”? Is it just getting advice from your friends or does it go beyond that? You mentioned a site like trip.it and it is working because it serves a real purpose. My observation is that social sites that are based on advice from your friends do not work. What does work is sites like Couchsurfing and Tripadvisor and I think the reason is these sites engage members around a product and involve both sides of the travel community and not just the traveller. I am the founder of http://www.touristlink.com and we are building a community that connects travellers to local providers. We let you get to know firsthand the locals behind the tour, the dive shop or the small hotel you plan to stay. Would be interested to hear your any thoughts or feedback.

    David

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