What Businesses Can Learn From Travel Tweets

“I want to make love to the @jetblue terminal,” tweeted @meaghano, a.k.a. Meaghan O’Connell of Brooklyn, N.Y., earlier this month.

Three minutes later, @jetblue replied on Twitter: “Goodness…I hope you at least buy the terminal dinner first!”

Welcome to brand marketing, customer service, and reputation management on Twitter. More businesses are putting up a shingle on the social platform, each trying to humor, cajole, inform, and woo customers and prospects.

“It’s very hard for a company to find the right voice on Twitter,” said Rick Burnes, a blogger and inbound marketing manager at Hubspot, a software vendor that helps businesses attract and convert Web site visitors. JetBlue’s reply to @meaghano’s tweet, he said, is a fantastic example of a company that gets Twitter. That particular tweet “totally fits the brand… It struck a perfect nerve. It’s not something that was engineered,” he said.

Travel businesses and travelers alike are heading to Twitter like snowbirds that flock to Florida for the winter. While some businesses, such as JetBlue, have been reaching out to customers on Twitter for more than a year, others are just starting out and still finding their way.

A spot check of travel tweeters shows that some are like sherpas, providing useful information, while others are the Internet’s equivalent of late-night pitchmen. Many land somewhere in between.

Twitter Best Practices: JetBlue, Southwest Air

JetBlue, which has 570,000 followers on Twitter, is considered one of the top travel sites on the social network. As expected, Morgan and Lindsey — identified as JetBlue’s tweeters on duty — toe the company line as cheerleaders (“Celebrate our service to Jamaica with a Getaways vacation…”) and as virtual concierges (“the re:vive food kiosks at JFK T5 never offered internet browsing”). Still, JetBlue offers an occasional surprise — like the clever reply to O’Connell.

While Southwest Airlines has only 29,000 followers, it’s still having a lot of fun playing catch up to JetBlue. Not only does it tweet about flight delays, it’s playing up its talented staff, including @rappin_fa, a rapping flight attendant who’s featured here. (That video has generated 1.6 million page views on YouTube, along with 3,500 comments.)

Room for Improvement: Priceline

Could it be William Shatner’s fault? Priceline feels stiff and out of place on Twitter. First, Priceline doesn’t appear to possess its brand name on Twitter, so customers must track down @thenegotiator instead. What’s more, a good number of @thenegotiator’s comments are repetitive, making its tweets seem more like a broken record than a helpful person. “Thanks for the plug. Its always nice to meet fellow deal seekers on twitter!” reads one repetitive tweet. It’s time for this site to get creative.

A Marketing Test Bed for Lastminute.com

Eva Keogan, social media strategist at LastMinute.com, likes Twitter because it enables the e-commerce site to stay connected with diverse constituencies simultaneously: holiday destinations, theaters, industry influencers, customers, and potential customers.

Keogan, who is based in the U.K., said the site is experimenting with exclusive offers on Twitter, including a restaurant lunch promotion last week (“Exclusive lunch deal for London twitterers, at Imli Indian Tapas restaurant, Wardour Street, £7.95, see you there.”) However, she said results from that promotion weren’t available yet.

Asked to identify success metrics that the business tracks, Keogan said specific metrics aren’t yet in place. “Generally, tracking people’s opinions is very important,” she said. “We were mentioned [on Twitter] a quarter-million times last month. That’s a huge amount.”

A Personal Favorite: The Tweeter of Panama

William Friar, author of a travel book on Panama, knows a lot about the Central American destination and he’s not afraid to flaunt it. I came across him as @panamaguide while planning a trip to Panama this past spring.

“I like Isla Iguana, but the tides bring so much trash to the island. Pretty off-putting,” he tweeted, demonstrating that he’s a straight shooter on the travel front. Political discussions aren’t off limits either. Commenting on the May 3 election of businessman Ricardo Martinelli as president, he wrote: “Attn world: Electing Martinelli does not mean #Panama is ‘moving to right.’ Such glib & lazy analysis! Tsk! Know the place before ye tweet!”

Friar, an American who now divides his time between Panama and England, is on Twitter to sell more travel books, but doesn’t think the social network has made a huge difference in sales yet. “In some ways (tweeting) may be counterproductive. It can contribute to the idea that some people have that all information is free,” he said.

So if Friar isn’t selling more books, what exactly does he get from the experience? For one, he’s building his online reputation as an authority on all things Panama. Plus, he’s able to canvas followers from every corner of the country to get instant intelligence about his specialty.

What’s more, I look forward to following Friar long after I’ve unpacked my bags and filed away my digital photos on Flickr.

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