Travelfish on Twitter and Facebook

Travelfish turns five this year and like most small businesses, when we look back we can see that we’ve made some very good decisions along with some very bad ones. I’ll leave the “looking back over a half-decade of work” post till July, but I do want to discuss one less than good call I made.

I just didn’t get social media.

A couple of years ago (waaaay back in 2007) we had a Singaporean researcher who was all over Twitter — “You’ve got to get on it, Stuart!” she said. I took a look and was struck solely by what a complete waste of time it seemed to be. It reminded me of one of those “Young entrepreneur gigs” at the Australian Embassy in Bangkok — full of, well young entrepreneurs, trying to sell themselves to each other and listening to no one.

Around the same time, the Facebook wave washed through my Asian network of colleagues, hacks and drinking buddies. I joined up and promptly wasted a few weeks of my life on TravelPod IQ Challenge. Then I read a story about Facebook being a terrific promotional tool, so I joined dozens of groups, built half an application and started a Travelfish Group — and left it at that.

There are others: StumbleUpon, FriendFeed, LinkedIn, Plurk and a plethora of social bookmarking/promotional/networking services that I won’t bother to name — all have benefits no doubt, but hey I’ve got a business to run!

But now, I’m starting to get it.

Yes, social media can be a promotional tool, but the promotional angle is a bit like the mayonnaise (or gravy depending on your vice) that comes with a plate of fries. You’ve got to eat the fries and the mayo together to experience the real deal.

Twitter
Take Twitter — the service I’m most active on (you can find me here). When I first joined, the majority of my posts were self-promos: “Hey, read this on Travelfish!”. I “friended” all and sundry — even Barack. There was this vast ocean of people I could forcefeed my links to, so who better than the president of the USA?

Now I’m much more selective on who I “friend” — in particular I avoid people who use Twitter just as I once did.

Now when someone “friends” me I check them out. I read their profile, check out their website, look at their followed/following split and, most importantly, take a look at what they’ve had to say over the past few days.

Does this person have an interesting view? Are they in the travel industry? Would I like to have a beer with them?

Now I tweet far less about Travelfish. I’ll have the occasional moan or plug a post, but I now spend more time reading than tweeting. My Dad was right — sit back, listen and you’ll learn a lot.

As Tim Hughes of The Boot suggested in a recent podcast, the net enables you to punch above your weight (he was actually talking about blogging in general, but the principle is the same). I can sit in the same room as major travel website players — some of whom I greatly admire — and while I keep my fists to myself, I listen to, and learn from, what others have to say.

Needless to say, it’s also a fantastic resource for keeping an eye on what your competition is up to — after all we’re all friends on Twitter.

Bang for your buck, I’ve learned more through Twitter than I ever dreamed to.

Facebook
Back when I used to publish real, dead-tree guidebooks, our distributor in Australia called me up one day and said “Hey, you gotta get out there and do something — the books just aren’t going to sell themselves off the shelves.”

Absolutely.

So, what was I thinking when I started the Travelfish Facebook Group?

Probably not very much.

I started it up, gave it a bit of a plug on the Travelfish forum, told my friends to join, and left it at that. A few people joined, it got up to around 50 members, but I was so busy with the main Travelfish site that I couldn’t see the value in working on the group — how was it going to make me money?

But it’s not about the money — it’s about the relationship.

We haven’t advertised Travelfish in a traditional manner in a long time — it’s an entirely word-of-mouth operation. I’m a firm believer (even if it took $20,000 in Adwords spending to convince me) in there being no better recommendation than one that comes from a friend.

So what was I thinking trying to sell to my friends when what I should have been doing was having a yarn, cementing the relationship and making more friends?

This was crystallised for me the other day when a long-time Travelfish member got in touch and said “Hey, why don’t you have a Travelfish Facebook group?” I meekly responded that we did — we just don’t promote it on the site. She came back with a bevy of suggestions — fresh, really useful advice.

In less than 48 hours she more than doubled the size of the group — and we haven’t even done half of what she suggested yet.

Admittedly the group is still a fairly small size, but at least it is growing again, and assuming these new friendships flourish, hopefully they’ll tell their friends and we’ll get to be friends with them too. Already I’m having conversations with some of these new group members — helping out with advice for their trips and what not, and more often than not, pointing them to Travelfish, where they’ll find even more information.

On friends in general
For the first couple of years, we didn’t have a forum on Travelfish. We had a steadily growing member base, but the return rate was low. People needed to join to generate one of our free PDF travel guides or to contact a guesthouse or hotel, they did so, finished their business and left.

When we added the forum, we saw a marked change in site usage. Return rates increased, member growth rate increased, pageviews and time on site all increased. That’s to be expected when you add a forum.

While in the scheme of themes the Travelfish forum is small fry, it’s a good community that has largely managed to avoid some of the vitriol common on some of the larger travel boards. While in itself the messageboard isn’t much of a money spinner, it is a friendly place and it is the perfect vehicle for me to create and firm up relationships with Travelfish members — and, them with each other.

Happy members tell their friends.

The same goes for social services like Twitter and Facebook groups — they’re both mediums to first create and then nurture friendships. Sure I may be able to turn some of these new friends on to Travelfish, but now I know — making that happen is the mayo and forming and developing the relationship in the first place is the fries.

Lucky I love both.

Love to hear what you think — either use the comments below, or you’ll find me on the following:

Twitter: http://twitter.com/travelfish
Facebook group: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2390743505

New year, new Travelfish

We hope you all had a happy silly season and managed to fit in a stack of travel. Just wanted to let you know that here at Travelfish.org HQ (our front veranda) we’ve redesigned and relaunched our site anew as of January 20… And we have been busy fixing things ever since! We’d like to spell out all the new features of the freshened up site and invite you to comment or suggest even more improvements you’d like to see in the future.

**First things first: Navigation**
No longer will Travelfish readers have to have degrees in Southeast Asian geography in order to find places they’re looking for on the site. On the old site, everything was arranged in a country->region->province->location hierarchy. That seemed sensible to us at the time, but not to just about anybody else because it meant, for instance, that to be able to find Nha Trang in Vietnam you had to know it was in Vietnam, on the south central coast and in Khanh Hoa province (it was the last jump that always threw people). Now all you need to know is it’s in Vietnam, and by mousing over the menus on the left, you’ll see everywhere on the site in Vietnam is no more than a click away.

The navbars on the left may be a little slow to load in Internet Explorer: You have to wait for the whole page to load before they’ll work. So be patient, or better still, change your browser to Firefox!

*Navigation part two*
We’ve added a new level of navigation at the top that gives you quick hops to our destination planning section and to the Shop for our swanky Travelfish Guides. The destination planning section will be expanding quite a bit shortly.

*New layout*
You noticed huh? Yes, it’s much bigger text. Maybe I’m getting old, but I reckon this is a lot easier on the eyes. It’s in two columns, so for lengthy sections there will be some scrolling, but for the shorter pages, none at all. The new site has been designed with newer laptops and computers in mind, so people with older screens — especially 800*600 and below — will have problems with the new site. This remains one of the issues we’re working on.

*New content*
We’ve added a “beginners section” that can be accessed via the country page for each country. It includes basic stuff like visa and border crossing information and other very basic trip planning issues.

*New content part two*
Not new content so much as new sections. We’ve added “Orientation” on a destination basis. Here you’ll find vital information such as bank hours, internet cafe addresses and what not. It isn’t there for all places, rather just ones that need it. For small places, it may remain in the old introduction as before.

*New content part three*
We’ll be adding two main sections for most destinations in coming weeks: “Onwards destinations” to suggest where you should go next and “Our recommendations”, some shots from the hip on particular places.

*New content part four*
Yes, it just keeps coming. We’ll be bringing the work of some very talented bloggers into the site. They’re just tasters really as their work will still primarily be on their own sites, but we’re hoping to point you in the right direction of some real writing talent. That said, if you reckon you fall into that category (the talented blogger one) contact Samantha at sambrown @ travelfish.org.

*New content part five*
OK, no more after this, but we’ve redone the islands page so it now covers islands in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. It’s a veritable one-stop-shop for island and beach lovers!

*New ratings*
Our overall ratings now better take into account user ratings for accommodation. This should lead to better shifting opinions as places go up- and downhill.

*New photos*
Travelfish is a travel website so let’s paint a pretty picture! You’ll see more and more pix coming onto the site in the coming weeks as we upload our collection to Flickr. And if you want your photos to appear on Travelfish, it’s far easier than travelling overland from Luang Prabang to Hanoi. All you need do is upload them into our Flickr pool. You can join the Travelfish group here: http://www.flickr.com/groups/travelfish/

*New eFish*
First the bad news. All your old eFish are gone. The good news is you can generate them again. We’re very sorry about that, but we needed to nuke the old ones as a part of the upgrade.

*New Member Centre*
The Member Centre has a bunch of new features including:
You can edit your accommodation reviews
You can track all your reservation enquiries made through Travelfish
You can rate how quickly a place got back in touch with you
You can track your forum posts
You can manage your eFish
You can access your Travelfish Guides
You can manage your scrapbook (which you are going to be able to print soon)

*Revamped forum*
You’ll see the forum should be a bit easier to use, and for regular posters, we’re now using BB code which means you can post links, bold, italics etc. This becomes available only after you’ve passed a certain posting threshold (in order to keep spammers a bit under control).

*Guesthouse reviews*
We’ve revamped the reviewing process, which should make it a little easier to post reviews. The reviews are also displayed in a different manner — still a bit of a work in progress here.

*Travelfish search*
Big news here. You’ll notice here and there across the site a “Search for accommodation” feature which will allow you to search for accommodation in a particular destination (on a country basis). What is very cool about this though is that now you’re not only searching the places listed on Travelfish, but also those listed with some of our reservation partners — at the moment HostelWorld, Agoda, WHL and Sawasdee. What this means is that you’re searching a pool of over 5,000 properties — and as many of the places listed on Travelfish are listed nowhere else online, you’re getting a pretty comprehensive little searching tool. You can sort by name, Travelfish rating or cost — by default it only searches places that can be booked online, but you can change that setting to search the whole kit and caboodle.

*Travelfish gets social*
We’re also getting more active on the social side of the internet. If you’re into the social web, you can find us both on Facebook and Twitter.
Travelfish group on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2390743505
Travelfish on Twitter: http://twitter.com/travelfish