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.
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.
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.”
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:
Facebook group: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2390743505