Monday, December 21, 2009

Social Media and Mobile – Fundamentally Changing Travel Forever

Social media and mobile technology are fundamentally changing the way we think about and experience travel, forever.

We used to ask our friends for recommendations, buy a guide book and do a bit of web research.

Now we just hop on a plane and wing it (sorry, bad pun).

We live in an interconnected age: people around the world can engage with bloggers in Iran, protesters in Tibet can MMS videos direct to the media, and, more mundanely, I can tweet pictures of my son building a sandcastle.

We’ve become used to having our friends on tap on Facebook and Skype. Our lives have become reduced to a stream of 140 characters. But that’s OK.

We’re at the forefront of a mega trend on the web - people’s online attention spans are getting shorter. We can access anything we want, anytime, anywhere. Call us the iPhone Generation or the Facebook Generation, whatever you like. We expect instant response, social interaction and relevance.

Perhaps as a result, online travel reviews are getting shorter. But I don’t think this is indicative at all of travellers’ declining interest in learning about foreign countries. On the contrary, I believe we travellers are more curious than ever, more adventurous, more open-minded. It’s just that we are using different media to acquire knowledge in different size chunks to a different schedule.

But with information nirvana comes chaos. How do we sort through it all? By using all this wondrous new webby social technology stuff to ask that age old question – Can you recommend a good bar?

Using social media, I can simply ask my real friends, or my extended social network ‘friends’, in real time.  Or I can do a quick search on a website I trust. In either case, I get an immediate response that is relevant to me.

Perhaps I didn’t need to buy that guidebook after all?

This is really appealing. For me reading a guide book has always been a bit of a let down. The Lonely Planet guys beat me to it – there’s nothing left to discover. I know that’s not true really, but it’s still a feeling I get.

But who do we trust? It used to be the people closest to us. But now, thanks to social media, it can be anyone. Our Twitter followers are asking our travel writers for bar recommendations in Rio…..while they’re walking down the street in Rio! How cool is that? 

So, travel websites need to build immediacy, interaction and relevance into their online experiences. Websites like The Travel Editor and TripBod are doing just this by pooling together groups of experts into a vibrant community full of travel knowledge which travellers can tap into.

Mobile will also play a very important role in our travelling future. I’m very interested to see how the iPhone apps put out by some of the guidebooks will fare. They require people to download the app in advance, and in some cases buy the electronic guidebook to go along with it. Playing devil’s advocate, won’t people prefer to wait until they’ve arrived and then ask people they trust for recommendations?

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