“If it wasn’t posted on social, did it even happen?” While that statement may not apply to all of life’s events, when it comes to travel, I think we’ve all been guilty of sharing a pic or two of a cool destination we’ve had the good fortune of visiting.
So it stands to reason that very few people book a holiday or hotel without doing their research —and, increasingly, that means going beyond reviews to search photos and videos that their friends or other consumers have posted online.
This authentic, visual user-generated content (UGC) shared on the likes of TikTok, Instagram and other social channels is becoming central to how travel companies are marketing themselves (and those that aren’t should start in earnest!). And Google’s recent plans to bake UGC into search results via its forthcoming Perspectives feature only highlights how big a role user-generated content plays in a person’s discovery experience.
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UGC has become so popular because it provides social proof, while also saving brands money, as they can supplement professional photo shoots with a continuous stream of quality content that keeps their marketing fresh and engaging.
But, most importantly, it drives conversions when compared to other content types. UGC garners the attention of viewers and buyers. It stands out, is more relatable and can be a marketer’s best friend. Woof!
This is why an increasing number of travel brands are adding UGC to their marketing strategies. But there are plenty of opportunities to go beyond the basics and get even more value from visual UGC. I see six ways that UGC is evolving in 2023 to bring wider benefits to travel companies:
Using AI to drive effectiveness and time savings
Unless you’ve been living in the jungle with no access to technology, it’s been impossible to avoid the buzz around artificial intelligence. Many industries are scrambling to understand how they can expand their use of AI, but certain players in the UGC space have been using it for years. Our own UGC solution, in fact, was AI-powered long before it even became part of Nosto (for transparency, it was formerly a separate company I co-founded called “Stackla” before joining Nosto in 2021). The development of AI and visual recognition technology makes it easier for travel companies to ensure their UGC strategies harness the power of machine learning to save time and make more informed decisions when it comes to curating content.
For example, by identifying and auto-tagging the exact locations, scenes, events, emotions and brands that are shown in every customer image or video, AI can play a role in automating the management of visual content from social networks. This is especially helpful for bigger travel brands that have thousands of visual content pieces to sort through daily.
Next, AI and predictive algorithms can help travel marketers identify and display the images and videos that are most relevant by automatically learning and recommending the imagery that engaged audiences in previous campaigns.
Importantly, the marketing decision maker retains ultimate control, minimizing risks and ensuring that UGC remains on-brand and on strategy.
Smoothing the path to bookings with shoppable UGC
It’s now possible to make visual UGC more interactive by making it “shoppable.” This means that people can click on a customer’s photo of a hotel room they stayed in or an excursion that they went on and land on the hotel’s website to make a booking or find more information. Some companies are even adding “book now” buttons within their customer images. If you can make the process quick and seamless, people are more likely to engage or buy based on seeing UGC from other travelers.
Integrating UGC throughout the customer journey
Most travel brands will start by sharing visual UGC on their social channels. The next step is usually to weave it into their website and on pages about specific services or experiences to provide additional context to encourage bookings.
Now, companies are going further and integrating UGC throughout the customer journey using authentic visuals in everything from digital and social ads, to email newsletters and even offline advertising. Studies have shown that ads that feature user-generated photos get five times as high click-through rates than campaigns relying on brand-created images.
With authenticity and fresh content key across all channels, you need a constant stream of new images and videos to overcome banner blindness, where consumers tune out when they see the same images too many times. UGC can help meet this demand, often at a fraction of the cost of professional photography.
If you want to feature customer imagery in ads or on your website, you’ll need to give more consideration to managing image rights. You may also need images that are higher quality and resolution than those that are shared on social media. Some travel companies use portals where creators can upload higher-res images while also handling the legal permissions at the same time.
Personalizing the UGC experience
While consumers respond positively to UGC, it is important that it is relevant to their interests. If someone is browsing content about your safari holidays, showing them UGC from one of your ski breaks is not going to be meaningful. So companies are increasingly personalizing the UGC experience on their websites according to the likes of visitors’ on-site behavior.
You can showcase customer images based on the types of holiday or destinations people are browsing or in line with their previous purchase history. And including UGC within personalized recommendations is a way of drawing attention to complementary offerings or services. If someone’s browsed or booked a flight to Barcelona, it can be more engaging to show them recommendations for hotels or things to do in the city supported by authentic customer images.
Helping to build the employer brand
The hospitality and travel sectors have traditionally suffered high staff turnover and continue to face difficulties in hiring and retaining employees. Standing out from competitors is therefore crucial for recruitment.
Collecting and sharing visual UGC from staff and customers can help build your employer brand by showcasing authentic images and videos of what it is like to work in a hotel or resort.
Some companies are encouraging employees to share images of daily working life. This visual UGC is fed into recruitment channels such as “careers” website pages and employer Instagram or Facebook accounts to engage prospective staff.
Tapping UGC as a source of business intelligence
What are your customers or guests really interested in? You can get a sense of this by analyzing the types of images they’re posting and engaging with. Think of it as informal market research or another way of collecting guest feedback. For example, you can see what trips or local attractions they’re visiting (potentially opening partnership opportunities), get clues on how they spend their time within your resort and what parts of the experience they most enjoy.
This type of insight is particularly useful for central marketing teams who may not be able to regularly visit every location within their portfolio. It can give them on-the-ground insight they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
We’ve seen the first wave of visual UGC in travel, as a wide range of brands, hotels and resorts add it to their marketing armory to try to meet the insatiable desire for new content and the proven fact that today’s consumers engage best with authentic, real-world images. However, marketers are now realizing there are many more ways that visual UGC can deliver benefits, from using it as a source of business intelligence, to helping attract and retain staff. It is therefore time to go beyond the basics, get strategic and get the most out of your visual UGC and the tools that support it.