By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist contributor
updated 2/1/2010 8:49:16 AM ET 2010-02-01T13:49:16

Got a travel problem?

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Just tweet about your troubles, and the airline, car rental company or hotel will fix it. At least that’s the conventional wisdom. And while it’s true that travel companies are spending a lot of time online listening to their customers, they’re not necessarily paying attention to all of us.

“Travel companies pick and choose who to respond to in social media,” says social media expert Ryan Goff of the advertising firm MGH, Inc. “You better believe that a Web celebrity with 100,000 Twitter followers is going to catch a company’s attention over the casual Tweeter with only 10 friends.”

Even online, some travelers are more equal than others. Question is, how to become a somebody?

You should care, because even today, as social networking applications like Twitter and Facebook have come of age, being online can be the most effective shortcut to getting great customer service.

I see it every day on Twitter, as customers with questions are sent to the front of the line (sometimes literally) because they had a respectable social-media profile. Online travel agencies such as Orbitz have an entire team of employees dedicated to monitoring online chatter and helping customers.

I asked several social media experts about how to boost your online profile. Here’s what they told me:

1. Be interesting
Boring people don’t get a lot of followers. “Be engaging,” says Lyn Mettler, the founder of Step Ahead, Inc., which manages social media campaigns. “Don’t just talk, talk, talk about yourself all day long. Read what other people are posting and respond to them. Ask questions, answer questions. Truly interacting with people will help build your followers.”

2. Get a blog
One of the fastest ways to raise your online profile is to start blogging. “If you blog, that helps tremendously,” says Tim Massie, an adjunct professor of communication at Marist College. It helps if the subject matter is travel-related, but anyone with access to a credible blog is likely to come to the attention of a travel company faster than someone who doesn’t have one. Massie says being an active participant in online forums can help, too. “If you go the extra mile, posting photos, helping others understand the amenities of hotels, and providing insider information that a typical tourist would overlook, you will earn your reputation and be an influencer in the travel industry,” he says.

3. Join the conversation
“Post and tweet frequently about your experiences,” says Rick Gardinier, the chief digital officer for the advertising agency Brunner. “This will increase your relevancy and authoritativeness which in turn will boost your following.” How often? I try to tweet and post a few times a day, but you should be able to keep a respectable profile by publishing something a few times a week.

4. Offer good information
Building trust — and followers — takes time and work, according to experts. “Travelers can increase their social media influence by creating good content, consistently, for an extended amount of time,” says Chris Harrington, the technology director for the communications firm Luquire George Andrews. He says he’s likely to follow users who have positive things to say about the subject matter. “Negative comments can hurt the traveler’s social capital as much or more than the company in question,” he adds. That way, when you go negative — when something happens to you while you’re traveling that you need resolved — your followers will pay attention.

5. Check your motives
It matters where you’re coming from, say the pros. “Motivation behind using social media extensively will drive the behavior of travelers,” says Philippe Duverger, an assistant professor of marketing at Towson University. For example, if people think you’re trying to sell something, they may be less likely to include you in the network. Also, if you’re branded a “complainer” then that can be a turn-off. Being in it for all the right reasons is one way of attracting lots of followers and building your online credibility.

The ultimate guide to travel Web sites

6. Speak up
The best way to get noticed by any company is to openly discuss your experiences. “If the company has an interest in social media as a marketing outlet, then they will be monitoring all conversation about them, both positive and negative,” says social media guru Dan Healy of Mason, Inc., in New Haven, Conn. Acknowledging an experience that you had on an airline, for example, on a public forum is important to the airline because it gives them insight about their customers, and the public’s opinion. Be sure to use proper shout-out etiquette by linking to the travel company’s blog (which is monitored by the company) or using their Twitter handle — @Jetblue or @Marriottintl — when you tweet about them.

7. Make a personal connection
Travelers tend to follow people they can relate to. “People trust contents from somebody they can identify with personally,” says Iis Tussyadiah, an assistant professor at Temple University’s school of tourism and hospitality management. Often, it’s as simple as posting a picture and a brief biography on your blog or Facebook profile. People are likely to read your tweets and posts when they feel they know you than when you’re a faceless, anonymous voice on the Internet.

Even if you only have a small number of followers, you can still make a difference. “The squeaky Twitterer still gets the grease,” says Dallas Lawrence, the chair of the digital and social media practice group at Levick Strategic Communications. “Like most travel related stories in the online space, companies have focused their efforts towards addressing critical commentary posted by dissatisfied customers who have posted damaging comment to the online space about a particular airline, hotel or travel provider.”

You’re probably wondering if these strategies can really work for you. They can. I’ve used them myself. (You can follow me on Twitter at @elliottdotorg, Facebook or on my blog.

Along the way, I’ve made some terrific friends – people I’ve never actually met, but that’s beside the point — and had lots of interesting conversations.

Next time you have a travel problem, you’ll be glad you did.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, or e-mail him at

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