By Richard Walsh, Lodging Interactive If you own or manage a hotel or resort and you have not accepted the importance of social media marketing as an integral part of your marketing strategy, it's time you do. Social media marketing is not tomorrow, it is now and it affects all aspects of your business. Not to get ahead of myself, but your time is money and it is important. Whether you try to manage social media in-house or it is outsourced, effective social marketing will require time, resources and professional skills. My following statements and recommendations are a result of years of working with all categories of hotels and resorts. This includes my personal analysis of industry surveys, daily activities and keeping up with never ending changes in the social websites and networks. The goal is to develop effective social touch marketing plans and initiatives with measured results. Social touch is all about your written messages and engagement with consumers and past hotel guests online. Talking to consumers is not new, but the popularity of websites like Facebook, Twitter and dozens of others just makes it easier and the value is not so much what is said between you and the individual, but more the fact that hundreds of other people can view your comments and the sentiment you express online relevant to your hotel! It's all about when, where and how you touch a past guest, prospective guest, meeting planner, wedding planner or group organizer. Chances are the majority of your guests have looked at guest reviews, Googled your location, searched on local demand drivers and used their mobile phone's GPS application to find hotels in your area. Just think about the time and money spent trying to get guests to fill out a comment card, to tell a friend about their experience at your hotel or to visit your booth at a trade show. Now it's a whole lot easier, but there are some serious do and don'ts when answering a question, expressing yourself regarding a guest comment or asking your followers for their opinion or even for their business. The time has passed for just dabbling in social media, although it still looks like that is where a lot of hotels are. Effective social touch is a lot more than just posting to your Facebook wall about a two for one special at the bar, tonight's menu or the usual weekend package. Your social media marketing is an integral, intertwined and interdependent part of all aspects of your marketing from your printed material to your website to your search marketing. Social marketing success demands planning, time, persistence and control on how you touch the right prospects with the right message at the right time. To maximize your return on your time and expense, you need a clear plan that connects all of your marketing initiatives. It is also important that everyone in your hotel from the housekeeper to the owner knows how your online reputation is perceived, who your partners are for collaborative promotions, and how you touch consumers everyday through your social engagement initiatives. Social media is about your hotel's online reputation or how your hotel is perceived and how you want it to be perceived when you touch the consumer. It's not about what your franchise brand can do for you. The brands will set policies and standards to protect the brand and some will provide advice. But to reap the benefits it is a social relationship between your hotel management and the consumer. That one consumer may be the one who wrote a review about your hotel, checks in or "Likes" your hotel on Facebook, tracks your hotel on FourSquare, viewed your video on YouTube or posted pictures on Flickr. These and other social channels are all real time touch opportunities that will produce productive results in many ways. To measure and maximize the return on your social marketing investment you need to put a value on your time and your staff's time that is spent creating, managing and engaging with consumers online. If you don't have the time, resources and skills that are needed, there are, of course, marketing agencies that provide these services. But, remember when you outsource, make sure it is a service that knows the hospitality industry and has hospitality experience combined with social media marketing. There are also tools and services that can be used in house, such as sentiment search for tracking guest reviews; unfortunately, these have generally proven to be less than effective. Even when using a tool or online service, you will still have to commit the time and resources. Plus you need a plan for how you will apply this information or it is useless. For example, an overall trend scoring is nice, but of little value, scoring the service attribute in the review is more beneficial. The return on your investment in social touch marketing can be significant, but it will not be quick sales revenue or even group sales leads. These will come in time with the right initiatives, but it will take some time to grow your follower networks. Also, you need to keep in mind that success comes from how you intertwine all of your marketing with your social media touch. Show your social presence on print materials, links on your website to your blog and social sites. Connect your social sites to each other. Keep your Google places current and informative. Provide a mobile website that is easy to read. Track visitors from social websites that come to your website and blog, measure their points of interest and grow your viral networks. Most important! Do not start a social touch initiative and become impatient and stop your effort, leaving the channel stagnant or full of outdated information. If a prospect visits your Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, FourSquare or any social channel and your information or comments are not recent they will not return. What do you expect to gain from your social media initiatives? Your expectations have to be realistic and measured. You cannot expect quick results because this is about knowing your followers and delivering the right social messages. It won't always work! Your messages need to be sensitive, humorous in some situations, always more of a personal nature. A personal nature is about making it sound like it is special for your followers or a response to one person that will relate to thousands. Sales is certainly your main objective, your first step in a good plan is to build your follower networks. To be successful you need a comprehensive plan for promoting your social presence and one that enables easy access to your pages from multiple points of consumer contact. This is accomplished through in-house printed materials inviting guests to visit your social pages, certainly significant presence on your website(s), active blogging to create a search presence for your blog and direct suggestions to consumers when talking to them. There are also significant search engine ranking position benefits. The more active you are socially the more your social marketing will affect your organic search rankings. To add followers, you need to engage effectively. Twitter or Facebook social touch has to be more than an occasional wall post or an occasional response or tabs that don't attract interest and engagement. Ask for the business! Your touch should target your local market demand drivers with collaborative promotions with local attractions and events. Your social touch should focus on your follower's profile information, where possible, so you can develop a demographic and a psychographic profile of your typical follower. Then adapt your responses, posts, promotions and timing around your follower profiles. Facebook special pages, Tweet and blog posts need to be frequent, but not annoying and repetitious. The value is based on the content. You need a controlled YouTube channel with your videos that will differentiate your hotel from your compset. Your Flickr pics should show activity and people, not just a building or a room. Develop alliances with local entertainment, sports events, attractions, recreation and other local demand drivers and feature these in your wall posts, tweets and specials. The results can be amazing. In the end, you do what you have always done to promote your hotel, you engage with consumers, but in a written format in a social manner and always considering the fact that millions of consumers can see what you have to say and how you say it. So think about your objective before you blog, post or tweet. Rest assured effective social touch marketing will continue to increase in value in the weeks and months ahead. Consumers will evaluate your hotel's services, location, rates and specials based on your social presence and engagement. When you engage with a consumer the goal is to make your social touch a two way communication that is sincere and relevant. When you do, you will see the results you want. Richard Walsh is Vice President of Business Development at Lodging Interactive. You can reach Richard at rjwalsh (at) lodginginteractive.com