There’s an old saying: Cruising is for the newly wed and nearly dead. At one time this may have been true, but today’s cruise industry serves a vastly diverse market. People are starting to cruise younger and are now, more than ever, socially connected.

Cruise lines are stepping up to the technological plate and working to cater to these new crowds – before, during, and after the cruise.

Cruising the social networks

What does it mean that today’s cruiser is socially connected? Just pay a visit to Carnival Cruise Line’s Facebook page and witness the relationship between the brand and its 250,000+ engaged fans. Believe it or not, more than 1000 people have joined the group since I started this research… yesterday.

Whenever the cruise line posts something new, well over 200 comments and “likes” usually appear within two hours. Some posts are promotional, while others are conversation starters such as, “What’s your favourite on-board pastime while cruising the days away?” If you check out the screen shot below, you’ll notice 118 “likes” and a whopping 772 comments. The question was posted three hours prior. Now that is a relationship that works.

Branded cruise communities

Several cruise lines have created online communities that allow cruisers to share their thoughts with like-minded fellow travellers. Disney Cruises has dedicated a portion of its website for kids to watch short Disney videos, play games and create virtual works of art. Parents can have countless hours of fun with their kids and be immersed in the Disney experience, whether or not they’re planning on cruising or not.

At Carnival Cruise Line’s FunVille website, prospective cruisers can chat with other Carnival enthusiasts and staff, explore cruise destinations – and ultimately book. FunVille is also home to the Carnival Aquarium, a quirky online game that started as a guerilla marketing campaign.

In 2009, Carnival rented window space in cities across the United States and put up digital screens that displayed a large e-aquarium. By calling a special phone number, passersby were able to create their own fish that would appear on the screen in real time. To navigate the fish, participants were prompted to make weird noises into their cellphones ­– all in the name of good, silly fun. Now, anyone can log into the website and take their fish for a swim.

These branded interactions are marvellous for building brand loyalty and getting people excited about their cruise vacations. If a cruise line’s website is this much fun, imagine the real thing…

At-sea entertainment

Brand immersion isn’t just a pre-cruise experience. Within the past six months there have been massive announcements of brand partnerships for on-board entertainment and technologies: Royal Caribbean with DreamWorks, Norwegian with the Blue Man Group and Second City Comedy, for example.

Almost all cruise lines have computer labs and Wi-Fi hotspots that passengers can pay to use while on the ship. Celebrity Cruises’ new Solstice Class ships include something special: the Apple-branded iLounge.

In addition to complimentary MacBook-equipped work spaces, the lounges include retail space where cruisers can try and buy the latest Apple products, and an “enrichment center” where certified staff will offer guests tips on Mac or iPod usage for free (advanced classes cost $20).

The value for Apple is obvious since they can convert people from PC to Mac user on board. For Celebrity, it reinforces their 20th anniversary “Designed for You” brand campaign and solidifies the cruise line’s reputation as a modern and hip cruise line.

Unpacking the journey cycle

So let’s take a look at the big picture here: As an engaged Transumer, I get to chat with other cruisers and cruise line representatives before my cruise on online portals such as FunVille and Facebook. Then I’m able to use on-board services like the iLounge to stay connected and update my social networks about my cruise experience.

Finally, I get to come home with new gadgets and skills that allow me to access my social network sites from virtually anywhere, tell everyone on the cruise line’s fan page how great my trip was, and share my stories with friends and followers.

In other words, engaging customers through social media and technology is not just good branding; it’s an effective PR and marketing investment.