At least 185 companies have representatives participating in various conversations on FlyerTalk, where the United Airlines toilet paper photo was posted.
"They all read the site because they don't want their bosses to see it on FlyerTalk (first)," said Brent Conver, FlyerTalk's general manager.
"They're also managing customer service," he said. "If I had a bad flight and it shows up on FlyerTalk, they can get a handle on it. They don't want to look or be unresponsive."
It's important, Conver said, that the travel companies have employees that can engage in the conversation.
"I see a lot of reps think it's an ad campaign, who post and don't come back," he said. "If you don't take a conversational tone, people don't relate to you. You have to be active, watching and paying attention and making a concerted approach to solve a problem."
The power of consumers online
The travel industry is becoming more aware of the power of their customers' online communication.
The Internet gives a platform "for anyone who snaps a photo of a moment in time," said Josiah Mackenzie, director of business development at ReviewPro, which helps hotels manage their online presence. "Sometimes it's a tweet that has no basis in reality. But when it goes viral, the potential audience is enormous."
People will often complain first on Twitter, even while they're still staying at a hotel, Mackenzie said. That's an opportunity for the hotel to address their complaints before it's too late.
"You can catch an item before days go by and they check out and leave a review on TripAdvisor that stays forever," he said.
And it's not limited to airlines and hotels.
Cruise lines know that customers have a hard time understanding the different layouts, room sizes and locations, amenities, on-shore excursions and fees of any cruise line or particular ship they haven't sailed before. That's why passengers turn to forums such as Cruise Critic to plan their trips and vent when things go wrong.
"Almost every cruise line I know has someone dedicated to reading forums and responding to them," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic. "I can't think of anything more important than communicating to your customers."
Even cruise line executives, such as Oceania Cruises chief executive Frank Del Rio, have been known to respond to questions posted by Cruise Critic members.
"If people don't feel valued, they're going to let others know about it," Spencer Brown said. "The danger of not responding is pushing forward the perception that you're not interested in the perspective of your customer."
Companies monitoring the forums can see whether ships are operating well or whether there are systematic problems aboard particular ships that need to be fixed, she said.
Crucial when things go wrong
When things go wrong -- as it did in May with a fire aboard Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas cruise ship -- it's crucial for companies to be upfront on social media. Brown credits Royal Caribbean for tweeting out news of the fire and sending pictures of its CEO examining the fire damage after the ship docked in the Bahamas.
The company also tweeted details about how they transferred people home, what compensation those customers would receive and what future cruises would be canceled.
"It was gutsy, and it was brilliant," Spencer Brown said.