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ROLE OF SOCIAL MEDIA IN HOSPITALITY

The use of the term “social media” has risen steadily since July 2006 and today is part of our day to day life.
Wikipedia defines Social Media as “media designed to be disseminated through social interaction, created using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques.”

Social media supports the human need for social interaction, using Internet- and web-based technologies to transform broadcast media monologues (one too many) into social media dialogues (many to many). It supports the democratization of knowledge and information, transforming people from content consumers into content producers. Businesses also refer to social media as user-generated content or consumer-generated media. Social media utilization is believed to be a driving factor in the idea that the current period in time will be defined as the Attention Age.

Research on the need for Social Media Interaction points to three broad factors: creativity, expertise and collective intelligence.

Users do believe that it’s a great platform to express their own thoughts and expressions without any fear. So whether it’s about giving views for an airline or a hotel service or expressing ideas on how to improve on a particular aspect – the views are there for all to read and comment upon further (read debate)

As far as expertise is concerned, an online social network is perceived by consumers as an expert tool, as it offers a basis for the detection of emerging social trends and recognition of changes in consumer behavior, including member profiles, behavioral patterns and associated lists of contacts and further more their individual experiences at a hotel or airline.

Additionally, Online Social Networks may be a means of aligning individual thinking with collaborative intelligence, leading to group consensus. This can be about announcing an event, new job openings or promoting a social cause.

Social Media @ The Hospitality Industry
In ’06 and even much later, the hospitality industry continued to ignore the concept of using Twitter or Facebook or any other social media platforms for their promotional activities. The marketing initiatives were either off line or on very limited and repetitive online options. However, things have changed now and the same marketing teams are relooking at their strategy to reach the end customer through these channels. But they have a new challenge today.

While almost all are keen to get into the space, most hospitality companies today are not sure where to allocate funding or resources for the management of this critical aspect of their business. The reason for this is because to effectively manage and reap the benefits of social media a combination of skills and resources are required including public relations, operations, revenue management and marketing.

The recent emergence of online social networks (OSN) has changed the technological and communications landscape of the hospitality industry. The bloggers becoming self proclaimed critiques sharing travel experiences, recommending preferred accommodations, offering views on restaurant ambiance, quality and service, as well as hospitality companies monitoring and contributing to self-sponsored sites or using these channels for their HR needs (LinkedIn particularly) have all changed the way the industry is looking at Social Media in current times.

Social media monitoring gives hotel marketing managers an opportunity to keep their fingers on the pulse of how consumers are responding—to what extent current marketing campaigns are successful, how they need to refine campaigns or packages over time and, ultimately, the business outcomes.

How to enhance the .Com experience?

A recent research acknowledges that toolbox technologies can be used to monitor and analyze brand equity, market influencers and consumer intelligence. Social media monitoring and analysis are also capable of identifying sensitivities about a customer experience without necessitating market intrusion. Additionally, the technology can profile or delineate influential consumers for targeting. Customers that engage in blogging or photo or video sharing are more likely to assert influence in the marketplace. By identifying individuals who disproportionately influence markets or consumer behavior in the market, a business can determine a strategy of appeal.

Various technology options like ChatterGuard.com, an online social media monitoring and reputation management system, HotelSocialBlogs.com, a turn-key Travel 2.0 Distribution & Marketing service, CommentCards.com, a full-service business-2-consumer comment card service,

eProposalSystem.com, an online RFP response system hotel Sales Managers, RFPLink.com, a group RFP lead generation, HotelDirectBook.com, a consumer hotel portal, and reporting system, DiningClick.com, Internet Marketing Services for the restaurant industry, and Spa Interactive, Internet Marketing Services for the health spa industry are available today to effectively utilize the power of Social Media in the Hospitality space.

What’s happening out there?
For the E-Marketing Managers – Microsoft’s Bing and Google have already announced that tweets from Twitter will be included in the search duo’s organic results. Facebook status updates are likely to follow. For travel and its relationship with search, indexing of live Twitter and Facebook updates will trigger an evolution – once again – in how travel companies think about Search Engine Optimization and social media.

In the Google-Twitter arrangement as an example, it is unclear as yet how Google will index and rank the stream from Twitter – but if it uses the same relevancy and linking protocols it applies at the moment to natural search, then this is a powerful change in engine’s capability. This is just one in a series of steps by Google to address real-time information. Recently they quietly added a parameter which allows granular time search: for new results within the last 5 minutes, 30 seconds, 10 hours, etc

As in the past, results for a search for “XYZ Hotel New Delhi” on Google would probably have returned the property’s website may be along with a Google map image, a Trip Advisor review, Yahoo Travel reviews, a handful of aggregator sites (where aggregation is entirely automatic, using algorithms which carry out contextual analysis and group similar stories together e.g.: RSS Feeds, Google News), an Online Travel Agent or OTA like the Make My Trip or Expedia or Travelocity, and maybe a blog post or forum entry in the first few pages. And yes you can always count on the sponsored links on the top or on the right that depends on the money you spent for electronic marketing.

But now the good news is that the results may include relevant tweets from Twitter. The relevancy may be determined by how many other Twitterists have re-tweeted the post, number of inbound links from respected and page ranked authorities, number of followers for the tweeter, etc.

In one quick stroke the search engines will be including the essence of travel: the here and now of the travel conversation or what the web community is saying about destinations, airlines, hotels, tour operators, agencies and, most importantly, the reaction to it. If this is the case, Twitter becomes a powerful channel for travel companies and can no longer be ignored. And the fear is that travel companies may well possibly flood Twitter or Facebook with hundreds or even thousands of messages in the hope that it ends up on an organic search result relevant to their brand. This is relevant from the plenty of fan pages on Facebook in the hospitality space.

The Social Media platforms might at the same time may simply become a huge distribution network of offers and late deals by the travel companies. So it’s not far away when the leading hotel companies can have a special offer right there just for its fan club on the social media network or launching an opening offer for a new hotel only by sending tweets to its regular customers.

One of the interesting tightropes of social media is that what makes something Happening in one moment where it was Outdated just six months prior. Users on Facebook are more discerning about making suggestions simply because if the person has a bad experience at a hotel as a result of that recommendation, it might just come back to bite them post the “Moment of Truth”. Twitter users, on the other hand, are more impulsive and less likely to screen their recommendations.

Or, to put it in a travel context: Facebook suggestions are like suggestions from a hotel concierge and Twitter suggestions are like reviews you read in a magazine. If the XYZ hotel concierge sends you to an exhibition venue that is closed, the hotel will compensate you with may be a meal or even a cash credit. However, you’re not going to get that response from the magazine — or with a Twittered comment. That is why Facebook status comments have greater utility than Twitter.

Who are using it already?
AIR FRANCE KLM, European based airline holding company and one of the largest airline companies worldwide, launched BLUENITY (http://bluenity.com/) what they claim to be the first social network launched by the airline industry. All usual social elements such as sharing, recommendations and reviews flights, hotels, restaurants and destinations are included. Next to that, customers are able to display flights booked through Air France KLM on their profiles, find other members on the same flight and find members at similar destinations.

Bluenity is the first community site for travelers in the airline. The consumer can communicate with and meet people who travel with Air France and KLM, at the airport, in the plane or at your destination. The trip becomes an opportunity to meeting people: for example, one can exchange favorite addresses (hotels, restaurants, shops, events, excursions…), share a taxi on arrival, use your travel time to make new contacts. One can also submit good travel tips, views and comment on tips given by other members of the community.

This social media platform is hoping to get a reasonable market share with a potential target group of over 75 million consumers who fly with either one of the two airlines.

Another leading airline – BRITISH AIRWAYS has also launched their social network and service METROTWIN (http://www.metrotwin.com/) on similar service offerings.

However one of the most successful examples of utilizing the social media space in hospitality industry is one of the major cruise companies worldwide. The Miami-based CARNIVAL CRUISE LINES has over 80.000 employees and about 13 billion U.S. Dollar revenue recorded in 2007 and is operating 22 ships which are expected to carry over 2.6 million passengers this year.
Blogging

With close to three million visitors already since 2007, Carnival is having quite a popular blog, written by Carnival’s Senior Cruise Director John Heald (http://johnhealdsblog.com/). The blog, which was started to give insight to the behind-the-scenes activity in the life of a cruise director, originally was a one month project but due to its success continued and is still growing strong.

Besides the enormous amount of visitor traffic and brand exposure, the blog is also stimulating consumers to be part of discussions, resulting in over 25.000 comments. Due to the tremendous success of the blog, earlier this year John Heald hosted his first blogging cruise, to which over 800 enthusiastic blog visitors took part.

Social Networking
Carnival has set up its own social network and community for their customers http://www.carnivalconnections.com/ featuring several social functionalities such as photo and story sharing, scrap blogging, cruise and trip planning, event organizing and a message board forum.

Of course carnivalconnections enables customer to connect to friends, invite friends and share experiences of previous cruises and expectations of future cruises with each other. Also, the social network provides customer to write reviews about cruises which they can share with the public.

Not having exact numbers of members available, we would have to conclude from the amounts of topics and posts on the forum, over 5000 topics featuring 30.000 replies, that the network is quite successful and a great example of how a travel company can interact with its customers. Only image the amount of knowledge Carnival is getting from communicating with customers through this channel.

Virtual Tour
Carnival has created a complete virtual tour of it’s Fun Ship Island at FunShipIsland.com, featuring social elements such as sharing and personalization, which enables customers to view all parts of the ship online. Other features include a downloadable content such as wallpapers, ringtones and mp3 music.

While interacting with this website, quick, optional questions and individual preferences are collected for each visitor, which results in tailored recommendations for of course carnival cruises.

Using twitter already in May 2007, Carnival can be seen as an early adapter of twitter. Since then, carnivalcruise features over 300 updates and managed to get close to 500 followers. Carnival is using their twitter account to monitor their brand, listen to questions from customers, communicate promotions, share news about carnival and wish customers a safe journey. Also, people are asked and stimulated to use other their social networks to share their cruise experiences.

Photo Sharing
Since 2004 Flickr has become the most popular website for everything related to images and after having been acquired by Yahoo in 2005, the service continued growing. Carnival Cruises has its own photo stream on Flickr, a location where all images uploaded by Carnival can be found. Having uploaded close to 250 images on different topics such as their ships, locations, interiors, crew and construction sites, carnival is providing an interesting insight into the brand Carnival.

Online Video
You Tube is a video sharing website where users can upload, view and share video clips, owned by search engine Google. Carnival has its own ‘channel‘ on youtube, where it publishes its videos, coverage and presentations.

Measuring success
Although it is hard to measure the success of social media without data on costs and revenues, it appears Carnival successfully implemented social media. Brand awareness, customer services and customer intelligence through social media is difficult to measure.

By February 2008 both carnivalconnections.com and FunShipIsland.com managed to record over one million visitors. In terms of transactions, the only number available we could find is 20.000 transactions through carnivalconnections.com, which is significant and expected to have increased since 2006.

Using social media
Carnival has introduced a general audience with all comforts of long and short term cruising and is successfully using social media to spread their message and increase their brand positioning. Although the numbers of followers on twitter and members on youtube are not even significant, the efforts of Carnival do illustrate how innovative the company is and how active the company is participating in the conversation with their customers.

Strategizing Social Media for Hospitality Industry
An effective strategy in the hospitality space to cover social media should consider these points:

The monitoring service should cover more than one or two social media websites or blogs. Depending on the market and clientele demographics, the consumer reviews may appear on non-travel websites and blogs or on social media sites that are popular within that region or even from it’s key inbound territory.

When monitoring social messages one needs to segment them by attributes. For example for your hotel, the attributes may include rooms, perceived value, dining and housekeeping. A different set of attributes will apply for a restaurant, conference facility, spa services or golf. Segmenting by attribute also makes the process of applying this information internally to improve a service, inform your staff or to write a response so much easier.

A scoring method is needed to measure the trend of reviews by attribute so one can measure or compare trends up or down over time. If all reviews about the business are good, then the organization needs to know that and can take advantage of this input by posting or linking the messages to it’s brand website.

It is important for the organization to post responses to both good and bad reviews on the social media websites that allow response postings and where it is a blog one can generally add the comments. The response should be brief and address only the specific issue raised in a review. The comment should not read like an advertisement. In the social environment, consumers are on these sites to see the reviews, one-on-one information and not a commercial message. The value of the response is in the participation rather than interruption. The participation shows the companies’ willingness to listen and to be responsive; where as a commercial message may appear deceptive.

Conclusion
Simply monitoring one or two social media websites or blogs requires time and resources. It may give piece of mind, but there is no value or return on the time and resources without a strategic plan as to how this important information will be utilized. To reap the benefits of social media requires a measurable plan and clear expectation. The strategy should enable to benefit not only from negative reviews, but also the good reviews as well.

As part of overall strategy, the following key points can be considered while planning:

Social Media:
• Best Practices for Monitoring Customer Reviews
• Facebook Fan Pages for the hotel: Set-up or Optimization, Ongoing

Campaign Management, Content Postings, Fan List Growth
• Twitter Profiles for the hotel: Set-up or Optimization, Ongoing Campaign Management, Content Postings, Follower List Growth
• Flickr Profile for the hotel: Set-up and Optimization, Ongoing Management,

Content Postings
• YouTube: Flash Video Production, YouTube.com Hotel Profile Set-Up and Optimization, Ongoing Video Uploads
• Social Media Advertising (Web 2.0 Search, Banner Advertising, Sponsorships)
• Reservation Tracking and Conversion Reporting from the social media initiatives:
o Via the online booking engine
o Via the special 1-800 numbers used in the social media campaigns

Web 2.0 Features/Functionality on the Hotel Website:
• Interactive Calendar of Events (content managed by the hotel)
• Interactive Sweepstakes (e.g. 100th guest Free Room Giveaway)
• Blog on the Hotel Website (content managed by the hotel)
• Interactive Contests (Photo Sharing, Scavenger Hunts, etc.)
• Interactive Games (Good for resorts & casinos)

Building the Hotel Web 2.0/Social Media Strategy
• Hotel Defensive Strategy
• Hotel-Sponsored Social Media Initiatives
• Social Media and Hotel Employees
• Web 2.0/Social Media Marketing Initiatives
• Best Practices and Recommendations
• Brand/Corporate Level
• Property Level
• Destination Level

Because each site and each component of social media strategy has different objectives, they each have their own success metrics. One definitely needs to track engagement, satisfaction, and leads/sales. But to have a truly successful social media strategy, sales shouldn’t be the number one measure of success. From launching a new site to simply opening a Facebook fan page, each and every one of these initiatives involves a strategy and a foresight.

For some brands it doesn’t make sense to participate in every social networking site available, so one definitely tends to ease into new applications. The good news is that there are plenty to choose from and get into action…

January 13, 2010 Posted by | Hospitality & Tourism, TOURISM | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment