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Mr. Perrine

Social Media & Relationship Marketing

Your Guests are Talking About You on Social Media. Are You Listening?

By Bernard Perrine, CEO & Co-Founder, SocialCentiv

The Internet has changed the way many travelers choose and evaluate hotels. Is your business changing as well?

As recently as the early 2000s, guests often used the room rates a given hotel charged as an indication of that property's quality or value. But a scholarly study published in February 2013 found consumers were placing a far greater emphasis on a very different barometer: so-called "user-generated content" - notably online reviews of hotels from other travelers.

"Reviews are the most powerful value indicator for consumers," noted one of the study's authors, Kelly McGuire, in a subsequent blog post. "Our research overwhelmingly indicated that consumers look to the reviews over aggregate ratings to form quality and value perceptions … (And) in the presence of ratings and reviews, consumers do not use price as an indication of quality."

Although the reviews consumers use are most commonly located on travel sites such as TripAdvisor, the growth of importance of user-generated content in their decision making highlights a key online arena that helps sway where they stay during travel: social media.

In one survey, 52 percent of respondents reported altering travel plans (with 33 percent changing hotels) at least partly because of research they had done on social media. Seeing friends' holiday photos influences the vacation choices of 52 percent of Facebook users, according to Social Times.

With social media buzz being so vital in travel choices, it's more important than ever for hotel companies to monitor what people are saying about them on sites like Facebook and Twitter. This checking process, called "social listening," not only helps hoteliers turn people who make positive comments into brand ambassadors, but also aides in discovering and promptly responding to cyber criticisms.

This article examines why hotels should implement rigorous programs for social listening, along with tools and techniques these businesses can use to do the job effectively.

Social Media as Sounding Board

While the traveling public was quick to embrace social media, the travel industry - like many fields - was slower to get aboard. One study published in 2011 found that while many of the top 50 international hotel brands were on Facebook, "most (were) practically invisible and (suffered) from low levels of both activity and engagement."

Today, the social realm has a role in bookings. A 2013 Phocuswright study found 22 percent of travelers used social networks to search for deals in relation to trips they were considering.

But for hotels in particular, social media is perhaps most important for monitoring what consumers are saying about a given brand and responding accordingly. That, in turn, can provide financial benefits to hotel companies, independent research suggests.

A study released in March of this year found a direct correlation between a given hotel's responsiveness to social media reviews and its occupancy rate. Properties that responded to more than 50 percent of social reviews grew their occupancy rates by 6.4 percentage points, more than twice what hotels that largely ignored social reviews saw, the research found.

Those socially engaged properties also outperformed the broader hospitality industry, which saw a 4.3 percent occupancy growth rate over the period that the study examined.

Perhaps not surprisingly, separate research suggests that hotels that receive online approvals from travelers can generate more business.

A hotel that increases its review scores by one point on a five-point scale - such as from 3.3 to 4.3 - can increase its price by 11.2 percent and still maintain the same occupancy or market share, according to a 2012 analysis of Travelocity transactional data from Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration. Further, the study reported, a one-percent increase in a hotel's online reputation score on ReviewPRO's Global Review Index leads up to a 0.89-percent increase in price, as measured by the hotel's average daily rate.

That one percent increase in reputation also leads to a rise in its occupancy rate (up to 0.54 percent) and its revenue per available room (up to 1.42 percent).

"The percentage of consumers consulting reviews at TripAdvisor prior to booking a hotel room has increased over time, as has the number of reviews they are reading prior to making their hotel choice," the study noted.

The importance of social media to hotels extends beyond what improved reviews and ratings can mean. Research suggests that social networking can promote something that the Internet seemingly irrevocably damaged years ago: customer loyalty.

A 2011 scholarly study found loyal consumers have between five and eight times the value of average customers. A big element separating high-value clientele is that they feel an emotional connection to the business, notably by sensing they have a one-on-one relationship with the brand.

Social media can help foster customer loyalty, if nothing else by allowing the hotel to better understand an individual's likes and dislikes through reading what they write in reviews and other posts.

A 2010 study recommended that companies develop and post content based on factors such as what consumers would like to hear and talk about and what they'd find enjoyable and valuable.

In addition, social media can essentially help the hotel brand keep in touch with key customers by providing updates on developments those folks could find interesting. "Some hotels seem to have the misconception that social media is just another advertising channel," says a 2013 research survey paper out of the University Nevada Las Vegas.

Just another ad channel? Nothing could be further from the truth.

First, Get a Plan

While it may seem obvious that hotels should monitor what social media denizens are saying about them, a problem quickly arises for newcomers to networking sites like Instagram, Pinterest or LinkedIn: where to begin?

Twitter alone sees around 200 billion user posts per year, an average of roughly 6,000 Tweets every second. Facebook, which had 1.44 billion monthly active users as of March 31, 2015, is reportedly "the largest voluntary, non-religious organization in the history of the world."

While all of that may make social media seem daunting, remember that much of what is on the Internet is noise - information that is extraneous to the hospitality and travel industries entirely. For instance, researchers for years have been raising alarms about the prospect of spammers possibly generating more social media content than legitimate members.

This means the trick in social listening is to avoid the superfluous while zeroing in on what's important, and then compile and analyze relevant data and take appropriate action.

In Short, the First Step is Having a Plan.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, a helpful starting point is a hypothesis - a theory for which the business can gather and crunch data to see if the notion is true. If a hotel chain's executives have heard anecdotal complaints about management or cleanliness issues at a given property, say, it could be worthwhile for marketers to mine social media and customer reviews to see what steps might be in order to rectify potential issues.

It's interesting to note that Cornell researchers have reported that the most common knocks on hotels in online reviews center on management and cleanliness, while service is typically what generates the most frequent positive comments. The good news, as the Cornell paper noted, is that when hotels respond to complaints and fix problems, their reviews tend to improve.

Fortunately, hoteliers have apparently gotten the memo about the importance of ratings and reviews.

A recent eMarketer study found that online reputation management was the top area where travel accommodation owners worldwide planned to increase spending in 2015.

Among hotels that planned to increase investments in their businesses this year, 60 percent told the research firm that they were going to pour more dollars into taking care of their reputations in cyberspace.

Listen, Connect with the Right People

Ideally, every brand should have an updated and optimized presence on every social media site. A designated employee - many times a social media manager in this day and age - should regularly use top monitoring tools to track what people are saying about the business and respond when necessary.

While that may be feasible for large hotel chains, it's probably not plausible for smaller or even mid-sized players to pull off. For those smaller two groups, it may make sense to focus on the niches of cyberspace where their social listening can produce the most bang for the buck.

Facebook alone has dozens, if not hundreds, of pages dedicated to seemingly every nook and cranny of the travel experience, from women who travel to content geared for baby boomers, not to mention almost every destination imaginable.

Small and mid-sized hotel brands join social travel communities for which they're a good fit and provide content users have expressed an interest in, such as pictures of locales where their properties are located.

As one expert points out, putting the needs of cyber communities like these first will get hotel brands further than pushing their latest promotions. Gently joining conversations, even discussions about competitors, can provide brands with business opportunities if they avoid hard sales pitches and stick to giving information and insights that consumers find helpful.

In a similar vein, social monitoring tools can help hotel companies unearth brand advocates - the marketing equivalent of 24-carat gold.

People whose opinions matter in online travel circles can help spread the word about a travel brand, often for little or nothing in the way of compensation aside from, say, perks at a given property.

Since friends and family remain the primary influencers of consumer travel decisions, brand ambassadors will inherently carry more weight with potential customers than any direct marketing message the company can muster.

Tools to Consider

A number of software-based services are available to help hoteliers monitor the discussion on social media, ranging from free to premium.

Small brands that are new to social networking may want to start with something that costs little to nothing as a way of garnering small, quick marketing wins out of the gate. This can help build a business case for investing in more robust listening technology later.

Options in this regard include Social Mention, a search engine that uses keywords and covers more than 100 social properties, including Twitter, Facebook and Google.

Other choices include Feedly, which provides updates on blogs, and Mention.net, through which marketers can get alerts when people discuss their brands.

As mobile devices have spread, listening tools can filter social posts by the user's geographic location. Twitter's own search mechanism can narrow down results to the street level. An alternative method for doing that can allow the person doing the search more privacy.

HootSuite, a favorite of many social media mavens, is on the paid side. The service, which starts with a 30-day free trial, provides monitoring of social conversations across different sites.

While a brand is collecting data, it's important to invest in analytical tools that will provide insights that the business can turn into smart business moves.

Options abound, from SocialRest (which tracks how corporate social content translates into conversions, from sales to creating new brand ambassadors); Tweetreach (for finding influential people on social); and DataSift (which crunches Twitter data as an early-warning system for issues companies need to monitor, such as security problems or power outages).

As with anything else, social monitoring and analytics tools all have their pluses and minuses.

And as in any endeavor, the more capable the person is who wields a tool, the more value that individual can provide. This is why it makes sense to invest not only in strong technologies for keeping tabs on and understanding the social landscape, but also personnel who can get the most out of those tools to help hotel businesses grow.

Success Stories on Social

While the social landscape has its pitfalls, the good news is that opportunities abound as well, both for improving operations at properties and generating revenue.

Cornell researchers have shared the story (originally from ReviewPro) of a Barcelona property that boosted its online ratings after it learned through social comments that some guests found its breakfast offering lacking. Addressing their concerns head on cut down on negative online reviews and other posts.

An upscale boutique in Europe learned through social listening that the simple act of asking guests about their satisfaction with their stays at checkout produced good reviews - along with managers' willingness to address any issues that might surface, Cornell scholars reported.

Social listening need not be just about fixing problems. A prominent East Coast hotel property used marketing software from my company, SocialCentiv, to reach hundreds of highly qualified customer prospects on Twitter, while achieving a 40 percent conversion rate.

In the bigger scheme of things, monitoring and responding to social chatter is no longer an option for hotels. It is a necessity.

Some 52 percent of travelers use social media for inspiration for their summer vacations. Another 46 percent post hotel reviews after trips are over, and 40 percent write online reviews of restaurants.

Is your hotel business listening?

Bernard Perrine is the CEO and co-founder of SocialCentiv, an online software-based service that helps companies find new customers on Twitter. He previously was a founding partner and former corporate officer of Kinko’s Inc., where he was responsible for leading all vectors of products, services, marketing and human resources. Mr. Perrine can be contacted at bernie@socialcentiv.com. Extended Bio...

HotelExecutive.com retains the copyright to the articles published in the Hotel Business Review. Articles cannot be republished without prior written consent by HotelExecutive.com.

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