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Ms. Van Leunen

Social Media & Relationship Marketing

Tap Into the Travel Marketing Powerhouse That Your Competition Can't Touch

By Diane Van Leunen, Director of Digital Marketing, Flip.to

We hear all the time that travelers have changed. Now we're highly-connected, mobile-crazed folks who want the freedom to choose. We want experiences, and we want to share those experiences with family and friends at the touch of a button, all in search of the next like. This is often attributed to the growing number of Millennial travelers born-and-raised on tech somewhere between 1980 (or '85, or '90 depending on who you ask) and the early 2000s.

The reality is, travelers aren't so different. We're still dreamers and adventure-seekers. We always enjoyed experiences and we always shared them with the people we love. What's changed is just how we do those things-how we dream, how we connect with our like-minded tribe, and how we discover new adventures. All of these are made faster and easier thanks to the explosion of mobile and social.

It makes good business sense that hotels are adapting to this phenomenon. Being present on these channels is a must. After all, social media is where billions of conversations are happening every day. But what sets these conversations and the medium itself apart are the people. It's their connection to each other that makes their personal exchanges unique. This is discourse a brand, big box or building just can't have.

Ultimately, it's the people who have the massive influence, connectivity and trust that can make a big impact for hotels (or any brand for that matter), and can even give your property a competitive edge. Herein lies the opportunity. So who are these people? They're your guests, and you can use them to earn big wins for your hotel.

Reaching Travelers is Tough. Here's Why Your Competitors Might be Winning

Before we look at why your guests are such an incredibly valuable marketing asset, it's worth looking at the challenges hotels are seeking to overcome.

Social Media is Evolving - When these channels first emerged, people and brands got on board in droves. Where once hotels built an engaged audience of followers and fans, now is another advertising medium. Organic reach is dead (okay, nearly dead) and Facebook gives priority to content shared by people you know over that of brands. Couple this with the fact that it's now pay-to-play, and the competition is rising. In fact, social media advertising spend increased 33.5% in 2015 with no signs of slowing down.

The Marketplace is Noisy - Americans visit 140 travel sites on average in the 45 days prior to booking when planning a trip. As a whole, we're spending over 40% more time with digital travel content this year than last.][3] That's a lot of media to digest.

Not only is the sheer volume of noise growing, but brands like AirBNB are stealing the mic. It's clear why. Their approach carves out a considerable share of attention, hitting a niche with experiences and positioning themselves as the purveyors of 'local.' They're grabbing the eyes and ears of travelers and press alike.

Their numbers tell an even bigger story. A new report by Morgan Stanley put their market penetration at 18-19% (up from 12% last year), projecting more growth into the new year thanks to high marks for both traveler awareness and user satisfaction.

'Book Now' is in Everyone's Sights

Competition at the time of transaction is perhaps the highest hurdle of all. Brands, OTAs, AirBNB, and the like are all bidding for this very moment of a traveler's journey. Google has backed this up, showing that the top brands are earning between 30% and 40% of the share of impressions in end-stage planning and booking. What's this all add up to for hotels?

Money. And lots of it. It's expensive to compete at this stage, and big budgets rule the space. Skift reported that in 2015 Expedia spent $3.38 billion in marketing with Priceline inching behind at $3.36 billion. TripAdvisor even entered the game, adding another $692 million into the mix.

What Typically Happens Next? Over-Compensation and the Pendulum Effect

These challenges can be daunting for a hotel marketer. At times, they may even feel insurmountable. But the reality is that the reaction to these hurdles can worsen the blow, hindering success in the long term.

Communication That's Personalized, Not Personal

Travelers are savvy. They see right through marketing that was created to fill your hotel's need instead of content that truly had them in mind. These messages have no bearing on where the traveler is on their journey and the level of personalization usually goes only as far as their first name.

Hotels Erode Their Brand in a Race to the Bottom

Blasts to your audiences (on social or otherwise) not only come off as impersonal, but they tend to include flash sales or low-ball marketing offers designed for anyone and everyone. It's a quick path to a room night, but at what expense? While this tactic fills your need in the short-term it also erodes your brand by setting a precedent for travelers who book your hotel. (Once a bargain brand, always a bargain brand.)

Marketing Turns to Spam

Especially on social, relevant content is king. If you're constantly hitting the same audience with impersonal messages designed purely for your own benefit, it's spam. The fact is, you're not broadening your scope. You're taking the risk of being ignored by those that follow you, and even worse could be losing future engagement from relationships that you've eroded altogether.

Where Hotels Can Win Back Travelers

Most 80-room properties don't have a $3 billion budget, nor are they buzzworthy fodder of the media at large. But that's okay. You have a truly competitive edge that sets your hotel apart. One that will help you reach a worldwide audience, avoid the common pitfalls we've discussed here, and have a distinct advantage over those seeking to compete for your travelers. That edge is the collective marketing potential of your guests.

Remember, you're the home base for your guests during their stay. As the hotel, it's a relationship that only you have. Get personal. Build on that relationship while encouraging your guests to share their experiences throughout their entire travel journey. Do this right and they'll send their network of friends & family back to your site, growing traffic made up of a demographic of travelers perfect for your hotel.

Gain the Authentic Perspective of Your Guests

As you encourage guests to share their experiences about your hotel, you'll notice a significant difference between their content and the standard stock image or sponsored post.

Guests provide candid, authentic insights that tell the richer story about your property. This first-person perspective (one that only your guests can provide) is important. For one thing, it's the right context for stories shared on social media. More importantly it's real, trusted, and far more potent than any advertising.

Get Real Brand Influence

The influence and trust your guests have both in real life and on social is arguably one of the top reasons to tap into this incredible resource. Brands and social giants used to track influence by sheer audience size. But the way people are really learning about travel goes to show that the weight of true influence can't be measured on following alone. For one thing, social media is an incredibly effective word-of-mouth medium, and the real-life friends & family who travelers know have shown to have a far greater bearing on the path to purchase.

The reason? People are connected to like-minded individuals. They generally trust the recommendations of friends & family more than ads, and this is especially true in the inspiration phase of travel-a fact backed by research from both Expedia and Google. And if that wasn't enough, consider this-a recent study was conducted of 200 leading travel "influencers" in North America. The benchmark of engagement performance hovered just under 3.5%. For those outliers with significantly higher results? They were a bust-mostly blank accounts showing fake engagement that was utterly worthless to a brand.

Build an Ever-Growing Audience

The collective reach of your guests is enormous, as well as incredibly targeted. Your guests can introduce your hotel to a network of travelers just like them-and that's a really good thing. Over time, the current database you have (right now made up of only current and past guests) will be miles deeper and more bountiful. Every day you'll add to the pool of travelers that are the perfect demographic for your hotel.

Turn Social Traffic Into a New Channel of Guests

Warm engagement with your audience on social is not a bad thing. But it's important to remember where conversions happen for your hotel. That's on your site, not on your social channels. Social media sites want people to stay on the sites that they've built. While your social fan page might have an audience, the bigger goal is to use these networks to grow an audience for your own site.

Craft content and experiences that turn the social reach of your guests into a powerful distribution platform. Reach the connections of your guests and then drive them back to your own site. You'll send quality traffic back to the digital world you control. Pair this with thoughtful calls-to-action for travelers in each stage of their own journey and you'll start competing on a different level.

The Largest Edge: Inspire and Compete Long Before "Book Now"

While we're on the traveler journey, here's something worth noting. As your guests introduce you to friends and family, they're most likely not in travel-planning mode. Google calls these 'dreaming' or 'I-want-to-get-away' moments. These dreamers have made no decision to travel but are ready to be inspired, making this a prime opportunity for your hotel to be introduced. That's key, and here's why. As we mentioned earlier, at the time of booking top brands hold 40% of the share of impressions. However, at this stage in the journey-the inspiration phase-it's only 5%. And that's a tremendous opportunity for hotels to make an impression.

Let your guests put your hotel at the center of moments shared with friends & family. You'll make that impression far before your competitors have even had a chance to start a relationship (let alone earn the booking.) Think of these moments of inspiration as the place where people catch the 'travel bug' from those they know, and you want to be included at that very first opportunity.

Your Guests are Your Greatest Untapped Resource

If you're a hotel and are still trying to compete at the time of conversion, you're facing an uphill battle-and it's steep. The billions spent in the digital space on ads, conversion and technology is only set to inflate. Add to this more noise and an ever-changing travel landscape and the hurdles only get bigger.

But just as challenges evolve, so too does travel marketing. With connectivity and influence that's untouched, your guests are the greatest addition to your team. Tap into this marketing powerhouse and you'll rise above the rest while growing real, tangible results for your hotel.

References:

Brian Boland. "Organic Reach on Facebook: Your Questions Answered." Facebook, https://blog.hootsuite.com/social-media-advertising-stats/. Accessed 05 Dec 2015.
Evan LePage. "All the Social Media Advertising Stats You Need to Know." Hootesuite, https://blog.hootsuite.com/social-media-advertising-stats/. Accessed 11 Dec 2016.
"The American Traveler's Path to Purchase." Expeida Media Solutions, https://info.advertising.expedia.com/american-traveler-path-to-purchase. Accessed 30 Nov 2016.
"The 2014 Traveler's Road to Decision." Think with Google, https://think.storage.googleapis.com/docs/2014-travelers-road-to-decision_research_studies.pdf. Accessed 18 June 2015.
Kevin May. "Hardly influential - warning over fake Instagram love and travel bloggers." Tnooz, https://www.tnooz.com/article/articlearticlehardly-influential-fake-instagram-accounts-and-travel-bloggers/. Accessed 13 Dec 2016.
"Organic Reach on Facebook: Your Questions Answered." Think with Google, https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/be-there-micro-moments-new-travel-customer-journey.html. Accessed 11 Dec 2016.
Kevin May. "Airbnb demand increasingly hitting hotels, not online travel agencies." Tnooz, https://www.tnooz.com/article/morgan-stanley-airbnb-report/. Accessed 12 Dec 2016.
"How Micro-Moments Are Reshaping the Travel Customer Journey Travel Micro-Moments Guide." Think with Google, https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/micro-moments-travel-customer-journey.html/. Accessed 11 Dec 2016.

Diane Van Leunen is the Director of Digital Marketing at Flip.to, the advocacy marketing platform that helps hotels reach, inspire and convert entirely new global audiences of travelers every day. Ms. Van Leunen began her career as a designer in advertising and branding. Soon after, she was propelled into the world of hospitality. She took a position in art direction at Plan A PR and Marketing, a public relations firm specializing in the B2B hotel technology space. Following agency life, Ms. Van Leunen moved client-side, tackling hotel marketing with a creative role on the corporate team at The Kessler Collection—a boutique hotel group that provides curated experiences to discerning travelers. Ms. Van Leunen can be contacted at 321-234-2086 or dvanleunen@flip.to Please visit http://www.flip.to for more information. Extended Bio...

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