Hotel commerce, branding, online reputation management, guest feedback, reviews, and customer satisfaction are no longer disconnected or disjunctive focus areas for hoteliers. Today, social media's tetra-like tentacles reaches out to all of these touch points, and the more forward-thinking hoteliers are embracing 21st century technology to get the job done comprehensively, from decision-making to check-out.
According to a 2012 PhoCusWright research report, 66 percent of travelers in the U.S. are on Facebook, and Lorraine Sileo, their vice president of research indicates that FB referrals are far more likely to convert into bookings than those from online travel agencies (OTAs) or even travel review sites, such as TripAdvisor.
OTAs ask: "Who moved my cheese?"
Consequently, many OTAs are beginning to lose their marketing foothold as social networks like Facebook eat into their revenues. Today hoteliers are using the social network as on outpost for bookings where they benefit by installing a booking engine on their FB fan pages. This results in savvy guests by-passing OTAs, attracted by the hotel's discounted rates on FB. By motivating potential customers with a 10-15% discount, hoteliers now have a distribution channel that can undercut OTA bookings, that have traditionally garnered mark-ups as high as 35 percent.
Word of Mouth gets real virtually
However, word of mouth referrals continue to be the most valued asset provided by social media, where friends and followers are by far the most significant factor in helping decision-makers make travel decisions. But differing from vetting a product or service in the real world -- online, hotels can take this paradigm to a whole new level, where they can actually leverage their guests to assist in the process.
As a social media marketing platform, Flip.to engages with customers at the point of confirmation, where the service is integrated with the hotel's online booking engine. The system was developed on the premise that a hotels's guests can become the brand's strongest advocates, and in actuality become an extension of a brand's marketing and sales force.
After a guest books a room, they are incented to spread the word about their trip to Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn In this example at the James Chicago, the incentive is a complimentary room upgrade.
Flip.to offers hoteliers and guests a streamlined means of disseminating brand messaging during the reservation process. Termed “magnetic marketing,” the time of purchase is an optimal point of engagement when the hotelier has the undivided attention of its booking guest. The strength of the bond between seller and buyer is the greatest when both are traversing the same wave length. Greater than the traditional “technology push” or “market pull,” magnetic marketing converts customers into brand advocates since they've already vetted the hotel with a booking.
Social networks have made it easier for folks to solicit travel suggestions from friends. To this end, Flip.to, leverages the post-guest-visit with the goal to increase engagement and communication between the guests and their followers.
Social Media Reviews land on designated landing pages
While review sites such as TripAdvisor are used for research before one’s travels, it is still one’s close circle of friends and their recommendations that most influence one's travel decisions. Flip.to’s platform incorporates these recommendations with a component that collects reviews from the guest onto and posts them to a designated landing page.
How do the big guys stack up?
"Marriott is the most visible online brand, especially given its large presence on Twitter," noted Essec Business School professor Peter O'Connor. "Hyatt Regency recorded the most activity, while Holiday Inn had the most 'likes' on Facebook, and Best Western has the strongest social media presence overall, as judged by its consistency across the channels, followed by Hilton and Marriott, he added.
Customer Engagement is now transparent
O'Conner also pointed out that the "consumer is reacting badly to traditional advertising approaches on the Internet," and in his estimation, "it is (now) critical for the hotel industry to change how it sells to consumers."
Michael Wooden, senior vice president of ACS (a division of Xerox) found that social media was a double-edge sword when it came to managing customer relationships. On the one hand, he noted that "78 percent of companies recorded improved customer satisfaction when they started monitoring social media" feedback for their brands. But on the other, he mentioned the rise in negative critiques, and "the need to intercept these customer complaints as early as possible, with the a goal of improving service and minimizing damage from complaints."
One question, one question only...
Flip.to tackles this challenge for hotels with their streamlined online review process. After a guest stays at a hotel using the Flip.to platform, they receive a survey that asks one question only; namely, "how likely are you to recommend us to your friends?" This process separates the weed from the chaff where top promoters can be determined quickly and rewarded for spreading their goodwill to their social networks. Negative responses can also be addressed in a short turn-around to aid in quick recovery, and potentially stem off harsher critiques on TripAdvisor and OTA review sites.
Net Promoters are influential influencers.
The "net promoter" movement was first introduced in 2006. Outlined in the book, The Ultimate Question, loyalty expert Fred Reichheld found that companies could distinguish "promoters" from "detractors" to produce a clearer understanding of an organization's performance from its customers' perspective. His extensive case studies actually proved that increasing a "Net Promoter Score” or NPS by just a dozen points or so, over the competition, could double a company's growth rate and its customer satisfaction.
While Flip.to doesn't incent net promoters to post to TripAdvisor (as that would not be in accordance with the review site's guidelines), it does provide a link to TripAdvisor to allow guests to post the same positive review that they posted to the website and communicated to their followers.
Social Media is a focus group of millions
Stuart Greif, vice president and general manager of J.D. Power and Associates when asked about social media's conversation analysis, he described the space as "a focus group of millions." Dealing with this sheer number of buyers, this crowd sourcing of sentiment far outweighs the small sample of people that were used for traditional focus groups of the past. Again, utilizing the distribution channel of social media, hotel brands can today leverage their guests into becoming their most engaged advocates.
Aggregating hotel reviews across the Internet
Today, there are a number of Review aggregators such as Revinate and ReviewPro used by hoteliers. Shane O'Flaherty from Forbes Travel Guide 3.0 indicates that their travel platform combines the comments of travelers with the insights of professional inspectors and travel writers. The service reviews 2,800 hotels and 2,700 restaurants and judges properties against 525 service standards. As far as advanced trip planning, O'Flaherty indicated that leisure travelers use search engines for 73 percent of hotel and destination research while 25 percent of business travelers use their mobile device for online travel information.
Hoteliers today have learned that engaging with their customers from decision-making to check-out is a continuum, not a disconnected set of engagements. By employing some of the strategical and tactical methodologies outlined here, they can learn more from their customers today, than they ever did previously-- even with the excessive amount of hand-holding five-star hotels were known for in the past. Perceptions change throughout the travelers' entire travel experience, and it's important that hoteliers today engage with their guests in a meaningful way every step of the way.
Perhaps if that Bethlehem Inn had access to some of these social media tools millenniums ago, Mary and Joseph would have received the VIP treatment they so justly deserved.