Search is going social

18 October 2011

It’s clear that despite some recent controversy surrounding the authenticity of Trip Advisor reviews as reported last month by the BBC, consumers trust reviews and tips from their friends and colleagues via social networks more than any brochure or advertising. In addition there are a raft of new travel sites which have grown up around the needs of specific customer segments such as families, couples, singles, gay or lesbian couples. Gay tourism is becoming an important and affluent travel segment for many destinations such as Rio de Janeiro, Toronto, San Francisco, Puerto Vallarta, Buenas Aires, Sydney, Bangkok, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Berlin.
 
The rise of the gay travel market
A rising segment of the travel market has been the growth in gay tourism. Learning how to cater to this market and enabling customers to see reviews from other gay visitors is a key need in the travel industry. According to Marketing Inc recommendations from friends (72%) show the importance of word of mouth marketing amongst gay and lesbian travellers. They are shown to have the largest disposable income of any niche travel group and are estimated to make up to between 5-10% of the US consumer market.[1]
 
 
For those companies which are afraid that customers will just post reviews about their bad experiences, recent new research from Review Pro, suggests that hotel guests post four positive reviews for every negative one. They analysed more than 90million customer reviews and found 60% were positive and only 12% were negative.
 
Give me a review from people like me
Not only do customers want to read reviews but they want to see reviews from people like them so there has been a real proliferation in niche travel companies based not only on interests such as wildlife or adventure. I was a the first Wildlife expo at Alexandra Palace in London on Saturday and it was amazing to see the sheer number of specialist tour operators focused on everything from safaris to bird watching trips and also the amount of interest from visitors. We were treated to a talk from Mark Cawardine, a famous photographer who has whizzed around the world photographing wildlife. He was sharing with us his favourite spots for watching whales in Baha, Mexico, and his love of the Galapagos in Ecuador and Komodo Island in Indonesia.
 
 
 
Explosion of user generated content
Often it is a photographer or blogger sharing their stories, or a friend or family member that will inspire us to consider a trip abroad. The growth of social media has enabled more of us try our hand at blogging and to share our photos more widely than ever before. A friend was telling me recently that her 12 year old daughter has shared hundreds of photos on Facebook with her friends. This proliferation of user generated content has changed the internet from the early days of “brochure type” websites and makes me think ecommerce has shifted into a new realm. It is shifting from a broadcast channel into a pull channel where companies will have to work harder to convince their website visitors to share information with them. However the common misconception that social networks are used solely by young people is also blown out of the water by recent research from Search Engine Journal showing that those aged 50-64 now make up 47% of all users.
 
Hilton develops social hubs of staff content
I was at the Eye for Travel social media conference in Amsterdam last week and was interested to see that some of the big hotel groups such as Hilton are already seeing the power of letting their own staff tell the story of why visitors should come to their hotel. They have trained up their staff to make their own videos about the hotel. You can see how the chef makes his favourite dish in the kitchen and why the staff want people to come and see their hotel near Ground Zero in New York. They have had a great response to the videos which are not professionally created and scripted by the marketing department but tell a real story from people who work there. Their next step is to aggregate their social content into a hub which can then be distributed and syndicated across the internet, which is very smart move as the number of social networks increase.
 
Focus on the whole customer journey
The common theme running through all the presentations from the speakers was the focus on being involved at each stage of the customer journey from awareness to advocacy. It is no longer any good just to focus on the purchase stage and travel companies have to work harder to involve customers at the “inspire” or “dream” stage before they have decided who they wish to purchase their trip from.
 
Luke warm response to flash sales
There was a less than enthusiastic response to the idea of flash sales from the conference audience, suggesting that the likes of Groupon and Living Social and the growing raft of additional competitors will need to work harder. They will need to persuade the travel industry that they can add more value to their overall discount offer to make it worth their while and that they have a segmented customer base with future lifetime value which does not cannibalise existing higher margin business.
 
Facebook launches new metric – fans talking about you
Engaged fans are far more likely to buy from you in the end and hence may explain why Facebook has recently introduced a new metric on the wall which shows how many fans are talking about you or your brand. This metric is a good indicator of how engaged your fans are and a useful way to benchmark against your competitors and to see how well your competitors understand community management and the new skills needed to succeed in social media.  
 
Companies like Expedia are seeing the opportunity to try “social games” as a way of getting visitors more engaged with their brand as you can see in the example below. Whilst a 0.375% engagement rate might not sound that high other leisure brands such as Center Parcs are achieving engagement rates of over 4%, albeit from a lower Facebook fan base.  We can now see not only the comments but where people have shared posts with others.
 
 
 
Privacy debate increases
The new timeline and other new Facebook features also enable you to share not only what you “like” but what you have actually booked aswell whether that’s a flight, hotel stay or tour so this is likely to create a whole new stream of travel opportunities. It also enables users to share when they have had a major life change, whether that’s having a baby or getting married which will become a rich source of information for targeting customers at the right lifestage. It enables you and others to subscribe to users’ news feeds. It begs the question whether people will want to share every trip they are booking on Facebook but does show how Facebook is wanting to play an even bigger role in people’s lives. The key question is whether Facebook users will want to share so much and privacy may become a hotter issue in the future. For anyone wanting to get a useful summary of all the recent Facebook changes, Mari Smith has a useful guide.
 
 
Struggling with attribution models
As the number of channels to market has proliferated, many companies are wrestling with the attribution model and are trying to understand which channel really drove the final purchase. Everyone knows that it is often not the channel where the customer bought the product. Some companies are further along the learning curve than others and Barbara Pezzi at Fairmont Raffles Hotels had some good tips to share on using tools such as Google Analytics Big Funnel tool which gives you the path to the booking and their Annotations tool. She had a huge toolkit including tools like Twitalyzer, Socialmention.com, Tweet, Graphedge, Tweet reach, Twapperkeeper, Tweetake.com, Twentyfeet, Neoformix.com, Boardreader, Page Lever and Peoplebrowsr, to help her to make sense of her social content, traffic and conversion levels. She knew how much traffic was coming from social channels such as Twitter and Facebook. 
 
Reward for involvement
Over time we will see more of these social projects like those of Hilton change the way we do marketing and how we respond to our customers. Already companies realise that they have to give something back for customers to share information about themselves and we are already seeing “fangate” pages where those that “like” get something more than those who do not. Companies are already responding to fans on Facebook Places with Facebook Deals and other incentives to get customers to check in on their Facebook page. They are starting to train up their front line staff to encourage people they see having a good time to share their photos and video on social media channels. Amplifying word of mouth across the web supported by social hubs of content will become more widespread as the number of social networks increases such as Google+.
 
Social content drives more eyeballs
Research from L2 shows that those customers who have put social plug ins (such as like and follow buttons) and customer reviews on their webpages are seeing three times more traffic on their site than those sites that do not use them. Hubspot are also finding that their customers who have a blog are seeing far more traffic than those that are not. The lesson is to find ways to keep customers engaged once you have got them to your site and get them to come back. Welcome home emails asking for feedback are key tools to better understanding whether the customer will come back and will also drive up your customer reviews.
 
Search is going social
My prediction at the conference is that within 12 months social sites will dominate search rankings. With the arrival of Google+ and the rise in smartphone usage more and more consumers are consuming social content (including video) around the clock and it will become important to your search rankings. If your competitor has a full raft of optimised social sites and a blog they are likely to score higher in the search engines than a player that has none of these sites.
 
What’s your experience? How important have reviews, blogs and social content become to your business? Do share your thoughts with us.
 
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