Social Media & the Hospitality Industry

By Stephen Saugestad
April 20, 2009
Social Media

The emergence of social networking websites means a new form of business-to-customer communication unlike any other before it. Compared to traditional advertising, there are new rules at play here: transparency, credibility, and an audience that primarily controls the message.

If you work in the hospitality industry, there are specific websites you should know about and be active on, and methods of leveraging mounds of social media content.

Social Media, in General

As you know, change on the web is constant. Lately, social media sites have grown immensely in terms of usership and popularity. In fact social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are replacing conventional forms of internet communication like email. They have become invaluable resources for people to stay in touch, make new friends, and share like never before.

Social media is, for the most part, user-generated content published on sites like Facebook, Twitter or Flickr. It’s not advertisement, and should not be measured or perceived in the same manner. A successful social media campaign is not sold out of a box, and it is not delivered using a clever sales tactic. It requires meaningful participation, authenticity, and real engagement.

The goal of investment and participation in social media should be to open new channels of communication and foster lasting relationships with potential customers.

After all, a “friend” is much more likely to buy from you than a stranger.

How Social Media Affects the Hospitality Industry

Research shows that there is a growing proclivity among web users to tune out “corporate speak” that has come to define the landscape of business websites. More than likely, your message is being diluted by the tidal wave of meaningless blather and vapid website copy on competing hotel sites. However these “controlled” messages are now being replaced by what customers say on third party travel and hotel sites like Expedia and Trip Advisor. Therefore past visitors to your hotel are now influencing the decision making process of your future guests.

Reviews of the Liberty Hotel on Trip Advisor

With the advent of social media, the need to differentiate yourself has never been greater, and the way in which you adapt to this new climate will have a profound impact on your bottom line. Therefore it’s a good time to shift focus and increase participation in social media related initiatives.

How Hotels Can Leverage Social Media

There are many ways that a hotel or hospitality-related business or service provider can make the most of social media to further their business objectives. Here are some of the best ways to do it:

Using Hotel & Traveler Reviews

As web users become savvier, they become better at filtering information. Therefore the user’s perception about authenticity and reliability become important factors in determining the credibility of the message. For this reason, sites that feature user reviews like Expedia, Yahoo Travel Planner, and Trip Advisor are being relied on in increasing frequency to provide an honest depiction of hotels and travel destinations.

Generally there are two components in developing a strategy for review sites – monitoring and appropriate response.

First, keep an eye on your brand and the discussions surrounding your product and/or services. Check in regularly with the top review sites to monitor what people are saying about your hotel. This would mean sites like Trip Advisor (a review site that also provides bookings), Expedia (a booking site that incorporates user reviews) and Yelp (a user review site).

The Woodmark Hotel on Expedia.

Comprehensive monitoring tools like Google Alerts and Technorati Watchlist allows you to keep tabs on what other websites and blogs are saying about you on the web. Designate a staff member at your hotel to do the monitoring, and make sure it’s being done in regular intervals – daily, if possible.

Second, when you do encounter an unfavorable review, have a plan in place to respond appropriately. You only need to respond to highly favorable reviews, negative reviews that contain factual errors, and negative reviews that are warranted.

Here are some tips in dealing with reviews:

  • Always thank the reviewer
  • Always respond to negative reviews – it shows concern
  • Do not get into a public disagreement under any circumstance
  • Be quick to provide an apology when dealing with a negative review
  • When responding to a negative review, start with any positives that the review may have referenced
  • Fix the problem, and explain the steps you’ve taken in resolving the problem
  • Don’t dwell on an aggressively negative review – you don’t want to sound defensive or make a bad situation worse

If you are confident with the consistency and level of service provided by your property, encourage your guests to write a review on Trip Advisor by providing a link (for example, on your hotel’s internet access home page). However be aware that you may inadvertently be facilitating the submission of negative reviews. A customer who had a bad experience may be more inclined to voice their opinion, rather than one who is satisfied.

It goes without saying, but make sure the actual service provided by your hotel is as good as you claim. Unsatisfied guests will sometimes revel in the opportunity to show the world that you don’t practice what you preach. Regularly gauge your service quality with a neutral third party stay.

Using Facebook

Facebook is one of the most widely used social media applications on the web with about 200 million active users. Generally there are three ways for businesses to use Facebook – through targeted, contextual advertisement, through the use of pages and groups, or by creating applications that promote your product or service.

The Wick Inn captures the spirit of their property on their Facebook Page

Facebook is not for every business, and the number of abandoned pages and groups littering the site is a testament to this fact. Let’s be frank – there isn’t a lot to be gained by becoming a “fan” of a crusty 10-room motel in Topeka. Like other social media initiatives, the onus is on you to create some “perceived value” for the users being targeted.

Let’s say you’re a hotel that caters to rock climbers – create a page for your business with photos of rock climbing, information about nearby rock climbing destinations, maps, videos, advice on gear, or maybe some blog posts about recent climbs. Find other rock climbing groups, and become a member. Engage yourself in discussions, and invite people in related groups to become a fan of your page.

In terms of advertising, Facebook is different from other advertising platforms because of its reach and the ability to target your audience with much greater accuracy. You can filter your ads according to age, gender, location, interests, networks, etc. You can also advertise your Facebook page or application within the site.

Building an application for Facebook is a good way of creating awareness for your product or service. Once a user adds an application, their friends are notified of this action on their news feed. Users are also invited to download the application to their own account when a friend involves you while using the application.

Using Twitter

As of this writing, Twitter is experiencing a massive, exponential growth in usership. While traditional usage of Twitter was focused around personal use, more and more businesses are finding clever ways to use the service to engage their audience and improve their service.

Twitter is a great tool for keeping in touch with your customers, and getting your message out quickly. Again, it’s important to note that people follow others on Twitter because they see some form of perceived value – this can mean they are getting information about topics that interest them, getting free advice, being notified about upcoming events, listening to “experts”, or simply finding links and other resources.

Hotel 1000 sets a great example for how hotels should use Twitter.

In terms of posting content, follow an 80/20 rule – 80 percent should be to share and communicate, and 20 percent can be passive promotion of some kind. If you are reaching out to your customers on Twitter, make sure the manner in which you are posting fits within that guideline.

There are many innovative ways to use Twitter in the context of providing better customer service. Due to the speed and efficiency of communicating on this platform, businesses are able to respond to their customers in real time. For example a concierge desk could monitor a Twitter feed for guest service requests, or a hotel restaurant could have a feed for its daily specials. Ford, JetBlue, and Comcast all use this method to listen and respond to customer queries and complaints.

This not only allows a business to solve problems quickly – it also shows to the world that you are actively engaged in discussion with your customers, which has a profound impact on user perception in your favor.

Using Media Sharing

Media sharing sites like Flickr, YouTube, and Vimeo allow users to share their experiences with others through photos and videos. In the process, these sites have become massive repositories for media items. Most of the items here are under public domain, and the ability to use these resources is further enhanced by the programming tools and interfaces (APIs) provided by these sites. This means you can create custom filters to pick and choose the media items to use for your own purposes.

You can expand the breadth of your website’s regular media sections by drawing content from third-party sites like Flickr and Youtube alongside your traditional photos and videos. For instance, why not have a “guest gallery” that pulls from images on Flickr posted by your guests? Tourism Tofino does this successfully with the thousands of beautiful photos shot by their visitors each year,

Aside from having more photos and videos to promote your hotel, featuring content from social media sites provides your website with an “authenticity factor” typically associated with these sources. Media content provided by users through social media sites is thought to be more authentic and reliable because it is created and provided by (what is perceived to be) neutral third parties.

Owing to the sheer size and volume of media being shared, it is very likely that your property, or at least the surrounding area, is already being featured in some way. This is a valuable resource you should use to your advantage.

The photo gallery on the Tourism Tofino website is powered by Flickr. The gallery searches Flickr photos with certain criteria, and creates an “album” base on the results.

Active Collaboration & Relevancy

As we touched on previously, social media sites are increasingly becoming the primary channel in which people communicate. Generally, it was the younger demographic who jumped on board social networking first – but it’s safe to say that there is more and more buy-in across all demographics. This is a trend we expect to continue in the near and long term.

Considering the above scenario, we believe the active participation of hotels in social media means more credibility and greater relevancy in the eyes of the user. Whether they use it or not, seeing a “share” button from Facebook provides the user a familiar context within their interaction with your website. It also offers an additional channel for the user to share and passively promote your hotel and/or services.

Important Things to Know About Social Media

It can be Hard to Measure

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to qualified social media investment is the difficulty in accurately tracking and measuring the effectiveness of your campaigns. Because the purpose of a social media campaign is primarily focused on user engagement, success is measured more obtusely. For this reason, it is very difficult to follow a lead to a “conversion” in a traditional sense. Similarly it is difficult to measure the true ROI under these circumstances.

Results are Unpredictable

Unlike traditional media and advertising campaigns, much of the benefit derived from social media is simply the engagement with your customer and exposure for your brand. This might potentially lead to a future sale or positive word-of-mouth that contributes to a sale – but know that it may be intangible, and realized in uncertain intervals.

If done correctly, a social media campaign can also generate good publicity for your business. But if you do it ostensibly to market and promote your business, you will likely have little success in this medium. Social media users are typically savvy, and they are easily offended by those who use this channel for self-promotion.

A successful social media campaign requires honesty, transparency, and authenticity. We wouldn’t say it couldn’t be feigned – however creating a social media campaign under that axiom defeats its purpose.

The Message is Partially Under Your Control

Because the message and resulting conversation based on that communication is no longer under your control, social media is an investment that carries a certain risk. Even with the best intentions, a creative social media campaign has the potential of backfiring or getting a not-so-ideal response from the intended audience.

Be aware that your message may generate a response you may not be comfortable with. The whole point of participating in social media is to foster engagement and honest discussion among your audience. If you are not prepared for the ramifications of an honest discussion about your business or service, consider the possibility that social media is not right for you.

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