The growth and influence of social media continues to impact nearly every brand and vertical market as consumers increasingly turn to fellow consumers to inform purchases rather than the brands themselves. One of the most powerful examples of this is the growth and influence of ratings and reviews communities across the travel, retail, and entertainment industries. In fact, a recent 2011 study by Forrester Research conducted in the travel industry found that nearly 50 percent of consumers won’t book a hotel if it doesn’t have an online review. Additionally, PhoCusWright research found individuals who read online travel reviews were 59 percent more likely to book, further highlighting the enormous power of user review communities in the purchase process. As a result, leading brands in the travel space, and hotels in particular, are doing a dramatic about-face, which is the subject of a fascinating article in the June 2012 issue of Travel + Leisure. What was once an adversarial relationship is no longer. Instead of issuing a flurry of lawsuits against online review sites for publishing false or misleading reviews, hotels are either launching programs of their own or just simply joining forces with sites like TripAdvisor.
Specifically, mega brands like Starwood, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, IHG, and others are embracing reviews to various degrees via their own websites and loyalty programs. While TripAdvisor remains the 800-pound gorilla with more than 60 million reviews and opinions, individual hotel brands have some unique assets and opportunities of their own and, if leveraged correctly, could be instrumental in the way they define a consumer’s experience with their brands. So what’s the magic formula?
- Transparency. Check – as we’ve seen from the Travel + Leisure article, most if not all of the major brands have embraced reviews and created new websites and communities for interested travelers.
- Unique content. One of the most compelling opportunities outside of building a community around reviews is to surround those reviews with unique or exclusive content that keeps visitors/members engaged and creates a unique experience. While the components of that offering may vary by vertical market and brand, in travel it may include concierge video tours, exclusive photos, curated third-party travel content, blogs, travel apps, and more. In short, brands will increasingly develop a paid, owned, and earned approach and unique content will be at the core of building engaging user experiences that differentiate the brand.
- Social data. The Holy Grail for individual brands creating communities around ratings and reviews is by far the power of the data. For hotels, this means adding user reviews including sentiment to the datamart and creating actionable attributes from that data that can be used to create unique offers and communications moving forward. For brands that have member reviews tied to rewards programs, it means creating ties to email and corresponding rewards and incentive communications streams around key attributes including sentiment. For other brands, it requires matching user ratings and reviews to the existing customer and transactional data in the datamart. Add to the mix a consumer accepting an opportunity to connect with the brand on Facebook via an app and the brand now has the opportunity to access the Facebook profile, to supplement its insights on that consumer and her social network. That includes permission-based access to interests, social graph information, rich profile data, and more. Tie that back to the datamart and email address and the possibilities are endless. Take for example the reminder email based on your past travel behavior that encourages you to book your next winter ski vacation in Colorado. That email may soon include an option to share those travel plans with 10 of your other friends who like to ski with a click of the mouse. The data and technology are there today and innovative brands are uniquely positioned to leverage it.
- Multi-channel coordination and retargeting. With access to powerful data such as profile, social graph, cookie, sentiment, and transactional data including reviews, brands can now sequence truly timely and relevant communications across channels and with social context. Taken together these efforts are sure to increase reach, conversion, loyalty, and brand advocacy. So not only will that reminder email for the Colorado ski vacation land in your inbox with pictures of your 10 ski-loving friends, but you may also find that same dynamically generated offer on Google as well as the various websites you visit as you search and surf the web to plan your vacation.
It’s a brave new world and the scenario laid out above is not only possible, but actually in practice today among a small percentage of innovative brands. The trick for many of these brands has been the ability to carefully apply “the magical” aspects of today’s data and technology while avoiding the “creepy” factor. For those brands in testing mode, success is tied to being transparent and appropriate. This includes providing appropriate notice, choice, and access to the data they have and collect about an individual so that in the end the consumer remains in control – and that is exactly the way it should be.
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