Using social media to build customer relationships
Online marketing for hotels is quite different from online marketing for other products. For example, a hotel is in a fixed location, so marketing to those to whom the location will appeal must form part of the strategy. Hotels have quite individual character, so finding something unique to ensure you stand out from the crowd in the busy hospitality storefront is also crucial. The hotel is rarely the reason for traveling (except for a lucky minority who manage to make the hotel the destination itself), so the choice of hotel is ancillary to the primary travel purpose and this must be factored in by trying to determine the most likely reason your guest are searching for a property like yours. And on and on it goes.
This sounds like a lot of work to get right, and it usually is. But Web 2.0 tools help get to the bottom of this quite quickly if you use them effectively. Fundamentally, the tools of social media online can not only help you market your hotel effectively, but their use can wake you up to how your customers perceive your business. The valuable and free information gleaned can allow you to rapidly improve customer satisfaction. Be prepared to be humble - the customer’s perception is often quite different from yours, but remember it is only theirs that matters.
Everyone and their dog is saying that social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Blogger and other Web 2.0 platforms such as YouTube, Picasa are increasingly important. But important for what exactly? Before jumping in, it is important to step back and appreciate what exactly you are trying to achieve by using such tools. Put simply, when you have a particular purpose in mind, you choose a tool or approach that best suits the purpose. You don’t find a tool and then look around for something to do with it.
Not the forum for the hard sell
With social networking, you are basically trying to build or enhance your brand through engaging your customers, and you are aiming to build deeper relationships with them. While the reason for this ultimately is to raise your profile and build potential future custom, this is not a forum for the hard sell. If you want the hard sell, invest in advertising. After all, social networking is “social”, meaning people-oriented, community, common interests, like-mindedness, and “networking”, the intercommunication of those people on a voluntary basis.
Social networking is all about being part of a conversation. To be successful with social media, just like in a conversation, you have to be prepared to listen, you have to have something interesting to say, you have to contribute something new so that people are bothered to listen, and you have to engage on the level of everyone else and avoid preaching. Sticking to those rules will ensure success in social media either personally or as a business.
Charleville Lodge Boosts Business by 59%
As an online strategy partner for hotels, Bookassist (bookassist.org) has been engaged in the social media and web 2.0 arena for some time and in recent years has been strongly encouraging their hotel clients to be proactive online. Following a Bookassist seminar on web 2.0 tools in mid 2008, owner/manager Paul Stenson of Charleville Lodge boutique hotel in Phibsboro, Dublin (www.charlevillelodge.ie) decided to focus on interacting with his customers via TripAdvisor and Facebook, as well as providing a richer web experience to them via Youtube and Picasa.
According to Stenson, they’ve seen “over 8000 views on the Youtube account in that first year. We can see that people move from there to the website and vice versa so it’s definitely something people are interested in seeing.” While he acknowledges that directly attributing bookings and revenue to his use of web 2.0 tools is hard to track, he has no doubt about the success of the strategy. “We’ve had a successful website for many years, but used Bookassist for a new website in 2008. We worked with them also to set up Youtube, Facebook and other tools. In the year since we started, we’ve seen a 59% increase in direct booking income through our website compared to the previous year. Bear in mind that this is in the middle of a recession and our booking value has been forced downwards also with increased competition”, says Stenson, “so we consider that pretty strong proof of the power of social networking”.
Stenson is also rigorous in his approach to TripAdvisor, ensuring that he deals with issues that may arise as quickly as possible. “There is no doubt that guests are cross-referencing TripAdvisor content with our website, our Facebook pages, the reviews we publish on our own website in the Bookassist booking engine, all of these things. People clearly want assurance before they book and we have to be sure we keep on top of it all.”
Using Facebook to talk with customers, answer queries and provide information is something that has become routine in Charleville Lodge, with staff always online to field queries. With hundreds of followers, tracking of incoming bookings for his hotel originating from Facebook hits is on the rise, according to Stenson. “The interest via Facebook is strong, but the drawback is that customers have to request to be a friend first before we can interact. We’re now working with Bookassist on a Twitter strategy so we can converse with potential customers in a more immediate and natural way and be even more proactive in getting the news out there about our property and getting guests’ views. It’s early days but Twitter seems the way to go.”
“Getting” or “not getting” Twitter
Stenson’s experience highlights one of the key differences between sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, and the Twitter service. While Facebook and the others are largely about keeping in touch with people you know, in a leisurely way, Twitter is about finding people you don’t know but who have information you need or questions you can answer. Twitter is extremely immediate, reflecting what’s on people’s minds right now.
Twitter is undoubtedly becoming more and more important, but it is still a mystery to most business owners in terms of where it sits in their online strategy. Bookassist’s view is that it can sit dead-centre if handled properly.
There’s a typical evolution that people go through in embracing the Twitter platform. They first see it as a useless fad and ignore it, but they eventually try it out to see what the fuss is about. At this stage they don’t quite “get” it. If they persist, then they get comfortable posting tweets but even now are really just using it “one-way” to make observations or statements. This is as far as most businesses go. But moving beyond this to a real “two-way” conversation is the real hard part. Persistence pays off.
Hotels should set up Twitter accounts and use tweets to advertise special offers or events they may have. Tweets should contain keywords that others may be searching for to improve your chances of being read, (“hotel”, “special”, “dublin” book”) and the offers should be immediate, for tonight, tomorrow etc., since Twitter is so immediate. This is the basic approach of using Twitter in an advertising strategy.
But hotels should also pose questions to their guests using Twitter, to try to get conversations going. For example, “do you think our atrium dining room is the best feature in the hotel?” might elicit responses where people say they didn’t realise you had an atrium and something else was far more important to them in their stay. You now have valuable information about what is important to your guests. You can ask if guests would like to see any other kind of events, or ask how specific services can be improved. Rather than waiting for comments or fielding complaints like in TripAdvisor, you can get into the driving seat with Twitter.
Going beyond this, the open approach of Twitter where your tweets are published to the entire world by default, as are your guests tweets, means that anyone can search for all conversations that involve your hotel and can therefore see an entire history of what you say online and how your interact with your guests. And how quickly you resolve issues. Likewise you can jump into conversations involving your competitors and legitimately highlight how you would have done it differently, or offered better service, giving you a marketing advantage. Once you tweet honestly, are not overly commercial in pushing your business, and remember that everything is public and forever, then you have nothing to fear from being part of the online chat.
Undoubtedly, time commitment is an issue for hoteliers. Once you begin with Twitter, you need to continue to do so or your lack of interaction itself becomes a negative. Because it is fundamentally “personal” in its approach, it puts you the business owner at the front line. But there is no better way to engender trust in your customer base than to interact with them on a personal level, with immediacy, and to show through your public interactions with others that you actually care.
According to Stenson at Charleville Lodge, “it all really just boils down to service. If you can show high service levels online before they even arrive at your hotel, which these tools help you to do, then you are already winning”.
Charleville lodge is online at www.charlevillelodge.ie, and is on Facebook, YouTube and just beginning to take the plunge on Twitter.
Dr Des O’Mahony is CEO and Founder at Bookassist, the leading technology and online strategy partner for the hospitality industry.