ADOTAS EXCLUSIVE – The Travel Industry Association (TIA) of America estimates annual travel expenditures at more than $730 billion. World figures, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, were valued at $2.97 trillion last year. With the United States leading the world in sheer quantity of travel, it’s no wonder that agency, hospitality and hotel marketers are brainstorming ideas on how to attract customers and grow business. The adoption of user-generated content (UGC) has proven to be a significant vehicle to capitalize on this tremendous market opportunity. By bringing their customers into the mix, brands are fueling two-way dialogues that provide dimension and authenticity directly from the consumers about the brand’s promise and experience. Over the past several years I’ve seen firsthand how the power of social media has impacted the tourism industry by working with clients who have been incredibly successful in leveraging this powerful medium to their advantage. With more than 40 percent of all hotel bookings projected to be booked via the Internet this year (according to Milestone Internet Marketing), hoteliers must take a proactive approach to engage their consumers by asking them to participate directly with their brands.
1. People typically trust other people.
This seems like a simplistic declaration but it’s not something that every brand marketer takes into consideration when executing strategy, though they should. One of the most valuable elements social media provides is the true dimension. Compete, Inc. estimates that roughly $2 billion worth of consumer travel spending is influenced by these types of UGC. Why? Because it’s human nature to seek out the opinions of like-minded people.
Personally in the last three years I have travelled to Punta Mita and Akumal, Mexico and even to Positano, Italy solely because of a recommendation from a friend or colleague. I was clearly driven by their opinion and took action from their recommendations. Their opinion overwhelmingly motivated me to travel to these locations – much more so than any print ad I may have seen to visit Jamaica.
A study by Compete, Inc. in late 2006 found that more than 65 percent of travelers were influenced by UGC in making a purchase (at an average of $500 per booking). Major comparison sites from Expedia to Travelocity prominently feature traveler reviews of hotels. Users comment on service, cleanliness, breadth of extra services, price, quality of rooms, amenities, and other aspects of their stay. If you’re looking for a great hotel in Houston and come across a two-star listing you might be keen to ignore it. However, if a friend raved about the hotel’s great home-cooked food and gracious service, you might opt to stay there regardless of room size or access to an Internet connection. User reviews help personalize what would otherwise be a brochure excerpt and a picture.
Additionally, hosting a social media community on your site is a great way to keep your customers connected with one another and with your latest offerings. A thriving social community is a willingly captive audience. Say the community centers on a love for Boston. You’re both providing and gleaning value by allowing your customers to write about their favorite trips, food and hotels; share pictures and videos with one another that you can showcase on your homepage; and create online destination guides. Plus, you know that this group will likely be more receptive to Red Sox tickets and gift certificates to the Union Oyster House than, say, your customers in Chicago.
2. Integrating traditional marketing with UGC helps you drive home brand messaging.
Part of helping your brand messaging stick in people’s minds is to offer them a distinct way to interact with your company in every aspect of their lives.
A fantastic example of this is a recent television spot by Hotels.com. The commercial shows a man being carried across a hotel lobby, into an elevator, and up to his floor by porters. The man asks if the porters are treating him so well because he booked his stay with Hotels.com and plans to write a review of his experience. The porters pause before saying “yes,” and continue to carry the man down the hallway. While Hotels.com didn’t need to explicitly mention their Web presence given that the company is an online entity, the commercial shows that marketers are taking notice of the impact that UGC is having on the travel industry in general and, specifically, on their brand messaging.
Even hotel stalwarts like Marriott and Holiday Inn direct people to access their website at the end of their commercials, though they don’t always mention it in the voice-over. It’s called a “marketing mix” for a reason – include references to UGC in all of your outreach endeavors.
3. Social media and UGC provide true authenticity.
The most promising element of social media is its innate ability to engage people on an emotional level. Online video is an especially effective method of communication because it incorporates multiple dimensions of sight, sound and motion and mirrors a one-to-one, personal conversation.
Will Richmond of Glucose Digital recently wrote an excellent article on the power of user-generated video as a vehicle to promote brands. Many advertisers solicit users for one-off contests or short campaigns, but the real value of user-generated video lies in creating a continual, educated dialogue. Richmond uses Amazon.com as an example; while the site encourages users to upload images of a particular product or service, they don’t yet offer a video platform for people to submit a more comprehensive review of their experience. Richmond hits the nail on the head when he states, “it seems like there should be a natural point of intersection if brands could incent their passionate customers to create videos which not only sang the praises of their favorite products but actually provided valuable information sought by other prospective customers.”
We worked with the Baltimore Area Conventions and Visitors Association, or BACVA, last year for a social media initiative. My company, Vitrue, helped BACVA create a site called “visitmybaltimore.com,” in which people could post videos of their favorite Baltimore hot spots, local restaurants could upload their promotions and tourists could navigate the site to hear firsthand accounts of what makes the city great. The site has a community of loyal fans with diverse ideas who connected with each other and with the city of Baltimore in the most authentic way possible – face-to-face.
Encouraging your users to upload video reviews and guides enables them to have a voice and share emotion that can be both seen and heard.
While creative benefits and special offers will keep attracting people to your site, incorporating social media into your marketing mix will ensure that your customers remain loyal. By stepping back and thinking honestly about what you’d want to share with others regarding your vacations and hotel stays, it’s easy to see that social media is the perfect vehicle for travel marketing. Never underestimate the power of consumer engagement – it can help you soar to uncharted heights.