Since the buzz about social media optimization continues to be one of the hottest topics in online marketing, many search marketers are still struggling with how to apply the latest and greatest tactics to drive real value from social media. The overwhelming chatter is almost irritating at this point, perhaps even enough to make you wish the entire concept would just go away; but clearly, it is here to stay. As much as some of us try to resist, the power of the social Web cannot be denied, and we must embrace it.
Having a product that lends itself to the viral nature of social networks and UGC-driven sites certainly makes it easier to craft a social strategy around travel, and luckily, travel is a natural fit for this model.
Trip planners are among the most popular social applications, and they aren't limited to just travel-specific sites, since the new "standards" such as Facebook allow groups of friends to share and discuss plans for upcoming trips and events. When those types of applications turn visitors into buyers, that's the time when most of us will truly stand up and take notice. Guess what? That time is now!
In one of my previous columns, I introduced the idea of how hoteliers and other travel suppliers need to be aware of their standing on travel review and social sites, using these sites to their advantage. As these sites continue to pop-up in search results for your brand name or destination, it's even more critical to seed the basic listing info necessary to draw users into learning more about your service. In the travel planning and research cycle, exposure to your brand constantly reinforces the idea that you may just have something to suit a particular type of traveler.
Be sure all of your information is up to date, including rates, Web address, phone numbers, hours, etc., and provide an accurate and unique description of the business to each site whenever possible. You'd be amazed how much of the information out there is out of date or duplicated across multiple sites based on outdated information.
Traveler Reviews: The Good and the Bad
Dealing with any negative reviews can be a delicate dance, but the value of having real, unbiased brand advocates singing your praises on a wide variety of travel review sites, lends an air of credibility that can't be bought with any amount of link placements. Consistently providing good service, being attentive to guests' needs, and always exceeding expectations are all good ways to win this battle in the long term.
As a travel supplier, you've got to have a thick skin and take the criticism somewhat seriously. For serious issues, the key to success may just be an admission of guilt, as long as you take the necessary steps to resolve the issues brought up by travelers. Of course, it's much easier to accomplish this if a guest lets you know there's a problem (and your staff deals with the situation appropriately) before he or she heads home and jumps on a computer to complain.
Travelers writing reviews should absolutely get some of the blame, especially if they fail to consider they may have made a bad choice in their own travel planning process, or didn't seek resolution to their issues during their trip. Given the chance, most travel suppliers are still willing to do whatever it takes to make guests happy. People contributing to review sites need to provide their comments in a more objective style and accurately comment on what type of people may or may not have a similar experience. If you set the right expectations for other travelers, they can make an informed decision and go anyway – they may have a completely different experience than yours.
Joining the Conversation
Sam Shank, founder of TravelPost.com, a hotel review site now owned by SideStep, reinforces how suppliers must actively join the conversation to add value to consumers and manage their online reputation.“Recent research from Compete.com indicates hotels can greatly improve their online reputation with prospective buyers by correcting mistakes in a review and explaining “their side of the story” for negative reviews. Every major review site, including TravelPost.com, has a process for postimg a response to a review, which is displayed alongside that review. For example, if a guest complained that the pool was dirty, a hotel manager could explain that the filter was broken for the weekend, that they offered a partial refund to that guest, and that the pool has been open ever since – and then upload a photo of the fixed pool.”
As reported in the Compete.com study, Shank emphasized that this type of involvement by hotels shows that they are willing to take responsibility when things don’t go right, that they take customer feedback seriously, and that 58 percent of customers respond favorably as this has a positive influence on their perception of the property.
As in my previous column, Sam also warns of the dangers of seeding reviews as he states, “TravelPost.com encourages hotels to ask their guests to post a review on multiple review sites. However, hotels should never compensate reviewers for posting positive reviews about their property or post reviews about their own property, unless the relationship is disclosed by the reviewer. Abusing the review system will lead to penalties by review sites.”
Taking Reviews With a Grain of Salt
To underscore the importance of taking stock in both positive and negative reviews, I always share a particularly refreshing experience I had while researching my honeymoon to Fiji – a major decision for which I turned to the Web (of course) for real life experiences and opinions on the main resorts we were considering. I stress opinions because I take others' comments with a grain of salt, reading between the lines to find details that suit my personal requirements.
In this particular case, I read a questionable review that didn't make sense to me based on all the other information I had read about this resort. I contacted them via their site, and the owner responded personally to me (a nice touch), answered my question, along with referring me to read "unbiased reviews on TripAdvisor." When I wrote back, noting my surprise that management would suggest a review site that had some particularly negative reviews, he replied, "It's more important to us that we have the right type of guests here, and don't get the people who won't have an enjoyable time here."
Even though he didn't earn my business this time, he certainly earned my respect. And we just may go there for an anniversary trip.