Managing Social Media

By Peter O'Connor Academic Director, Institute de Management Hotelier Int. | April 24, 2011

Just as consumer adoption of the Web in the 1990s has changed how hotels were marketed and sold, the current explosive growth in the use of Social Media is poised to have similar effects. This change is being driven by customers' growing need for information. In practically no other sector is current, topical and relevant information as important in the decision-making process as within travel. Its intangible nature, coupled with the impossibility of pre-purchase trial, leaves travel almost completely dependent on representations and descriptions as a selling mechanism. Travel products are also diverse, and in many cases it is this heterogeneity that makes them attractive. Lastly travel products are rarely bought in isolation, and the endless combinations and permutations of routes, transportation modes, times, and accommodation choices, all offered by competing suppliers, make travel planning highly complex. Thus it's easy to see why today's consumers hunt for appropriate information to help bridge the gap between their expectations and their experiences.

In the past, consumers typically acquired such information either directly from the hotel itself or through travel intermediaries. However information originating from such sources suffers from a credibility problem, as it is by its very nature sales orientated and thus highly biased. To read most brochures, every travel experience is unadulterated hedonism – a sharp contrast to the reality of today's overcrowded, under-delivering, travel environment. Herein one finds the supposed added-value of the press, whose role is to cast an unbiased eye over such information, and filter and consolidate it into objective recommendations. In fact an entire industry has developed around the production of travel guides, from global brands such as Fodor's, Lonely Planet and Rough Guides to more specialized publications focused on particular regions or niche experiences. However, today's skeptical consumers are increasingly questioning the impartiality of such sources, driven in part by media reports of pay-to-play listings and glaring errors. Ideally, they would like a more trustworthy source to provide them with the detailed, topical, relevant information they need for travel planning. The growth in Social Media, particularly user-generated content such as social networks, blogs and user-reviews sites, offers just such a potential solution.

What is Social Media?

Although hard to precisely define, the term 'Social Media' is often used to describe an emerging trend centered around the user generation and sharing of information on the Web. Social Media sites tend to be highly participatory, encouraging contributions from anyone who is interested, thus blurring the line between the creators and consumers of content. Most are community-focused, facilitating the interaction of people with similar interests; as well as being connected, amalgamating links and content from different sources to add synergistic value. As such, Social Media reflects a fundamental shift in how information is disseminated. It enables users to interact with content and with each other whenever and however they like. As a result, consumers have access to a rapidly growing pool of impartial information, generated not by commercial interests but by their peers, which they can use to help in their travel planning process. This 'wisdom of the crowd' provides a credible alternative to the marketing-orientated content described earlier, and has rapidly gained traction as a credible source for today's consumers. As this trend gains momentum, hotels need to change their mindset. In addition to using traditional push marketing, they need to actively manage their presence on Social Media channels to both protect their online reputation and exploit new opportunities to interact with customers.

Managing Social Media

The rapid development of Social Media has left many businesses struggling to figure out how to react. Most recognize its potential but are unsure how to positively exploit these opportunities in an environment where the online community can react violently to commercial content. In particular aggressive broadcast marketing has been shown not to work within Social Media. A more supple approach, focused on carefully building a relationship with customers within each channel is more likely to be successful.

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