Selling Experiences in the Post-text Internet

The General Manager at one of our client hotels is interested in setting up a “social dashboard”. He wants to better understand how his compset is using social media and to develop his own best practices.  While talking through it, the inevitable “Social ROI” question came up. I explained that even the very best have to work very hard to define the right objectives and measure the results of Social.

At DMW, we have put significant effort into understanding how Social can help clients to achieve their objectives. Especially when measuring short-term (ie: "annual" or "quarterly") monetary return, an essential metric is “Assisted Conversions” via Google Analytics. The Assisted Conversion metrics give credit to all of the assets that a customer visited before booking a reservation, including social channels like Facebook. By relying on such metrics, DMW understands that social channels usually make great soccer midfielders (that is, they assist in many conversions) but not particularly strong strikers (social is not usually the actual point of conversion nor the point prior).

Sports metaphors like this are used all the time when trying to understand where to give credit for conversions in a fragmented digital world.  DMW has held the long view, however, that social channels are very young and that measuring short-term financial return is not the only objective worth pursuing.

I think that a more apt metaphor is driving a car. When we learn to drive, we don’t do it for some short-term gain like picking up milk at the grocery. We learn to drive so that can get to work, explore new places, visit with friends, and generally be more effective in our world.

Learning to drive does more than help us with mundane and immediate tasks; it opens up a whole new world of opportunities for us. 

And so it is, I believe, with what we currently call “social media”. Short-term return is meaningful, and we must measure our efforts. But, the real prize is learning how to navigate this space so that we can make the most of Social as it matures. "Navigating this space" goes far beyond awareness of the latest social channels, it includes the development of a strategic framework that enables you to assess new channels and an operational commitment to creating the appropriate content, conversing with your community, and drawing in other team members as needed. 

I'm sure that most of our readers have read/heard/seen similar soapbox statements regarding Social in the past three years. Of course hotels and restaurants have to prepare themselves. But when? And at what cost? And how far should they commit before the returns, however we might measure them, begin to diminish? 

Jack and I have been seeing macro-level signals lately, that I believe will put “social” and its value into perspective.

Let’s start by connecting these few dots:
  • Facebook acquires Instagram in April 2012
  • Yahoo’s recent acquisition of Tumblr
  • The Global President of iProspect announces his new position as President of relative unknown Skyword.
  • The recent beta release of Vine
  • The growing ascendancy of Buuteeq in the hospitality industry

So what do these various points have in common? They are all leading indicators of the emerging “Post-text Internet”. I use this phrase to describe the shift away from a primarily text-based experience to an era where people are communicating with each other with rapid-fire photos and short video clips.  In this new era, text --when used at all-- is used to support photo and video content. This is in direct contrast to the first two eras of web design (originally informed by newspapers and magazines), where many words were supported by some photo and video content. I won't dwell on this much further, but this shift from text to image is being driven primarily by the fact that --for the first time since cave art-- images are now as easy and inexpensive to create as text.

This shift is vitally important for hotels and restaurants. Photo and video are quickly becoming the primary model of communication between people who are sharing experiences. In particular for leisure travel and dining, experience, is at the very core of what is being marketed. Websites with static textual content will simply be ignored in the face of dynamic image-driven digital assets. If you have doubts on this trend, I encourage you to quiz teenagers regarding the social usage of their phones – it’s all about Instagram and supporting apps. For more empirical feedback, DMW consistently sees substantially higher conversion rates on clients' iPad-optimized sites (with a focus on big quality images) vs. their traditional desktop sites.

Along with a shift from text to image, the Post-text Internet is also noteworthy for dynamism of content. Stale content does not sell to consumers, and it does not sell to Google’s search algorithms either. I’ve discussed the concept of Content Optimization and how this can be deployed at hotels. If you’re selling an experience, dynamic image content will grow in importance for some time to come. 

The market events that I mentioned above are all part of the macro trend that is the emergence of the Post-text Internet, and I interpret these moves as big signals that this shift will be upon us sooner rather than later. As we enter this new era, we will slowly lose the distinction between “content” and “social content”. “Social Media” will simply be “media” and guests of all types will expect you to sell your experience with dynamic image-driven content across a variety of channels. In particular, they will expect such an experience on your owned digital assets (like your website). Our current internet construct of “social” occurring in one place and “static” occurring in another will simply go away. 

For good leading examples see: AirBnB, the Parc 55 Wyndham, and The Standard, and what ascendant mobile app HotelTonight is doing to bring more image content to its platform.

So now let’s come back to our GM’s question: What's the return on "social"?

The real value in engaging in “social” today is that it leads to best practices and a mindset that are very applicable to tomorrow’s marketing and eCommerce landscape. Even in situations where, say, Facebook is not moving the needle financially or even in terms of Guest Sat, developing operations and “mental fitness” in this area will absolutely pay off in the near future. 

In light of these trends, our advice is to take operational steps now. 
  1. Set up a content optimization assessment that helps to determine what kind of content would be most meaningful coming from your hotel. Hint: Resorts do better with inside-facing content (photos of fun at the beach, pool, ski slopes), while urban and limited service hotels do better with content related to the overall area (notes about special sporting events, seasonal local events, etc).
  2. For destinations: Contract with someone to rove the property and take candid photos and videos that can be posted on your various channels (traditional and social). For other hotels, find a resource who can put in small amounts of regular time to publish content based on your region.
  3. Begin to investigate website solutions that enable frequent updates of bright photos and video. Your winning solution should enable single-source publishing to desktop, tablet, and smartphone
  4. Focus on the big picture. In addition to looking for ROI metrics focus on competency and expertise. Look for signals that you and your team are beginning to internalize the difference between old content and new "Post-text Internet" content. If you get this right, the page visits, conversion rates, and revenue will follow.
By Aaron Zwas -- Director of Emerging Technologies at Digital Marketing Works