How to Use FEI to Measure Content Performance

Engaging content in Facebook matters more than ever, in particular as Apple announced full integration with Facebook in IOS6. Use DMW's Facebook Engagement Index as a shortcut to measuring Content Performance.

Facebook: How Should Hotels Measure Success?

Justin Reid’s Tnooz guest post last week was right on the money: Stop obsessing over Facebook Likes – it’s not the right metric. I agree that bringing more attention to “Were Here” is the right idea for hotels, but I would also suggest that it’s not the only right metric. Hospitality is a vertical that has a natural abundance of good, relevant content, and engaging content matters! It matters because good Facebook content –when done right-- drives traffic to a hotel’s website, which in turn drives revenue. If you accept this, your next question might be: “So how do you define content as “more engaging” or “less engaging”? Good question...

The Challenge: Facebook does not make it easy to measure “engagement”

When you download your Insights data, Facebook provides a workbook with an unbelievable 70 tabs’ worth of data. For those of us who have trouble finding the signal in all that noise, Facebook also offers something at the other extreme: their single metric called “People talking about this” -- a “kitchen sink” collection of all social activity in Facebook boiled down into one easy-to-understand number. Perfect for monitoring overall “engagement”, right?

Well, not quite. The problem with Talking About This, like most other metrics in Facebook, is that it is a raw quantity. This presents two specific challenges:
  • It’s hard to compare brands or competitors of differently sized fan bases: This means that bigger hotels, like The Atlantis, will always have much larger “Talking about this” scores that more modestly-sized resorts and hotels. Does this mean that The Atlantis is more engaging than, say, South Seas Island Resort? Not necessarily, it simply means that they are talking to more people – it means that they are broadcasting better, but not necessarily engaging better.
  • It’s hard to compare content performance between two time periods like year-over-year or month-over-month: “Talking about this” would be fine if we consistently worked with the same quantity of followers, but we don’t; the fan-base (or like-base) of brands is always growing because the use of Facebook itself is always growing. In other words, even brands that hardly try will see their fan bases increase and, as a result, their “Talking About This” number grow. Does this mean that a brand is more engaging than it was this time last year? Again, no. It simply means that the brand is talking at more people.

The Solution: Use The Facebook Engagement Index (FEI)

In a nutshell, we need a universal metric for engagement performance that remains consistent for fan-bases of any size.

Digital Marketing Works developed the Facebook Engagement Index (FEI) to meet this need. It provides a simple value that allows an apples-to-apples comparison of brands, regardless of their size. This value remains consistent over time, enabling real YoY and MoM comparisons of social “content performance”. FEI is one of the few, if not the only, services that allows you to measure the true quality and quantity of your Facebook presence.

FEI currently tracks about 700 Travel and Hospitality brands and about 300 of the best-known bar and restaurant franchises in North America. More brands are being added each day. If you don’t see your hotel listed, add it! The service is free and built from publicly available Facebook data.

Tactical: Use FEI to Support Your Social Strategy 

If you have bought into the value of tracking the true engagement of your Facebook page, it’s time to put FEI to work for you. Here’s a few starting points…

  • The best strategy is one that supports quantity and quality. Use FEI to chart the growth of your fan base while trying to keep your quality score –your FEI score— on level. For a great example see our same client, Center Parcs UK here:

  • Your Social team can rely on FEI as a simple metric to chart the effectiveness of their content. It’s also an easy-to-understand value that translates for Management.
  • All ships rise at high tide. We see it with STR report numbers like occupancy index, and we see it with FEI numbers, too. Set up a compset report to compare yourself to your competitors or what you consider to be aspirational brands. 

What We Have Learned so Far

We've been monitoring FEI scores for about two years and beta launched Facebook Engagement Index in Q1 of this year. Here are some of the highlights of what we have learned so far...

  • Good news for hospitality! Hotel and Travel/Leisure brands are among the most engaging category in Facebook, taking the number 2 and 3 positions after the “Local Business” (see above chart below for more)
  • Most brands get into double-digit FEI scores only occasionally – usually when running a competition or (we hope) when they are generating authentically useful or entertaining content.
  • In nearly all cases, bigger brands have lower engagement, as measured by FEI. 
  • Spikes in FEI scores correlate with spikes in traffic to branded websites and a lift in reservations. We recently were able to document this with our client, Center Parcs UK (see below)

DMW and our clients continue to be surprised by what we are learning from FEI. Check out your brand today and share what you learn with us!

Jack Feuer, founder of DMW, will be speaking at the EyeForTravel conference in Las Vegas this Friday and would be happy to discuss FEI with you. He will be participating in the Interactive Debate: Thrive in the Travel Search Diaspora at 11:00am PT.

Travel Industry Analysis: Google Acquires Frommer’s (and Zagat)

Google has had a habit lately of making the travel industry weak in the knees. In relatively quick succession, the acquisitions of ITA, Zagat, and Frommer’s Travel Guides have caused currents of fear, confusion, and optimism – depending on where you stand within the travel ecosystem.

Analysts seem to be viewing Google’s latest acquisition of Frommer’s as a solution “to its Yelp and TripAdvisor problem”.  While I agree with this assessment on the surface, I think there are broader motivating factors at Google than competition with TripAdvisor. What follows is my humble attempt to divine the thought process that is driving Google's acquisitions and to put their recent maneuvers in the context of key takeaways for brands.
First: Let’s remind ourselves of a few of Google’s corporate guiding principles (skipping over the “do no evil” stuff). Here’s my take:
  • Organize the world’s information
  •  Provide the most useful --the most actionable-- data to users
  • Ensure that Google is available in all platforms, devices, and mediums. Especially mobile. Especially voice search.
An ever-present challenge for Google is the second item in that list. Our standards for “relevant” or “actionable” data have evolved. We expect better information than we did ten years ago. And Google, naturally, would like to provide it.

My take: Google knows that it is no longer sufficient to blindly direct users to existing content. The results are not always “actionable” enough. And when the content is not actionable enough, the utility of Google itself diminishes. In response, Google has developed strategies to subtly coach the public and brands on providing content that others will find useful and actionable. When these strategies succeed, results can include:
  • Improvement in the quality of search results, and therefore overall usage of Google
  • More interaction with the target content. That is, more comments, reviews, photos, videos, and other UGC.

Putting Zagat and Frommer's in a Larger Context

Now, let’s look at Zagat and Frommer's. These two publishers are superb sources of content. In terms of “quantity”, they bring reviews of millions of venues. In terms of “quality” they provide sticky keyword-rich content. This excellent content is at the heart of what I’ve dubbed a “Quality In / Quality Out” strategy.

A modern spin on the programmer’s traditional “GIGO”, Quality In / Quality Out tells us that very good content functions like a “seed crystal”. It undoubtedly encourages more UGC reviews of higher (ie: accurate and keyword rich) quality.  Quality content also provides a deeper set of keywords against which searches can be conducted.  The end result is a virtuous cycle of quality content / better search results / interactivity / more quality content. This diagram sums it up nicely:

What This Means to You and Your Brand

Google's Panda and Penguin updates have shaken up brands and businesses of all sizes. It now seems that Google, too, must bow to the demands of its new algorithms. This post has examined Google’s own quest for quality fresh content. Sound familiar? For most brands, it should. Google is now using some of the same strategies as brands to optimize its performance. It means that your existing best strategies are becoming even more relevant:
  •  Focus on “Content Performance” strategies. Example: As new Zagat and Frommer's content comes online, look up your own brands and venues. Use the refreshed "At a glance" keywords in your own outgoing content.
  •  Encourage Employee Generated Content and User Generated Content
  •  Collaborate with professional bloggers to create seeds of quality content around which consumer content will crystallize in the form of reviews, comments, and photo/video
  • Assume that Google will become even more relevant and actionable than it is today. Encourage customer reviews on Google.
The same Quality In / Quality Out concept could be applied to ITA, Motorola, and YouTube (look for integration with Google+ soon). Looking forward to further exploring those concepts in a later post...

The Power of EGC: Employee Generated Content

Intro: Why Social Content Matters

While many brands are still looking for that elusive Social ROI, the recent Panda and Penguin updates to Google algorithms (and Bing, too) suggest that direct conversions from Social might not always be the right goal to be pursuing. Especially from Google, these updates increasingly rely on fresh, dynamic, human-generated content vs. traditional SEO keywords. A new goal, therefore, is to drive higher search engine results by using Social.

The Challenge: Social Done Right Takes Resources 

As Social Media begins to mature, the right agency or in-house social media person now plays an increasingly visible and integrated role in marketing and e-commerce. Despite the elevated importance, however, the people who own these responsibilities often find themselves overtaxed or stretching across “traditional” responsibilities. Even when management feels their pain, it can be challenging to allocate additional resources in the absence of hard ROI metrics.

There are ways to work around this. A common method is to focus on User Generated Content or “UGC”. By encouraging guests to share photos, videos, and comments, the amount of effort required of in-house resources diminishes from “content creator” to “content curator”. When everything goes well, UGC content is abundant, fresh, viral through the social platforms, and enticing to search engines. Everyone wins. But, this content comes with a price, of course. There are rants. There are misrepresentations. There are content hijackings. And sometimes the content is simply not as valuable to your guests as it could be. 

Enter EGC (Employee Generated Content)

Like UGC, EGC relies on the efforts of many to provide content that is alluring to customers and search engines alike. The difference, of course, is that the content is created by employees instead of customers. To be sure, EGC has certain risks. The biggest concern is that an employee, in the brand's voice, might go off message with either malicious content or simply with a lack of good judgment. While this is a legitimate concern, it can be managed via simple operational controls that keep the actual posting with your specified (ie “trusted”) in house resource.

What brands stand to gain from EGC far outweighs such risks. To start with, most of the benefits of UGC apply, including abundant, fresh, relevant content. But it gets better: 
  • Your employees are product specialists who can provide unique and interesting insight into your product
  • Because they live in the area, they are also regional experts who are qualified to make quality recommendations regarding restaurants, bars, beaches, ski slopes, local bands, art galleries, subways, gyms, drugstores, more. (This is especially relevant for hotels.)
  • The right employees will be tuned into the local social media scene. Those profiles provide both unique information (that can be passed on to customers) and act as effective distribution channels to further promote your brand's content.
  • Consider that at least a few photo and video hobbyists are probably in your organization. Such people are often happy to contribute their skills, further boosting  the quality of your brand’s content. Remember that video interacts at least 5x higher than text.

The end result: Lots of content that is friendly for Social and for Search -- content that is more current, deeper, and broader than any single in-house resource, set of customers, or agency could provide. This content, in turn, drives visibility via social networks and improves search engine results for your brand. Best of all, EGC usually costs next to nothing. If positioned correctly, the right employees are excited to contribute to the brand. Simple recognition or fun awards are often all it takes to get people involved and to keep on participating.

Tactical: Set Up A Successful EGC Program

So if you’re now sold on the concept of EGC, here’s a few pointers to make it an operational success:
  1. Remember: EGC is not a replacement for a dedicated resource. A trusted resource still has to steer the ship!
  2. Create a short list of employees who might want to participate. In big organizations, consider a casting call in the company newsletter or similar.
  3. Publish clear policies and rules. Don't scare off your potential contributors, but be sure to set clear boundaries and expectations. Examples might include a max quantity of submissions per week, no photos of guests, videos that are a max of 120 seconds, and more. 
  4. Create a system where employees email their submissions to a standard address (or –better yet—post them to an internal folder in Google Docs). Then have your Social manager pick a winner on a regular basis. Be transparent regarding this process to minimize any noise from the peanut gallery.
  5. In the beginning, your specialist should provide feedback to those who need it. A little bit of coaching up front can yield great results in terms of the quantity and quality of submissions down the road.
  6. In time, a few stars should emerge. Consider giving small amounts of responsibility to those employees who demonstrate a consistent ability to generate useful, tasteful content that is on brand. 
  7. In time, you should have enough content rolling in that you can post EGC on a more frequent scale, say 4 times per week instead of once per week.
  8. Reward success. Acknowledgement is the primary reward for all things social, so acknowledge those employees who receive a lot of Likes and +1s!

On a final note, remember that Employee Generated Content can and should exist peacefully with User Generated Content and pure Brand Content. The best plan is one that experiments, watches the results, and evolves to a point that is right for a given organization.

Looking for more pointers or feedback? Contact us or ask for help in the comments!

Optimizing Digital Presence for Restaurants

Today we will look at suggested frameworks for optimizing ratings and reviews for restaurants.  These thoughts build from a previous post that you can find here. As always, I would like to start with suggested objectives for restaurants.  Some of these are universal, and others particular to the industry:
  • Increase visibility
  • Increase quantity of reservations and walk-ins
  • Increase quantity of delivery or take-out orders (basically this is e-commerce with brick-and-mortar delivery – a concept worthy of its own post)
  • Increase per-guest spend
  • Grow loyalist audience
  • Meet needs of non-consumers (such current/potential franchisees and employees)
While the previous post described the important role that reviews play when making restaurant selections --a review optimization program can increase visibility and improve conversion rates-- reviews obviously are not the only factor in the decision-making process. Here are other fundamental decision points that can factor in:
  • Distance
  • Franchise or local restaurant
  • Guest is a local or a visitor
  • Price
  • Standard restaurant characteristics such as cuisine and atmosphere
Optimization efforts should assume that patrons often need more than just a good review and that these other factors can sometimes play an even more important role. For example, let’s look at the relevance of reviews for local restaurants vs. franchise restaurants:

This framework tells us that…
  • Patrons rely on reviews less for franchise restaurants (because there is a higher likelihood of the patron experiencing the restaurant previously, even in a different locale).
  • Patrons will rely on reviews and ratings more for non-franchise restaurants, however, because less is known about them.
  • Optimization: For non-franchise restaurants, a review optimization program is particularly important. Franchise restaurants should not ignore reviews, however. While the cuisine, atmosphere, and price points are well-defined by the brand, reviews can help individual franchise restaurants to differentiate themselves in categories like service.
DMW have defined a full collection of frameworks for restaurants, but let’s look at just one more for today’s post:

This chart describes the waning influence of reviews for restaurants that are increasingly farther from the patron. This concept is hardly a breakthrough in its own right, but how do we optimize for it? Answer: Ensure that your venue is optimized for local listings in Google places/maps -- for both traditional and mobile web. Addresses should be as consistent as possible in all online mentions of your venue so that Google and other search engines to display your venue consistently and accurately to patrons. 

The big picture with restaurants is that there are several important opportunities for optimization, and most of it is in mobile + reviews and ratings. In a later post, we will zoom in on how social media can work to support restaurants’ objectives. 

A Universal Index for Measuring Social Engagement

When talking about social media, the conversation usually focuses around two broad strategies. The first is to work in the medium as a pure social channel, where engagement metrics define success. The second is to treat Facebook, for example, like a traditional broadcast medium, where the focus is really on the size of the fan base and brand-sourced content.

While I believe that many brands preach the former but practice the latter, even the most well intentioned organizations face an uphill battle when trying to determine the success and value of their efforts in social.  Social ROI, for example, is too often judged by direct conversions, and I’m not sure this is the right metric (especially as Facebook commerce struggles as a whole). At the very least, attribution reporting, which tracks how various points of contact contribute to a final conversion in any channel, must figure into the picture of social ROI (See the “Assisted Conversion” report in Google Analytics for an example). Either way, it is an important discussion that deserves a deeper dive in a later blog post. For today, let’s set it aside and focus instead on the concept of metrics for social engagement.

There exists a common core flaw in the metrics that are generally used to measure engagement. The flaw is that nearly all reporting I see is based on raw counts of engagement interactions. Examples include the quantity of Likes, Shares, Retweets, etc. These metrics would all be fine if we consistently worked with the same quantity of followers, but we don’t; as adoption of social channels and mobile devices continues to climb, it is a safe bet that even the most dysfunctional brands will continue to attract more followers. In other words, even brands that hardly try will see their fan bases increase and, as a result, their raw engagement counts grow.

Here are two specific challenges inherent in using raw counts for social engagement:
  • Inaccurate performance comparisons between two time periods like year-over-year or month-over-month
  • Relative inability to compare brands or competitors of differently sized fan bases 
In a nutshell, what we need is a universal metric that would give an apples-to-apples comparison for engagement performance, regardless of the size of the fan base.

The good news: I’ve got one that works especially well for Facebook. DMW calls it the Facebook Engagement Index (FEI). It is a simple but powerful metric that allows regional amusement parks to compare themselves to Walt Disney World, for example, and for brands to measure their engagement efforts vs. the same time last year. The concept is to measure engagement by “per fan metrics” instead of raw counts. That is, divide the raw engagement counts by the quantity of followers. What you wind up with is a consistent range of percentages that universally defines social success (or failure) in Facebook.

We have been using FEI with our clients for about two years now, and have recently begun monitoring other brands as well. I usually find that an FEI index of 2% to 4% counts as “average”, with an index of 6% to 10% counting as “very good”. I occasionally see brands reaching an FEI above 10%, but this is uncommon and almost always temporary.

So what can we learn by using the Engagement Index? For starters let’s compare Engagement Index over time against quantity of fans. In the past two years, DMW has learned that nearly all brands will form an “X” chart here, where engagement starts high and fan count low. Unfortunately, the common pattern is that these trends then switch places over time, with engagement diminishing in converse relationship to growth in fanbase. Although it’s something to avoid, here’s a common chart:

The goal is to try and keep that Engagement Index trend nice and level as your fan base goes up. That is, maintain the quality while increasing the quantity. One of our clients, Center Parcs UK, is superb in this category. Here’s a sample chart from them:

See that level blue dotted line? It means that they have grown a fan base that remains consistently engaged despite its size. They have gained Quantity without sacrificing Quality. It should be the goal of all brands to have an Engagement Index chart that looks like this one.

Next, for a brand-to-brand comparison, let’s look at three sneaker brands over the course of the past four weeks....

Notice that Converse (in green) is, by a long shot, the most popular of the three brands with over 2 million fans. But look at the dotted green line, their Engagement Index trend. Floating in the range of 1.5% to 3%, they are just barely getting into the realm of “average”. Summary: Converse has a built broadcast channel and probably has a good one million followers who couldn't care less about the brand.

As a point of comparison, let’s have a look at Adidas (the blue lines). This brand has a healthy but comparatively modest fan base of just half a million, but in terms of engagement they are punching far above their weight. Even discounting for their temporary meteoric rise into the double digits, they are usually around 5% or 6%. In terms of engagement, they are running circles around the other two brands. Great job!

So I ask you: Who is doing better in social? The brand with a huge quantity of disinterested followers or the brand with a modest quantity of engaged fans? There is plenty of room for debate, but my money is on the latter. I believe it easier to grow engaged fan bases over time than to prune dead weight away from an already grown community. What’s your opinion?

If you'd like to learn more about DMW's Facebook Engagement Index, please get in touch via the links on the right or via the comments.

New Faces but Old Games for Major Hotel Websites

Waldorf-Astoria, Four Seasons, and Marriott’s AutographCollection have all seen website updates in the past few weeks. All three of them have done a relatively good job in optimizing for tablet users, but some have done better at addressing the thornier issues of integrating social sharing and reviews.  Let’s take a closer look and learn more…

(Note: I am limiting today's review to traditional websites only; a similar review of mobile sites will come soon.)

This site wisely maximizes the impact of its enormous panoramic photographs with hideaway menus for booking (up top) and other details (along the bottom).  This cosmetic change is good for tablet users, but the website appears to be completely devoid of reviews or other guest-generated content. The same appears to hold true for the property-specific websites that link from here. While it would be ideal to see reviews in a variety of locations on the site, one good suggestion would be to include reviews and ratings for the "Experience" venues: golf courses and spas. Hilton would actually be able to take a leadership position with such a move by expanding the review game into specific outlets and amenities. Doing so would provide utility to shoppers, therefore increasing traffic and conversion.

Regarding sharing features, the controls are all tucked away on the property sites and don’t seem to exist on the brand site itself. Browsing guests are hardly encouraged to share. More attention is needed here to drive awareness.

Bottom line: Potential guests require third-party reviews to help validate that the actual experience matches those alluring photos. There is a lot of quality here, and some good thinking, but I cannot imagine this website performing to expectations without review content. Overall, it seems like a great facelift but unresponsive to the significant changes in shopping behavior that have developed in the past few years.

Like Waldorf Astoria, this site does a great job with big-impact photos and unobtrusive design. This site goes a step further than Waldorf-Astoria, however, by including “Reviews at a Glance”, right beneath the fold on the property sites. This widget also includes Facebook and Twitter content and links to those assets. The TripAdvisor content is more like “mini testimonials” than actual “reviews” (there is no score, for example), and there is nothing to indicate that these testimonials are not cherry-picked. Still, it's a step in the right direction.  The integration with the site, versus a generic plugin, works well visually.  

Within the property pages, sharing functionality is a step up, too. Share buttons are less tucked away and for the Accommodations page, at least, the share allows you to select a thumbnail of your choice. This functionality seems, oddly, to be absent from the Photos & Videos page, however (at least for Denver).

A few areas of concern I would have here: The wholesale handoff of traffic from the Reviews widget to the TripAdvisor, Facebook, and Twitter pages seems ill advised. I think this is particularly true given the very limited review information that the widget provides. I do not think that shoppers’ needs for third party reviews will necessarily be met by this widget and that they will therefore still leave the site. I’d also suggest that bringing in reviews from platforms in addition to TripAdvisor would be advisable.

Here's a a nice-to-have: Wouldn't it be great (ie: "useful") to see a “By User Review” tab on the “Find a Hotel or Resort” page?

Bottom Line: A good looking website with good sharing functionality and some of the review info that shoppers need, but not necessarily enough to keep them onsite. In the future, they might find that they can meet shoppers' needs and their own needs (converting traffic to reservations) by using plugins to more completely integrate reviews and social content into the site itself.

What a great looking website. The presentation layer, including its video content, is nearly perfect for high-bandwidth tablet use. This site has a “personalized view” function that should, in time, encourage sharing and enable first steps towards social CRM (SCRM) via Facebook sign in. Individual property pages have “Love” and “Share” buttons at the very bottom of the page, and some properties seem to have a call to action for shoppers to add their photos to the hotel’s Flickr account. 

While the Personalized View feature is a good one, the call to action for sharing on property pages seems only adequate. A better choice would be to have a share button right near the big photos at the top of each page. But on the flip side, all property pages seem to have a Google maps local listing, which will boost optimization in Google search results.

Bottom Line: Sadly, this site also appears to be lacking reviews. Shoppers will go to another site to validate the promises made by the brand, and a certain percentage of them will book other hotels or through an OTA channel. 

And the winner is…
Unfortunately, I’m not prepared to give any of these new sites a “winner” label. They are all physically beautiful, but are lacking in best practices for the new era. A truly winning website in this space should have, at least, the following features:
  • Ratings and reviews from multiple platforms (not just TripAdvisor) located within the site
  • A comprehensive sharing strategy that extends deeply into the website and that includes Google +1
  • If the brand believes its social content to be influential to shoppers, that should be embedded within the site as well.
And I would give bonus points for...
  • Including ratings and reviews in the booking engine pages  (the hotel equivalent of the shopping cart), not just the presentation layer
  • Experimenting with validated reviews, as Starwood have done
  • Any use of the game mechanics that are used by to such excellent effect.  
To be fair, it is hard to innovate for such big ships. In fact, I increasingly suspect that Marriott, Hilton, and others ponied up to participate in specifically so that they would have the opportunity to innovate in an environment free of the excessive baggage of their technology and operations platforms. But, until we see evidence of any of these brands breaking out of this rut, the OTAs and review sites will continue to out-innovate and out-maneuver the brands that they are selling -- great new photography notwithstanding. 

Google's "Comeback" in 2012

Only in a technological landscape moving as quickly as ours could Google be considered an underdog. But, for the better part of the last two years, it has often seemed that way. Common signals of doubt included questions like these: Would Google be boxed out by Facebook? Would the popularity of the iPhone and Apple's semi-closed ecosystem limit Google's ability to grow? Would Google be able to learn from its own failures and bring viable services to social and mobile?

My opinion: 2012 will be the year when Google stops chasing its tail, so to speak, and begins to lay down a solid foundation that will lead to a renewed emergence as a primary social, marketing, commerce, and mobile player. I believe the impact of this resurgence will be particularly strong in the world of hotels and restaurants.

The Big Picture
The headline is that Google is pruning their broad set of services and bringing a new concentrated focus towards integration with +1, Google+, YouTube, Maps, and Gmail. The result is that consumers are beginning to recognize Google as something that operates more as a unified personalized service.

We generally tend to consider a specific website (like to be the logical home for such various services. Google is increasingly going beyond that concept however, and instead using devices as the assumed point of coalescence. Android phones are a one-stop shop for Google services. We don't necessarily need a particular website or any one specific mobile app. Instead, we ask (via voice or type) for something and the phone selects the correct website or app to support the desired action (gain information, navigate, review, talk with friends, comparison shop, etc). We can see the same concept being applied (with somewhat less market acceptance) via Google's Chromebooks, and (with different objectives) via Apple's Siri. The end result, on Android, however, is that everything goes through Google and the value that consumes get from them is increasing. More so than any advancement within a specific service, it is this coalescence of Google's services that will yield success this year.

What is interesting to me is that this significant uptick in utility is being driven to both consumers and brands. As Google rolls out more social and commerce services, they are able to bring those data points into their Analytics offering. For the first time, this will enable brands to see closed loop reporting on social media activities, for example (via Google+), and beginning to make informed estimates on social media ROI. While Facebook began with people and then followed with brands, I predict that Google+ will generally lead with the brands (who have much to gain via single-source 360 degree reporting) and the people/consumers will follow them. More so than any other platform, I believe that Google will be responsible for accelerating the shift of marketing spend from traditional areas to social, mobile, and other emerging areas -- simply because it will be the first to enable activity and measurement in these various channels.

How does this affect Hotels and Restaurants?
Google made a very shrewd move in 2011 when it decided to no longer include reviews from other platforms in its Maps/Places listings. At first, it seemed to many of us that Google was diminishing its utility by excluding reviews from TripAdvisor and Yelp, for example. Instead, we realized that Google Places has "enough" native reviews to make the platform a good point of reference regardless. This "good enough" has enabled a launching pad for Google where those reviews are used (and written) by the fastest growing mobile audience in America. Driving reviews on Google will become an important new strategic objective in 2012. More: When we also consider Google's beta Hotel Finder product and their acquisition of ITA in 2011, I don't believe it to be an overstatement that for the Hospitality Industry, 2012 will be the year of Google.

Strategy Considerations
Android is quickly becoming the dominant mobile platform in America at a time when overall smartphone adoption continues to grow. While some significant studies suggest that mobile use (and commerce) is incremental beyond traditional web, our first-hand data suggests otherwise. At least in hospitality, where 75% of mobile reservations are same-day or next-day, mobile is absolutely cannibalizing traditional web.

Related to mobile adoption, DMW believes that we might be seeing the first signs of decay in the traditional value of SEO, because it... 1) relies on traditional web pages (don't render well on mobile), 2) can be undermined by Google's increasing shift towards personalized search results, 3) is often superseded by Places results, and 4) can simply be bypassed by seeking recommendations via one's social network.

Recommendation: In order to hedge against these changes, brands should continue a shift towards reviews, local presence, and other elements of the Google suite. Brands should experiment with Google Pages and consider developing best practices for YouTube. Along with Reviews and Local Presence, understanding these activities will position brands to gain a strategic advantage as the Google platform begins to assert its dominance in hospitality and restaurants in 2012.

The Yelp Factor and Independent Businesses

I recently read a good study at the Harvard Business School site entitled “The Yelp Factor” (ok, I actually just read the summary of the study, here). The research is asking a simple question that has enormous potential in the world of ecommerce and, increasingly, brick and mortar commerce: Do online reviews influence business? And, if “yes” by what margin? Since they first have come into play, I think that most marketplace participants have a gut “yes” on this.  Michael Luca has brought in real data points via Yelp, however, to help quantify what we assume to be true. 

One significant observation that the study yielded was that local businesses are most affected by reviews while chain venues (think Burger King) are the least affected. This means that if they provide good quality and establish some sort of review optimization effort, independents can gain ground against the big guys. This is a strong insight, but why is it occurring? McDonalds (and all those who followed) became such an enormous success because consumers came to learn that a McD's cheeseburger in Ithaca, NY will taste exactly the same as in Tuscaloosa, AL. While some people really love McDonalds for what it is, most people go to McDonalds because they know what to expect. They have enough information on McDonalds to enable a decision. With Yelp and all other online reviews, nearly that same level of information is available for local (ie: “unknown”) venues, too. End result: small guys can compete with big guys b/c they are known quantities now. 

This "tilting of the scales" towards independent venues also aligns well with a significant cultural shift in America that has been trending towards "connoisseurism". That is, our shift towards treating everything like people have traditionally done wine. Think micro-brew beers, OXO utensils, specific types of cow for steak, narrowcast popular music…  You know, long tail stuff making it a little more big-time. The connoisseurism trend shows a growing native preference for unique services of high quality, and online reviews are enabling this via a virtuous cycle that also yields more reviews.

While these reviews are certainly opening up opportunity for independent venues, Mr. Luca seemed challenged by the fact that the reviews might not necessarily represent actual quality. That is, there can be a gap between actual quality and described quality (via reviews). Where Mr. Luca sees fog, however, I see opportunity: It means that operators have the opportunity to control described quality (to a certain extent) or otherwise become victim to it. It makes a very strong case, again, for Review Optimization and largely puts the power in the hands of those who run quality operations.

Beyond these major points, the study confirms a lot of what we know and preach already at DSS: Review Optimization is a must. More reviews are better. Ratings affect revenue. Have a look at the study; if you see other thoughts in there (perhaps regarding Yelp’s rounding rules?), let’s discuss!

Starwood's Reviews, Part 2: Publish Reviews, Don't Host Them

In yesterday's post, I declared that "Starwood has made what will prove to be a seminal move in the hospitality space". When making this statement, I was focused mainly on Starwood's decision to publish reviews within their website, as opposed to their decision to host their own reviews. I talked with Jack a little today and we both realized that I had glossed over this important distinction.  Let's define the two strategies right away, so that we can then get to analyzing pros/cons of each...

  • Reviews Posted to This strategy uses a product like Revinate's Buzz or even standard products from TripAdvisor to publish 3rd party reviews on a property's website. Shoppers go to the hotel's site to read reviews and can continue to shop from there. 
  • Hosted Reviews: This strategy involves a solution like Customer-Alliance or BazaarVoice to generate proprietary reviews that live on a brand's website and nowhere else (or at least on no other third party review sites). 
So which is the better strategy? Well, regardless of which one hoteliers might be considering, the objectives for Review Optimization fall along these major points:
  • Let's start with the basics: Hoteliers must bring reviews to their own websites. See yesterday's post for more detail.
  • At all costs, hoteliers must promote and ensure authenticity and unbiased publication of reviews. This holds true for "hosted reviews" as well as "third party reviews on"
  • To the greatest extent possible, hoteliers and 3rd parties must offer greater utility in filtering and searching reviews vs the review sites. (Again, see yesterday's post for more.)
  • Enabling social sharing of reviews is a good idea and worthy of testing and learning. I very much applaud Starwood for their features in this area. In my opinion however, it is not a strategy that will yield significant results at this time. It will in the future, but there are more immediate goals to reach first, like...
  • Reviews must be leveraged for optimization in TPIs/OTAs and search engines. Even if these channels are not necessarily preferred, they cannot be ignored.
  • Above all else, hotels must optimize for Google maps/places. They must do it now. This includes driving reviews to Google. The Android mobile platform is growing too quickly and Google Hotels will be a viable player in this space within 24 months. This advice is most urgent for limited service and urban hotels that are most likely to be booked last minute, but is still valid for vacation destinations as well. Of course this is tied deeply to natural/paid Google search too.
Defining the objectives for review optimization helps us to define a best-possible review solution and to rank existing options. With the above points in mind, my thoughts on these strategies are...
  • I strongly support "reviews posted to": it enables all optimization strategies while still drawing traffic to your own site. While this strategy lacks social sharing functionality, the opportunities for optimization in third parties and Google are simply too big to ignore at this time. Yes, it's true that readers can still be tugged away to TripAdvisor by navigating deeply into the reviews, but I think it is a current fair tradeoff for having the reviews on to begin with. 
  • I am less enthusiastic regarding "hosted reviews". While this strategy does have the current advantages of social sharing  and better "review browsing" features, I think the cost is too dear in terms of lost optimization in the third party world. Plus, I cannot vouch for this first-hand, but I have to assume some onerous business process work for matching up reviews with actual reservations. 
In the near future, we will see products evolve to meet the overall set of best-practice features and functionality. I think there is a place for hosted reviews, particularly in their ability to replace current guest-sat surveys. They simply cannot be deployed at the full expense of 3rd party reviews. At least not yet... Anyone have a patent on the idea of a reverse TripAdvisor yet? It aggregates all "hosted reviews" into a single public site...

Starwood's Seminal Decision to Include Reviews on Their Websites

Starwood Hotels announced on Friday that they will now begin including user reviews on their websites. I very much support this strategy and congratulate Starwood on being first to market with what will prove to be a seminal move in the hospitality space. Here’s why…

In a few short years, user-generated reviews have become an immutable third element of the hotel shopper’s experience, along with the traditional “price” and “location”. It is important, however, to view the development of user reviews within the larger context of online shopping for hotels. Consider that, from roughly 1997 through 2005 (or possibly later), TPIs/OTAs thoroughly ate hotel brands’ collective lunch by realizing and leveraging the power of online reservations. Hotel brands eventually caught on and have since been involved in a carefully orchestrated turf war with Travelocity et al. While TPIs/OTAs certainly form an important channel, hoteliers have lured shoppers to their own sites in the past seven years by offering “best rate guarantees” a more robust shopping experience (hopefully including rich photo and video content), and more. 

As a category, however, TPIs/OTAs continue to evolve and innovate much faster than hotel brands. This is particularly true with mobile (and tablet) web and apps and especially true with reviews. Even as they otherwise optimize their websites for best-possible experiences that will draw traffic from the OTAs, hotel brands have been losing out on revenue because reviews --that must have information for nearly all hotel shoppers-- are not available on hotel brand websites! The end result is that even brand loyalists are forced to browse reviews on TripAdvisor or any other review site of their choice before attempting to book at the brand site. And of course, a good many of them are lured into the bookings paths of these others sites instead... Whether the reviews or good or bad, shoppers are going to read them. Hoteliers should do like Starwood has done and bring those reviews to their own sites, where they are more likely to convert shoppers in a direct channel and to gain ancillary data points (like time spent reading reviews, etc) to boot.

So while we can congratulate Starwood on bringing reviews to their site, we must ask ourselves the next question: How will they change the habits of a market that has been taught for the past 15 years to read reviews on independent and objective sites like TripAdvisor? Including user reviews on a website is an important first step, but not enough to change market behavior. There has to be something else that will draw users to the site for one-stop reviewing+booking. The trick to changing this engrained user behavior is to evolve the review experience and make it more useful to guests than it is today. If --and only if-- they succeed on this front, will shoppers use this new functionality on Starwood’s website in any meaningful quantity.

To Starwood’s credit, this is where their new solution shows great potential. They include new filters for reviews like Loyalty Members (or not), Purpose of Travel, and Frequency of Travel.  While l would like to see additional filters (average review score by authors or "travelling with children", for example), this is a great start and will certainly evolve in time to help people see scores that correspond with their general tastegraphs.

Overall, I think that Starwood have done a great job in anticipating challenges and by simply being brave enough to be the first to dive into the pool. The rest of us can watch carefully for market signals regarding willingness to believe the authenticity of reviews that are hosted by the brand. I’ll be looking, too, for any signs of operational strain that could be caused by having to vet reviews and validate that the authors actually stayed. We should also be on the lookout for evidence of new search strategies that might be deployed: Will Starwood always link to the homepage or booking engine? Or would review pages make for a more appropriate first stop in some cases?

How about you? Are you willing to trust Starwood reviews?

Edit: Despite my enthusiasm in this post, Starwood's solution is not perfect.  See next post for more thoughts...

Google Hotel Finder: First Impressions

It is very telling that Google has labeled their Hotel Finder project as “experiment”. It suggests that this service is rough but that Google wants to continue to pursue this market agressively. Despite the label, I found the new service to be responsive and useful; I’ve already used it to book my next business trip.

Like many of Google’s best products, Hotel Finder is an exercise in simplicity. It strips down the hotel shopping experience to five familiar elements: Location, Dates, Price, Class, and –significantly- User Rating. The page is bare, and there is none of the usual advertising and other “stuff” that we have become used to with other sites. To be fair, this is because Hotel Finder does not necessarily have to generate revenue in its own right. 

So far, I like Hotel Finder. The service has new clever features, includng “draw a shape” so that you can specify exactly your preferred geographic areas (I can see this feature evolving nicely for touch devices), and a pricing feature that compares posted prices to “Hotel’s Typical Price” (possibly fueled by Google’s ITA acquisition?). For me, however, the killer element of this new service is speed. Even sites that I otherwise love, like Kayak, seem to take a modern eternity when trolling for search results. Hotel Finder, however, is very fast. For some searches, I’d even describe it as Instant. This is true for the original searches, and espeically true for follow-up activity like looking at photos or reading reviews. The combination of a bare-bones UI and very fast load times will be a major advantage when this service is optimized for mobile web and mobile app (Note: I checked – as of now the service is traditional web only).

In the near future, I can see this product graduating to the “beta” stage and becoming integrated with organic searches, in much the same way that Places/Maps has evolved. In fact, I could see this service replacing Places/Maps results if a search happens to be for a hotel. Due to its speed and simplicity, I can see this product becoming a standard element of the shopping and buying experience. 

So what are the key takeaways? As usual, it’s all about reviews, reviews, and reviews…
  1. The release of Hotel Finder and the recent news that Google Places/Maps no longer includes reviews from third parties underscores the importance of treating Google as another review platform that, like TripAdvisor, must be monitored, managed, and optimized. I cannot overstate the importance of this. Google will overtake TripAdvisor as the de facto review platform because it is a gateway to the overall internet – both traditional and mobile. It’s just a question of how soon this will occur.
  2. Reviews, again, feature very prominently in this new service. After an area is selected, the results can be sorted by Hotel Class, User Rating, and then by two price categories. “User Rating” is the second column, a telling detail when trying to divine Google’s strategies in this space. When a hotel is selected for closer inspection, reviews again display very prominently beneath the photgraphs, along with a notable call to action to leave a review if the user has visited the location.
  3. Optimize your Google Places Listings: Several good reasons already exist for doing this, and Hotel Finder has just become one more. DMW research shows a direct correlation between SERP ranking for Maps/Places and optimized Places listings. 
As time goes by, and as Google collects feedback, I suspect that we will begin to see this service tilt towards "impulse" and "same day" reservations vs. the more formal vacations and events that usually have a longer research cycle. I could also see potential incorporation with flash deal sites (see Google's acquisition of Dealmap, and its own Google Offers, for example). What are your thoughts? Have you used Hotel Finder yet? Is it better than Kayak?

Solid Review Optimization Strategies and Changes at Google Places/Maps

News came out yesterday that Google has removed from Places and Maps all third party reviews, including (especially) those for hotels and restaurants. In my world, the world of social media/reviews/mobile/ for hospitality, this is very big news. I've got two immediate guesses as to why Google is doing this: 1) Proactive effort to head off ongoing legal challenges from players like TripAdvisor, buoyed by the fact that (through Android) Places/Maps are getting close to achieving critical review mass, or 2) This is a first step in creation of a B2C travel offering from Google where it wouldn't be appropriate or legal to include 3rd party content. If you’ve got thoughts on this, please share them in the comments.

I will admit that, upon reading the headline alone, I was concerned that the cornerstones of some of our fundamental strategies at DMW had just been pulled out. But, then we began to do what we do best at DMW: we rationally went through the meaning and effects of this change and highlighted what this does and does not mean for hoteliers, in particular, who are focused on developing a review optimization strategy. DMW’s analysis begins below. We currently have a few open questions and a few hypotheses, but we also have a good set of facts and best practices that we believe still hold true, regardless of the source of reviews that Google displays on Maps and Places results. We believe that many of our recommended strategies and best practices remain solid because we focus on thinking about context, not specific platform. Yesterday’s news served as a very important example of why this is so important.

So, let’s have a closer look. The comments from Google stated clearly that review snippets, ratings, and review counts from 3rd parties will "no longer appear" on Google Places and Maps. The article makes no mention of whether that data will still influence the rank of venues in Places/Maps or in organic search results, however. For me, this is the primary open question at this time. I see two possible general outcomes…

Outcome 1: While reviews are no longer visible, review data (quantity of reviews and average star rating) still influence rank results in Maps and Places. Here’s an example: Data from TripAdvisor reviews contributes to the ranking of a given hotel on Places, but consumers do not see those reviews. This would be similar to a given webpage being ranked first by virtue of inbound links to it (the core of Google’s algorithms), even though we are not shown the inbound links themselves. If non-Google review data still influences Maps/Places results without being visible, review optimization strategies are still 100% viable.

Outcome 2: Reviews do not influence Maps and Places but do continue to influence organic results. In my mind, this is all but a certainty. Inbound links to reviews will still push hotels up through Google’s organic results. End result: Your hotel’s top organic listing could possibly be on TripAdvisor (instead of a best-case scenario of being your own branded website). However, that’s still better than your competition’s hotel taking the top listing. Again, review optimization matters.

In both cases, it is important to remember that Review Optimization is still a valid strategy because it optimizes listings within each platform that contains reviews for a given hotel. DMW has conducted analysis that proves most hoteliers’ instinct: there is a direct correlation between better (and more) hotel reviews and ROI from the channel that hosts those reviews. Now that Google is becoming a review platform in its own right (versus just a review aggregator) a full Review Optimization strategy should actively focus on monitoring and responding to Google reviews, too.

So, the takeaway for today is that the players and services have shifted some, but the context and best practices remain very valid:
  • Customers will still be looking for reviews and shopping via Google. 
  • Google will still display reviews (albeit only their own, for now), and 
  • Review/OTA websites like TripAdvisor, Orbitz, and Priceline will remain with their reviews and business models, too. 
With a “what’s-not-changed” list like that, pursuing a Review Optimization Strategy absolutely remains a safe bet.

The Google+ Project Will be Google's First Social Media Effort to Achieve Critical Mass

I don't have my invite yet, but I got my invite yesterday evening, and I've been playing/reading/watching up on the new Google+ Project offering from Google. From what I've seen so far, I think it might hit the mark. One big win is that service does integrate directly with current Gmail and Android contacts. This is crucial: I've written in the past that other Google social media efforts (Hotpot, +1, Latitude) were destined to fail b/c they were platforms that didn't allow me to bring "my network" (my email contacts) into the mix.

I've been of the opinion lately that the mobile app, GroupMe, is all of the Facebook I would ever need. It allows me to start group chats, identify my geographic location, start phonecalls, share pictures, and more. Best of all, GroupMe allows me to do this on a per-group basis: No all-or-nothing approach as with Facebook. One of the most compelling features of Google+ is this same breakout of friends, each with its own settings. Google knows this and plays heavily into that when promoting their "Circles" feature.

So, does Google finally have a social media winner? I see a lot of press focused on whether this offering can unseat Facebook, but I'm not sure if that is the right question. I'm more interested in the potential for Google+ to achieve critical mass, that is sizable and sustainable adoption -- regardless of comparisons to Facebook. If "yes" Google will have demonstrated that social media platforms are not one size fits all. I think this is where the space is going, and I can see this as an important learning for the marketplace.

The precedent is already here: today, we have an easy split between Facebook (for personal social and commerce use) and LinkedIn (for business). Longer term, I could easily see some fragmentation (with Facebook remaining strongly dominant), along with the rise of "social media aggregator services" that bring together streams from various sources. Again, the precedent exists: see TweetDeck and Hootsuite's ability to bring in LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Buzz, and more. And, we also have products like Trillian and Adium that aggregate multiple instant message platforms.

So to pose the question a different way: Will Google+ achieve critical mass? I think, yes, that this time they might have it right. They've got a great-looking new platform with the right control settings and the right connections in place -- with Gmail, Google +1, and more. To further help drive adoption, Google will benefit from the Android OS and (soon) the Chrome OS. In the long run, Google will have an inherent competitive advantage b/c it will be able to directly bake-in to the OSes - basically becoming an ever-present service to support other activities.

It seems silly counting Google as an underdog here, but if Google +1 became a persistent, if smaller, player in this space, I would consider that a big victory for them and for the marketplace, too.

Dispersed TripAdvisor Viewership Reveals Changing Market Behaviors from Which Hotels can Benefit

Viewership of TripAdvisor reviews is three times greater onsites other than the 50 million views that sees itself in an average month. The general reaction that I’ve seen to this news is that TripAdvisor is even more important than previously realized and that Hoteliers and brands should redouble (or perhaps re-triple) their efforts to drive review traffic to the review platform. No doubt this is how TripAdvisor will use these findings!

I’d like to offer a different interpretation.

The fact that the significant majority of eyeballs are coming into contact with TA’s review content outside of the website itself suggets an important shift in marketplace behavior that Hoteliers can use to their advantage. The specific behavior is that guests are becoming trained to find reviews by Search instead of by landing page. While some brands still enjoy leadership positions in “landing page content” (think NY Times,, and ESPN) the inherent user-generated nature of TA’s content suggests that it’s dominance as a landing page destination for reviews is more the result of TA’s superb SEO work, marketing savvy, and iniital positioning during the early days of eCommerce than any brand loyalty to or special utility of TripAdvisor itself. For example, I have not seen any study that suggests that the public believes that reviews (or reviewers) are of better quality / more accurate / more trustworthy on TripAdvisor than on  any other site like, say, Orbitz. (If you have seen something like this, please pass it along…)

Given the above, I see an opportunity for hotels to disperse their review traffic to multiple review platforms and to syndicate the reviews from those multiple platforms on their own digital assets (eg: websites). Driving guests to leave reviews on multiple sites provides the following benefits:
  • Improved search engine results
  • Opportunities to improve sales from multiple platforms by virtue of improved ranking on multiple review sites.
  • Opportunity to exploit differences in the sign-in process between review platforms to find best-possible “Review Conversion” (the ratio of guests presented with a CTA (call to action) to leave a review divided by actual reviews posted).
  • Counter-balance to TripAdvisor’s current overwhelming dominance in the review space.
There is a big trend at play here: Traditional websites will continue to lose mass as content disperses to multiple social and mobile platforms. Organizations can begin to prepare for managing, monitoring, and harnessing content in this new era by understanding the well-defined and (relatively) easily managed world of reviews within this context.

TripAdvisor is Preventing Hotels from Improving the Review Ecosystem

One of our clients recently starting receiving disturbing emails from TripAdvisor. For those in the business, this experience is all too familiar: The emails are vague on the actual transgressions that may have occurred, but chillingly explicit regarding the consequences of continuing with the unspecified behavior. Honest hoteliers (among them, our clients) certainly want to play by the rules and avoid suspension of their accounts, but they have no one (other than a sales rep) to talk to about what, specifically, has gone wrong. And even then, the feedback is almost never actionable. The hotel is left with fear that its strategies might possibly (but not definitely) are somehow at odds with the policies of TripAdvisor.

It is a shame that hoteliers are left so vulnerable in a system that serves guests so well.

Increasing quantities of players in the hospitality space understand the fundamental importance that reviews now play in a potential guest’s decision-making process. They apply best practices like encourages happy guests to leave reviews, and they purchase products like Revinate or ReviewPro to monitor their efforts. While there will always be bad seeds, most hotels do not prevent bad reviews from being posted, they simply expend less effort in encouraging unhappy guests to post a review than happy ones. This is actually good for hotels, guests, and TripAdvisor. More opinions are being brought into the mix, and those that are negative will stand out more.

In my case, we take a hotel that has enjoyed an exceptionally loyal following for decades. Until recently, the hotel never monitored nor encouraged reviews. But, with our guidance, the hotel is now doing both and seeing a floodgate of positive reviews come in. Truth: we see bad reviews come in, too, and I’m happy to see them. They provide actionable feedback to management, demonstrate the authenticity of the reviews to other readers, and allows management to demonstrate (again, to other readers) that they care and will attempt to correct any negative experiences.

These positive reviews have somehow tripped an algorithm within TripAdvisor and we are now trying to explain what has occurred to someone, anyone, within TripAdvisor so that we can clear the hotel’s reputation. We can show how the TripAdvisor scores match with decades of internal survey scores, for example.

While the quantity of reviews being posted and read for hotels continues to skyrocket, they quantity of review platforms (TripAdvisor, Orbitz, Google Places) continues to grow too. Hoteliers increasingly have a choice regarding to where they would like to encourage reviews. The primary factor will, of course, continue to be distribution (TripAdvisor remains the 800 pound gorilla in this space), but other factors like dispute resolution, and review conversion rate could soon influence hoteliers. My prediction: the ultimate winner in this space will be the platform that can best enable interactions between guests and hotels, not just guests and guests AND develop the best algorithm and resolution process for detecting fraud. At present, I don’t see TripAdvisor rating that set of objective very highly…

The Social Media Conversation Needs a Refresh

I attended Eye for Travel’s excellent “Social Media Strategies for Travel” (#smtravel11) last week in San Francisco. What a great event! @Susantravels was a deeply knowledgeable moderator, the speakers were great, and the networking events were at just the right level. I’m very happy that I was able to attend. After listening to (and participating in) so many informative/creative/ inspiring discussions, I’m coming away with a revelation: Social Media is hitting its first point of maturity, and, with that, the dialog of practicing social media is starting to get stale.

I know: We don’t usually see the phrase “social media” and “stale” in the same sentence, but I’ve gone and said it anyway. Here’s why: For the past two to four years, practitioners of social media have operated as a sort of cognoscenti society where the attendees “get it” and they have to figure out how to do their good work in organizations that, by and large, “don’t get it.” Based on my experiences, this “us and them” context seems to have three general effects on the Social Media Community:
  • The underlying context of many social media discussions assumes limited budgets, confused or uninterested management, and immediate needs to prove ROI. 
  • The social media community, while vibrant in its own right, often has its blinders on with regards to interactions with other, non-marketing or customer service teams in their organizations.
  • This relatively insular community has been swept up in shiny object syndrome. This is understandable: it's hard work keeping pace with the innovations, creativity, and new platforms that are cropping up on a weekly basis. And don’t forget the unprecedented adoption rates of social media at large.
Despite the excellent and even passionate exchange of ideas at #smtravel11, I believe that these old patterns were as alive and pervasive as ever. The patterns persist, however, despite the fact that there are increasingly fewer executives who outright reject social media platforms. It has happened quickly, but the majority of executives today understand (to some degree) the general roles social media now plays in the marketplace, and there is no shortage of evidence that social media spending is on the rise. (Any recent survey from Marketing Sherpa, for example, will back these claims.)

So, if the executives are now also drinking the social media kool-aid, the conversation needs to evolve. Today, practitioners of Social Media need a broader skill set and a higher vantage point if they are to mature and incorporate their work into larger organizational efforts. In essence, it’s becoming time to leave the kids table and sit with the grown-ups. In support of this “new conversation” here’s where I believe the conversation needs to grow in the next 12 months:
  • Back-to-basics focus on objectives: A focus on “engagement” is simply insufficient. Are we seeking to diminish phonecalls? Grow lifetime value? Increase sales through evangelists? A sobering look at objectives brings relevance to the larger organization and identifies the right metrics. It also puts the following bullets in context…
  • Interdepartmental use of social media: This concept was originally championed in The Groundswell and The Cluetrain Manifesto (among others), but still has been embraced by only the most forward-thinking of organizations. Social Media should inform R&D, HR, crowd-sourced customer support, organizational improvement, and more. The focus does not always have to be on customer-facing commerce.
  • A broader understanding of how social media can work in concert with “traditional” channels: The marketplace is rife with examples of social media efforts cannibalizing the traffic of traditional channels that (currently) have far more opportunities for conversion. As stated above, social media must break out of the silo and work in more informed partnership with other channels.
  • A new focus on the process of social media: We see so many great social media ideas at these events, but they leave a lot of open questions for me: Are these campaigns scalable or repeatable? How many FTE’s does it take to support these efforts today? How many would it take a year from now? These are just some of the questions that need to be addressed in a more formal manner, along with better recommendations for roles & responsibilities descriptions and business workflow definition…
I am not suggesting that these topics should replace our typical conversations regarding the latest and greatest features and campaigns. We will always need and enjoy those discussions – in fact we will enjoy them much more than discussions about business workflows! But, even if my points are notably less shiny than talking about, say, Hipmunk, they are critical for any serious discussion of social media’s future. Social Media is a rapidly expanding field. Those practitioners who are successful in switching gears and addressing these points will be the ones who best serve their organizations, as well as their own careers. So let’s get the conversation started!

How Does Google Build a Social Network?

Google recently rolled out their Places app for iPhone – it’s about time! The Places app has been on Android for nearly six months and will surely pick up many users on the iPhone platform. With geo-aware suggestions, ratings, and built in directions for walking and driving, “Places” is one of the most-used apps on my phone. Along with announcing the Places app, Google drew some attention to its related Hotpot service, which, according to their website, allows you to “connect with your friends and find out the right place to go near you.” Sounds like another attempt by Google to gain some footing in the Social space, but my take on this is that Google is again coming up short in this category. For me, the bottom line is this: If Google wants to get social right, it has to start doing social.

Here’s an example: The service, it turns out, is not baked into the standard Places app on my Android phone, so I took this opportunity to sign up and learn more.  When signing up for Hotpot, I was surprised to see that Google is asking me to invite specific friends on an almost one-by-one basis. Seems like a slow way to build my social network, especially when you consider that Google could probably discern my network (that is, recommend friends) based on my email patterns through Gmail and with some basic geo location knowledge. In fact, I question why I have to explicitly sign up for Hotpot at all. As an Android user who already has Places, why put me through a special process and app to connect with friends? I’m wary of Hotpot becoming yet another abandoned service on the Google highway, in particular like Latitude.

Facebook has no problem in recommending friends when I’m on their site. In the same vein, I think that Google has to start speaking Social in the active voice if it wants to be successful here. They have no shortage of information that could be used to connect me to my friends and start weighting Places reviews, for example. If they were to take one or two bold moves to gain critical mass in terms of social data, I don’t doubt that Google would quickly become a recommendation engine in a way that I suspect that Facebook never could be. Facebook (and Foursquare and Gowalla) make what I would term “soft recommendations” by virtue of letting me know where my friends have been – in itself a tacit seal of approval of some sort. Google, however, has the opportunity to bridge the gap to the more formal recommendations that we see in Yelp, for example, along with star ratings. While I still have believe that the best recommendation platforms should be based on taste graph instead of social graph, there is utility in the latter and Google could get to the top of the geosocial checkin game very quickly if it only made the decision to behave like a social platform.

Today’s post has a specifically focused look at Hotpot as related to Google’s social media efforts. The picture for Google is much bigger and more complicated, of course -- in particular when you consider significant potential backlash fueled by privacy concerns and their failed attempt to woo Yelp, for example. Nonetheless, I think it is time for Google to set up a firm center of gravity for social media in an effort to counterweight its traditional tentacle-like grips on the web at large. What do you think? Are you using Hotpot? Is it better/worse than Yelp's great mobile app, for example? Please share below!

By Aaron Zwas -- Director of Emerging Technologies at Digital Marketing Works. 

Where Did my Tastegraph Check In Tonight?

I need less help in navigating communications with my friends than I do in discovering excellent brands and products. Example: I’m in the market for a new subwoofer. I’m a minor-league audiophile and read up on these things now and then. There is no shortage of product reviews out there, but I find that the reviews might not be sufficient because I don’t know anything about the reviewer.  I began to talk about this in my previous post regarding restaurant reviews, and I would like to take it further here. When I read subwoofer reviews, I’d like to know if the reviewer’s standards unreasonably low or high. Does he buy things just for the label? Or just to be trendy? Is he a penny pincher or someone who spends too freely?

As a result of my previous post, I was introduced to Bizzy and LikeCube – who describe themselves as providing “recommendations based on similarity of product and similarity of user”. Services like these promise to provide me with the recommendations for me, not generic recommendations that are supposed to apply to everyone. We see this today, to a certain extent, with product recommendations on Amazon and other websites, but recommendation engines  in their current still don’t offer the nuance that most end-users would like to see. 

As the state of the art progresses, the best in class recommendation engines will be able to take inputs from services like Get Glue, Facebook Likes, a variety of geo-check in services, and more. Check-ins, in particular, looked poised to grow exponentially as mobile payment services begin to hit the mainstream via players like Isis, PayPal, Google, and (we assume) Apple. As they do, checkin during payment will simply become another option, and those details will add to individuals’ profiles and broadcast across social networks.

While the benefits of all of this are generally well-understood for consumers, brands, too, will have much to gain. As the data becomes available, such information will help brands to identify potential new partnerships, find local-influencers, and provide real-time special offers based on a combination of taste graph and location. To take advantage of this data will require evolving skill sets, but the best practices will remain the same: start small, fail fast, measure everything, analyze & repeat. 

I’m not abandoning the concept of socialgraphing or physical checkins via FourSquare, for example. There’s value in knowing who checked into which bar. But what I’d really like to know? What beer they are drinking once they get there…

Reviews, Ratings, and Opinions

With the recent news that Orbitz now allows anyone to review a hotel on their site, it seems like a good time to share thoughts regarding Ratings, Reviews, and Opinions.

It's an interesting turn of events: as an entire industry called “Social Media Monitoring” is being built to help organizations add structure and meaning to the influx of customer feedback that now comes at them, the Orbitz move seems to indicate a reverse trend for the Hospitality vertical: a deconstruction of its relatively long-standing public feedback mechanisms. Think about it: for nearly a decade, internet users have been able to read and share hotel feedback based on a universally accepted system of 5 stars across general service categories. It’s this kind of structure that gives the word "rating" meaning, and has, up until recently, enabled savvy hoteliers to adequately manage public feedback. To help think through the changes that the Orbitz decision will foment, let’s first define a few terms…
  • Review = A description of a direct experience with product or service
  • Ratings = A review that is quantified via formal structures 
  • Opinion = A thought regarding a product or service, regardless of level of experience with the product, which could be none 
Thanks largely to TripAdvisor, the Hospitality industry has a level of comfort and experience with public Ratings and Reviews for some time now. At large, I believe the industry could do much better in encouraging and leveraging reviews, but at least a sound tradition is established.  The move from Orbitz, however, is shifting that platform slightly away from “reviews” and closer towards "opinions". It's the particular distinction of “opinions”, especially when being shared in a forum like TripAdvisor who advertises “over 40 million reviews and opinions”, that is causing concern. Which of those 1 star ratings are “Reviews”? Which of them are “Opinions”? The combination of a weakened economic climate and the increasing influence of reviews in the hotel decision path has caused hoteliers to care a great deal about who exactly is sharing these experiences.

There are different ways to work through these industry changes, however: Those who are aligning themselves with potential litigation against TripAdvisor may or may not win a small battle, but certainly not the public opinion war. While valid issues (like timely removal of patently false reviews) are certainly valid, an undercurrent of this seems to be that hoteliers cannot determine if negative reviews are from actual guests or not. Specifically there is concern that hotels will be the victims of...
  • Unfair/inaccurate/false characterizations that are the opinions of people who have never actually been to the property, and
  • Similar statements made with malicious intent by competing hotels or community members who hold some other sort of grudge with the hotel or staff/owners of it
Hmmm. Sounds like a good 50/50 mix of FUD to me. It is realistic to expect unfair or malicious characterizations from time to time. Reviews and Social Media are, after all, a quantification of human nature – some people just have an axe to grind. But, these few outliers should not be able to bring your hotel’s reputation to its knees if you are managing your online reputation by encouraging guests to post reviews. The few unfair reviews and opinions will be washed away in the stream of legitimate feedback -- the best defense, in this case, is a good offense.

And even as services like Blippy and Swipely (and Google Checkout and something like an Apple iStore) could conceivably form the basis of a platform that allows us to tie public reviews to actual purchases, is that where organizations want to put their resources? I don’t think so: promoting positive reviews is a far less expensive proposition with notably larger returns vs hunting down opinions posing as reviews and attempting to remove them from public view. In general, the prevailing opinion among informed thinkers is the right one: modern internet users have the ability to read through reviews (real, fake, or otherwise) and distill the true broad qualities of a service. Hoteliers can and should rely on this assumption and do everything in their power to promote legitimate feedback via public channels.

Orbitz will not be the last review platform / OTA to enable “unverified reviews”. It’s good business to open up the review process to as many people as possible; Orbitz has done the right thing by enabling more people to interact with and read from its platform. This means that hotel reviews will continue to shift, in theory at least, from “review” towards “opinion” because these platforms will not be able to verify customer stays. In reality, however, Hospitality will still maintain the most structured, most universal, most quantifiable public feedback mechanism out there. Instead of looking to lawyers, Hoteliers should consider opinions more as “soft reviews” which can serve as a stepping stone to strategies that incorporate pure social media feedback (like via Facebook) into operational KPIs -- which, of course, is for another post…

Are You Prepared to Cannibalize Yourself?

It’s 2010 and we’re at an inflection point in technology disruption.  Some call it the "post-PC" era.  Is this a business opportunity or threat?  This question really depends on your perspective, but in any case, it's the wrong question.  The Wall Street Journal ran a few interesting articles recently.  TPG sees the digital opportunity and has invested in CAA.  The media industry is in great flux and there will be winners and losers depending on how each embraces the digital reality.  Disney is re-organizing (again) it’s digital business to create a separate business unit that is a profit-center instead of a cost-center as it has been for the last 15 years.  The News Corp (Fox) - Cablevision blackout currently affecting 3 million NY area households has digital disruption at it's core.  In fact, there is news every day that shows the affects of the technology wave we’re experiencing.  The companies affected are run by really smart people.  They don’t lack intelligence, scale, brand equity, processes, resources or capital.  They have it all.  So why are they failing to leverage the opportunity ahead? 

The 80’s was defined by the PC revolution, the 90’s by the emergence of the Internet, the 2000’s by electronic commerce.  This decade will be defined by the dawn of ubiquitous computing enabled by the convergence of significant technology trends.  This paradigm change is defined by cloud-computing, pervasive and higher bandwidth, component deflation, smartphone adoption, natural user interfaces and social media.  Technology adoption is being driven from the consumer into the corporation, not the other way around which has driven the last few tech waves and benefited the WinTel alliance. 

Incumbents generally treat technology disruption as a threat since they face the “innovators dilemma” (Clayton Christensen).  They cannot divorce themselves from their business model, org structure and comforts of business to embrace the opportunities that technology disruption afford.  One of the issues is timing and public market pressures.  How can a public market leader take a short term hit to profits while they retool to gain a long term share of the larger opportunity?  Another issue is the profit unknown and the anxiety this creates.  To fully understand opportunity, many leaders need to know where the value is created and this round of technology disruption yields murky views of value creation.  The consumer is claiming most of the value through free (low CPM ad supported content), improved entertainment value, greater convenience and productivity, etc.  There are business models to be had, however, and some good examples of value-claiming from this round of innovation including Apple’s iTunes, NetFlix, PayPal, Amazon’s Kindle, Google, Facebook, etc.

The hospitality industry has its own flavor of this dilemma.  Most clients are treating this wave of technology disruption as a challenge or threat.  Few are embracing to create marketing advantage.  They ask “is mobile traffic incremental or cannibalizing our existing website traffic”.  A decade ago, clients asked me similar questions about online versus offline shopping.  My reaction then is the same is it is now, “I would rather cannibalize myself with forward-thinking marketing than be cannibalized by my competition”.