Cultivating the social experience

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by Lisa Gordon

Good news travels fast in our connected world.

According to referral marketing platform Ambassador, 71 percent of customers who have a positive service experience via social media are likely to recommend that company.

But that same percentage of customers expects to receive assistance within five minutes of submitting an online inquiry.

That means your business has approximately five minutes to turn questions or complaints into happy customers and future revenue. In short, it’s all about the experience.

While social media experts everywhere trumpet the importance of “the experience,” some companies are better positioned than others to respond.

Luckily, the hospitality industry has tremendous potential in the social media arena. Hotels, in particular, have a unique opportunity to connect with their guests via social media, not only driving engagement and cementing relationships, but fostering brand loyalty at the same time.

“From a hospitality standpoint, customer service and guest experiences are paramount,” confirms Andrew Caravella, vice president of Global Partnerships at Sprout Social, a Chicago-based social media management and analytics platform founded in 2010.

“People’s use of social media in the world is obviously second to none. They are using it to research; there is the word of mouth component of digital. We see a lot of our hospitality clients understanding that people are asking friends about where they’ve stayed and where they’ve gone.”

If they do it right, hotels can use social media to connect with guests before, during, and after their stay.

While a guest is onsite, attentive social customer care can pay big dividends.

“Whether it’s the concierge, the management office or the corporate team, point people in the right direction, and talk about promos or deals,” says Caravella. “There are a lot of different ways brands can connect with people to answer their questions. We often see Twitter used for customer care.”

After the bags are packed and guests have departed, hotels can encourage them to relive the best moments of their vacation by posting selfies taken at or near the hotel. Incentives can be offered for such posts, such as a discount on their next stay.

Crafting Your Strategy

The worst thing a hotel could do is jump on social media and start “posting from the hip.”

Instead, take some time to assess the organization’s social direction.

“The first step is to always understand your goal and objectives – why do you want to be on social? Make sure the goals are well defined and ensure there is agreement,” says Caravella.

“Is it just to create brand awareness, is it to drive registration, or is it to make sure guests are having a good time while on property? There might be multiple objectives, but it’s really worth having that conversation up front.”

While there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to social goals, the online world can be the great equalizer for independent hotels trying to compete with big chains.

Debbie Miller is the president of Social Hospitality, a boutique digital marketing firm located in Irvine, CA.

“For independent hotels, it’s important to highlight the differentiators,” she says. “For example, they can showcase the distinct experience guests will get at an independent property versus a big chain.”

Hotels generally understand the type of guest experience they provide, and Caravella says that’s an opportunity not to be missed.

“One goal is to create the same kind of experience for people on social. So if you’re a super luxury brand, translate that into social media. If you’re a budget brand for millennials, there is an opportunity to create that brand on social, too.”

He adds that hotels are often very good at the “anticipatory” experience – in other words, knowing what guests will want before they want it.

“Social channels can be used to translate those real life experiences.”

Innisfree Hotels uses social monitoring to surprise and delight guests who post about any kind of personal milestone. When they return to their room, they’ll find a card, cake, or some other personal touch to help them celebrate.

Those happy guests may talk about their experience online, and Miller says that is pure gold.

“User-generated content does a lot of the work for you. Many hotels leverage it by creating on-site opportunities for people to take pictures. Some places add selfie stations, for example. It’s a great way to bridge the gap between online and offline.”

She cited one example of a client that utilized social platforms to connect with potential customers. The property stimulated interest in its “Queen for a Day” Mother’s Day brunch by launching a corresponding social media contest.

“The contest asked users why their mom should be Queen for a Day, to win her a horse and carriage ride. We got a lot of great PR and leveraged social to augment an existing event.”

Since consumers are documenting their travel on social media anyway, Miller says it’s important for hotels to have as much control over their brand as possible, “especially since travel decisions are now being influenced by other people’s opinions of [every]brand.”

Planning Your Posts

Like anything else in life, it pays to be organized when it comes to social media.

“I like to do a month’s calendar in advance and outline any holidays or themes; a road map of what to post on which days,” explains Miller. “It can ebb and flow, but it is an outline so you are never stuck in a rut.”

She says it’s important to monitor what is being said about your brand and respond promptly to reviews. It’s even more critical to respond quickly to negative comments.

“Respond publicly, but then take it offline. Acknowledge their concern and always be professional. Then, ask them to contact you directly for further discussion offline.”

Caravella agrees that acknowledgment is crucial.

“If someone spoke to you in person, you wouldn’t stare at them blankly. Not responding makes them more agitated and angry. So, give them a quick response, and get to the root cause and resolve it as quickly as possible.”

Platforms and Performance

With so many social media platforms out there, how do you know what to post where?

Facebook is a good place for diversified content such as photos, video, travel news, and user-generated content. Likewise, Instagram is very visual, so photos and travel stories do well.

“Brands still get reasonably good engagement and brand awareness on Twitter, even though people aren’t using it as much to make buying decisions,” notes Miller. “Pinterest is another great platform for the hospitality industry. It’s been a huge traffic driver to many of my hotel clients’ websites, so it’s great for search engine optimization.”

If a hotel is targeting a younger clientele or prides itself on a distinct personality, Snapchat may be an option. Miller says some Las Vegas hotels have created custom geofilters to encourage user-generated content.

But once all your posts are out there, how do you evaluate performance?

“It’s very important to understand what performance looks like, and to go beyond vanity metrics such as likes and follows,” says Caravella. “Now, it’s much more about quality than quantity. So move beyond those simple metrics and think through content analysis. What content drove engagement in the past? Dig into the data a bit more to devise your strategy.”

Miller says most social media platforms provide data to help determine post reach, follower location, etc.

“Google Analytics should also be set up for your website to track social traffic,” she says. “It should track conversions, so you’re able to assess how many people visit the site and book from those platforms. The hard thing about social is you can’t always correlate bookings to posts, but you can see how much traffic comes from each channel, and loosely track direct and assisted conversions.”

While the precise return on your investment may be open to some interpretation, there is no longer any doubt that social pays off.

According to the digital marketing site WebFX, 23 percent of travelers use social media to research hotels, and 55 percent of them like social pages related to trips they are planning. Forty-six percent will post a hotel review post-vacation.

Is your property’s social strategy working? If not, invest the time to step back, craft a fresh approach with some clear goals, and take control of your brand.

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