Making Social Media An Asset To Your Hotel, Part 1 & part 2 Operation

20th Mar 2012

Profile photo of Mario JobbeNB: This is an article written By : Mario Jobbe

Over the next few weeks, we’ll share our learnings on how social media can benefit the various departments and stakeholders at a hotel or hospitality firm, and present practical ideas for how it can be used to improve a hotel’s business.

Our aim is that readers are left with a useful foundation for applying social media to increase brand favorability, guest satisfaction and loyalty, ultimately leading to higher profitability.

But first we’re going to start with a basic overview of the social media landscape for hoteliers.

Let’s begin with the social networks, which are arguably the foundation piece of social media. According to Wikipedia, a social network is “a social structure made of individuals (or organizations) called nodes,’ which are tied (connected) by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as friendship, kinship, financial exchange, dislike, sexual relationships, or relationships of beliefs, knowledge or prestige.”

Indeed, social networks are made up of clusters of connections between individuals or entities, and are most commonly found on social networking web sites and communities, like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Any web site or community where one member can “friend” or establish a connection with another member is considered a social networking web site. The scale of these sites on the Internet is massive, with Facebook boasting over 800 million members as of September 2011.

What has made social networks so powerful is their viral effect: it takes only two individuals connecting within a social network to bring together hundreds, if not thousands, of clusters of connections from the two individuals’ respective social networks. This can lead to incredibly broad and rapid distribution across the Web and the world.

As a result, newer social networks (like foursquare) often benefit from established social networks (e.g.: your email contacts, your Facebook friends) by leveraging the sub-clusters that already exist. In other words, when someone on Facebook joins foursquare, they’re likely to invite their Facebook friends, who are in turn more likely to accept and join because the invitation comes not from foursquare, but from a trusted source.

Therefore, the potency of social networks comes from their ability to reach a broad audience as efficiently as they reach niche groups. Further, the speed in which information can be distributed through a social network adds to its potency.

Next, let’s define social media in a way that’s relevant to a brand. Put simply, social media is comprised of conversations and online postings written by normal people (i.e.: not editorial journalists), which share experiences with a brand’s product or service. These postings have an impact on the brand’s perception, consumer purchase decisions, or both.

So while we began by exploring the social networks, in reality the social media landscape for brands is much broader than just Facebook, Twitter, Weibo, and YouKu. Brand Karma defines the social media landscape for brands as having four main categories, as shown in the figure below:

4Hoteliers Image Library

Let’s summarize each of these categories briefly:

1) The Pure Review Sites are sites where consumers go to read and/or write reviews on a brand. No transactions take place on these sites, but they often become very popular channels in determining purchase decisions. In the hotel space, TripAdvisor is the clear category leader here.

2) The eCommerce Sites are sites where consumers go because they are ready to make a booking and are typically comparing multiple options that meet their price and location requirements. The online reviews on these sites are often used to break a tie between several different options (e.g. Which hotel has free internet access? Which hotel has the best brand-name toiletries? Which hotel is kid-friendly?). In the hospitality world, this category includes OTAs like Expedia, Ctrip, and Agoda and meta-search sites like Kayak, Wego, and Qunar.

3) The Influential Blogs are the new media equivalent of travel journalists. These are authors with significant reach and influence whose postings impact a large number of readers. Gadling and A Luxury Travel Blog are examples of influential travel blogs.

4) The Social Networking Sites were already covered in detail above, and include the big names like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and well as market-specific sites like Sina Weibo and YouKu (in China).

If you stop and think about this landscape and the types of postings that occur on all of the above web sites, you’ll realize that social media is simply the digitization of something that humans have been doing since the dawn of time: sharing vital information for the safety, enjoyment, and happiness of others.

And because of its digital format, social media is archived and easily accessible, with conversations and shared experiences often coming to life via words, sounds, photos, and videos. Finally, one doesn’t need to be a film director or an award-winning writer to tell one’s story: free tools exist to help create, publish, and index interesting content that like-minded fans will find at the appropriate time.

As a result, hundreds of millions of people have already contributed to social media, and the outcome is a vibrant, dynamic and colorful web of content that in many cases has drowned out the brand images and messaging once carefully created by brand directors and their advertising agencies.

This new Internet has become the catalyst for a paradigm shift in branding. No longer are inspirational brand promises presented in expensive advertisements sufficient; consumers seek to validate the authenticity of those attributes to determine for themselves what’s real and what’s marketing fluff. Gone are the days of when the public sees only what you want it to see; now the most insignificant operational oversight can get a guest on a soapbox to lead a revolt. Transparency is key to trust, and the definition of value is no longer determined by the brand, but by the collective experiences of its past customers.

The characteristics of social media make it a powerful new medium with direct applicability to the various stakeholders at a hotel company, including operations, sales and marketing, revenue management, and general and corporate management.

In the next article in this series, we’ll explore what drives the bulk of a guest’s hotel experiences: operations. We’ll cover how brands can use social media to improve operational excellence, and in doing so, take the important first step of improving and optimizing its public perceptions.

Making Social Media An Asset To Your Hotel, Part 2: Operations.

For a hotel’s operations staff, daily and trended reports of guest satisfaction surveys (or solicited guest feedback) provide critical insights into operational performance.

However, for a comprehensive view of a hotel’s operations, unsolicited guest feedback in the form of social media completes the picture.

A hotel’s social media further enhances the insights from solicited feedback in three key ways:

1) Going beyond what the survey asks
2) Uncovering the emotional drivers
3) Discovering new standards

We explain the details of each in the following sections.

** But first, an important caveat. Linking social media to operations must be done very carefully. We’ve seen hotels make knee-jerk operational changes based on the strong opinions of a few travelers that are posted in a very short amount of time. Because of its public nature, social media can send hotel teams into a frenzy, when the opinions and experiences of a few may not represent the majority of the hotel’s guests.

While a few reviews about a negative checkin experience or an aging room product should inspire internal conversations, they don’t necessarily warrant significant changes be made overnight. When looking at social media from an operations perspective, a hotel must consider a sufficient quantity of reviews over an ample time period to represent a statistically significant population of guest feedback.

For an individual hotel, the quantity of reviews within a given week or month is usually not enough. We recommend small to mid-sized hotels consider at least 12-months of social media data, and large hotels consider at least 6-months of social media data. Analytics tools make looking back 6 or 12 months an easy task, and something a hotel can do immediately.

Going beyond what the survey asks

Solicited feedback from guest satisfaction surveys or in-room comment cards highlights operational issues in predefined areas. Traditional guest surveys ask a set of questions chosen by the hotel, resulting in regular structured feedback in the selected operational areas. Major providers like Medallia, Synovate, LRA Worldwide, and Market Metrix are well-known providers of traditional guest satisfaction solutions.

4Hoteliers Image LibraryWhere social media complements solicited guest surveys is in its unstructured, organic nature. Because social media is an open canvas, guests’ comments have no boundaries. What’s even better is that you can be certain you’re reading guests’ honest opinions, as they are posting by their own free will, instead of responding to a surveyor’s questions.

For hotels that are part of a chain where local properties have their own distinct characteristics, social media often surfaces these unique selling points.

As consumers conduct more research on the web about where to stay, the unique selling points may very well be the added value that swings consumers towards your property and away from a competitor.

Hence it’s in the property’s best interest to understand what these areas are, and to subsequently ensure operational excellence in each of them. At the same time, it’s important to compare guest satisfaction in solicited surveys with the guest satisfaction in social media to identify consistencies and inconsistencies. If gaps exist, then hotel management should investigate why.

One very consistent example we see across the social media of many hotels is Internet Access. Based on our analysis of over 13,000 hotels in Asia-Pacific, we found Internet Access to be the most complained about topic in the guest experience, with the complaints surrounding speed, reliability, and price. However, as most hotels in Asia-Pacific do not ask about this attribute in their solicited guest surveys, they are missing an important data point in understanding their operations.

Even if a hotel does ask about its Internet Access, it doesn’t ask specifically about its guests’ satisfaction levels along the dimensions of speed, reliability, and price. This example illustrates a disconnect between what operations is optimizing for, versus what guests are actually discussing. Given that Internet Access is increasingly influencing prospective guests’ purchase decisions, it’s imperative that a hotel account for such examples.