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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Customer Feedback & Earned Media in the Travel Industry…

I travel a lot for business, and one of the things that is as predictable as the sun coming up in the East is the cards and letters you get as a guest of a hotel asking for your ‘honest and candid’ feedback.   Now this is not unique to just the hotel industry, it is across many industries, but is predominant within the travel space, for obvious reasons.

Next time you check into a hotel or airline look on the front desk for the postcard sized slip of paper where they are asking for your feedback on your experience ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’.   The feedback cards, letters, slips, receipts, stickers, etc… are all over the hotel, from your room to the restaurants to the room service tray, I have even found them in the bathrooms.  With most major hotel chains, at least Hilton and Marriott, they will follow-up with an email asking for you to give them feedback online via an online survey or just sending an email to the manager or the hotel chain corporate headquarters.

I have to be honest that I don’t take the time to fill these things out, mostly because I travel so much it would become a second full-time job.  Listen, I have a hard enough time doing my expense reports every month.  But one of the reasons I usually would never fill out one of these surveys or comments cards was they went into a black hole and I always assumed that no one was reading them.  The few times I did fill them out, mostly with good comments about the hotel or airline, I would never hear back and I would never know if the comments I was giving actually ended up in a place where they were useful.   Listen, I am more than willing to give a business real feedback if they honestly want the feedback and it will be put to good use and taken seriously.  I always got the sense the feedback cards were more of a tradition that something the staff wanted to deal with.

But recently I have seen a shift, albeit somewhat leisurely in nature, in the hotel industry.  I have seen some early signs where, though the ‘give me feedback’ theme is still the same, the vehicle and channel have shifted somewhat dramatically.   Over the past few months I have seen more and more signs that the travel industry is really interested in my feedback and they are willing to remove the black box and open up the kimono, which has to be driven by the amazing paradigm shift in the marketplace.   More and more I have experienced this shift in attitude and approach where I am being asked to share my experience on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, but the most interesting is the introduction of Yelp into the review dialog. It is clear this industry has learned about the value of conversational marketing and earned media.

I have to admit I was a little shocked when I saw my hotel receipt from a recent stay at the Hampton Inn near the San Francisco airport where on the hotel bill they were asking for me to go on Yelp and give feedback to my experience.  The hotel room bill had a sticker that said ‘Yelp Us – review your stay on and receive a $5 Starbucks gift card on us!’   Wow, this is a dynamic shift from the black box and smoke and mirrors to letting it all hang out and asking customers to take their best shot, in the public square where everyone will see.

I guess I shouldn't have been shocked, I am in the industry and am a big advocate for businesses leveraging the collective intellect and experiences of their customers to help build and grow their businesses.   But I guess I was surprised because it did open up a different convention for me around a business asking me for feedback.

Now as a customer, when I give feedback to the hotel, I know there is real value being created, even if the hotel doesn’t see the same value, there is value.   Now, regardless of the $5 gift certificate for Starbucks, which I understand why the incentive is there, the true value is really three-fold.

The first value driver being the fact that I am able to make sure other people that might be interested in this business can get feedback from someone that has experienced the business first hand.   This in itself is worth me taking the time to write feedback on Yelp or other review sites.   It is the reason I go on Yelp to review a good or bad experience at a local restaurant or dry cleaner already, without someone asking me to do it.  This is the media portion of the Earned Media and conversational marketing I was talking about.
The second value is around the fact that I know if I write something the hotel is going to be compelled to read it and at least take it seriously.   The feedback is no longer behind closed doors or in a black box.  It is not hidden on a managers desk from their regional VP or for that fact other potential customers.   What I say has to matter to the hotel, because they know what I say is going to be read by others, especially by those people that know me or trust me.  This is the hook, and an important piece of earned media is the hook that gives both parties reasons to engage.

The third and maybe most compelling value is I am providing feedback in an open social environment where there is also a value to me directly, beyond the free cup of coffee.  By taking the time to share and review my experience on a site like Yelp, FourSquare or Facebook, I am able to build relationships with other people that might be on these social media outlets.  By taking the time to share with others, I gain social currency that today can’t really be measured, but becomes an intangible value to me and my personal brand.   People will review my feedback and I can build credibility of my own brand, versus just being a one to one transaction that gives me nothing back in return.  This is me building my own brand online, and though all earned media, as long as it is honest and open, allows for personal brand building, this is the true definition of an influencer driving earned media and getting value at the same time.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for the travel industry, and other service oriented industries, and I can see where this expands into scoring of customers to know who is more valuable in providing feedback or who is going to give a marketer real earned media value.  I also see the future where brands can leverage these touch points to build true online relationships with their customers and other online influencers, which could revolutionize the way these service industries operate.

Forrester Research just released an interesting report on hotel industry websites that damns virtually the entire industry as ante-diluvian in its approach to web marketing. The research giant reviewed the content and functionality of the four largest four-star hotel brandwebsites: Hilton Hotels + Resorts, Hyatt, Marriott, Hotels + Resorts, and Sheraton Hotels + Resorts. Though this report doesn't bode well for the industry as a whole, I think the signs are there that they are trying.  The report also taps into the idea that I am seeing around reviews being key to the conversational marketing strategy of the travel industry.

I am proud of the Hilton brand for investing in the social media channel and taking the risks to let it all hang out, and engaging in open and honest word of mouth marketing.  Though, as someone that has been in the space for years, and used to advise major Fortune 1,000 companies on why they should be using the internet for these types of investments and especially investing in earned media marketing and influencer marketing, I do recognize how hard it is to take risks within a large corporation today.

I am very confident that social outlets like Yelp will continue to grow and become more and more a part of the daily zeitgeist of our communities, the real question is how much will marketers embrace these changes versus fighting them, because we all know what happens when you try and fight the change.

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