NB: This is a guest article from Aaron Zwas, director of emerging technologies, Digital Marketing Works.
The recent paper from Cornell's Center for Hospitality Research has garnered much attention in our industry because it demonstrates for the first time, with hard numbers, the positive impact of online reviews upon hotel performance.
In case you missed it, Tnooz node Josiah Mackenzie shared a great summary of that paper when it first came out a few weeks ago.
The study does a great job in demonstrating why a hotel needs to optimize its online reputation, but does not (understandably) focus on how to do it.
At DMW, we have been “review evangelists” since early 2010. Based on our hands-on experience with a variety of clients since then, we have developed strategies that comprise our Review Optimization Program. This playbook drives more reviews of better quality and describes what to do with them. In effect, it is the "how to do it" to compliment the Cornell study's "why you need it".
I won't be sharing everything today, but I would like to share some of the fundamentals of this program.
- What's Next?
This should not come as a surprise, but we have found that the best way to obtain more reviews is to simply ask for them. Quantitative studies with our clients show that one of the most effective ways to generate reviews is to arm employees with business cards that ask guests to "share your review". This method generates more reviews than posters, table tents, stickers, buttons, and almost everything else that we tested combined.
The cards should be handed out judiciously, without any pressure being placed on the guest. From an operational point of view, be careful to ensure that a single guest isn't being bombarded by multiple employees with review requests. Depending on your clientele, also consider adding a QR code to the card so that it is easier for mobile users to write a review.
There are no shortage of articles in the hospitality space regarding best practices for responding to reviews, but most of it boils down to this: respond to all of the negative ones, a few of the positive ones, and none of the average ones. But how does this behavior affect our Review KPIs, and especially the quantity of new reviews being written?
In another data-driven study we conducted, our analysis revealed these very actionable findings: Responding an "appropriate" percentage of the time can lift the quantity of incoming reviews by up to 35%. We also learned, however, that responding too often can have a noticeably less beneficial effect.
Why is this? Can hotels really over-respond to reviews? We don't tend to think of it in these terms, but the review page for a given property on, say TripAdvisor, is a social space in its own way, an asynchronous meeting room, of sorts. If the host of the party (the hotel) is crowding out the conversation with a lot of jabber, it appears to turn people off from participating in the conversation, with the end result of guests writing fewer reviews.
Note: Our tests were conducted with North American hotels. Cultural preferences might influence best practices elsewhere.
As Professor Anderson demonstrated, reviews matter! In fact, they matter so much that guests will leave your website for TripAdvisor or an OTA if they can't read objective reviews there. Will those guests return to your site to make a reservation? For a variety of reasons, some will and some won't. This is one reason why it is so important to have third party reviews on your own website. The other is related to cost per acquisition.
It is important to understand that the performance benefits described by Professor Anderson do not account for the share of revenue that will be taken by the review sites and OTAs where guests are reading reviews and often making their reservations. The best strategy is to publish those same third party reviews on your site with tools like Revinate's Social Buzz. This practice helps keep potential guests on your site, with the results of driving up conversion rates, paying much smaller acquisition fees, gaining additional newsletter signups, and more.
Some hoteliers who already engage in this practice make the mistake of cherry picking only the best reviews for their site. DMW advises that hotels enable an almost unfiltered stream of reviews -including the good, bad and ugly, to be published onsite for the following reasons:
- Remember that bad reviews legitimize the good ones. Especially important when you consider that brands are among the least credible sources of information in consumers' eyes.
- Operationally, it requires much less manpower to enable an unfiltered stream of reviews vs. seeking out good ones to publish manually. An unfiltered stream also keeps the content fresh.
- The knowledge that negative reviews could appear on its own website is a great motivator for improving an organization's operations and guest satisfaction in general.
The only metrics that matter for reviews are compset index scores. Use them for measuring the quality, quantity, and recency of reviews. It is important to use a compset index because it puts your scores in perspective of the hotels down the block. Eg: did you gain a lot of new reviews this week because a big football playoff game was in town? That's good news, but your competition probably did too, thereby negating much of the positive optimization effects you would otherwise have gained.
Improving these metrics vs your compset is the collective key to optimizing your hotel for organic search in Google and for any OTA or review site where your hotel is listed.
I hope this article provides some great tactical advice for hoteliers (and agencies) in hospitality. Our industry continues to change quickly, however. Here's where I predict things are headed:
Hosted Reviews: Despite all of the benefits of positive reputation on TripAdvisor and the OTAs, all of these reviews point to the OTA sites and compete with your own website for favorable rankings in organic search results. Hosted reviews, like those offered by Customer Alliance, live on your servers and drive SEO value back to your website.
Strategies are evolving to incorporate a mix of hosted reviews (which drive best organic SEO) and 3rd party reviews (which have a larger audience and lend greater impartiality and authenticity).
Per-venue reviews: Resorts have an opportunity to offer more utility to their guests and to achieve higher levels of organic search optimization by establishing review optimization programs for each venue/activity/area on their campuses. Akin to Google's new concept of Indoor Maps, expect this sub-level of detail to begin to appear in various resorts, amusement parks, college campuses, and more.
Personalized Reviews: Third party reviews are a great way to help determine the quality of a service or product, but, sometimes, quality is in the eye of the beholder. Eg: A top-tier steakhouse that gets five stars from David, a 50 year old sales exec, would probably not rank nearly so high with Emily, a 20 year old vegan undergrad.
On the horizon are personalized reviews that allow us to find feedback written by people “like us”. When this does go mainstream, hotels will be further challenged to be sure that their messaging (and reputation scores) lines up with each of these known audiences. The reward, however, will be higher conversion rates for the audiences they get right.
Whatever may come next, taking time now to develop best practices will pay long-term benefits. Regardless of the platform, device, or audience, understanding how to drive an abundance of high quality reviews will always serve you and your hotel well.
NB: This is a guest article from Aaron Zwas, director of emerging technologies, Digital Marketing Works
NB2: Thumbs up image via Shutterstock