In the first article in this series, we looked at technologies that were important in the past year, and how they might play a big role in the year ahead.
In this article, we’ll be looking specifically at what happened with reviews and customer-created content.
The rise of the review economy
Over the past year, we saw insights from customer reviews increasingly used for more than just reputation management and PR. It was used in all departments of hospitality and travel companies: sales, marketing, operations, quality, revenue, and distribution.
This has led to the emergence of what I call "The Review Economy", an environment where customer feedback plays a central role in all areas of a business.
This effect is partly due to the rapid diversification of customer-created review formats, and also the creation of better analytics that can separate the signal from the noise and reveal insight for action.
In terms of review validity, we’re seeing a shift away from anonymous review sites and toward company-gathered feedback: reviews verified with bookings.
This December, Expedia announced its new Verified Reviews program, which only includes feedback from guests that stayed at a property (review requests are sent in the booking followup email).
"We like to call it the new source of truth, internally," said John Kim, Expedia's senior vice president of global products, in a USAToday interview. "People love the idea that our reviews are verified so you can't randomly leave a review."
Hotel companies are joining this trend as well. In October, Starwood introduced its own rating and reviews program.
Members of the Starwood Preferred Guest program can review the hotels they have stayed at over the past 18 months – if they provide their loyalty program credentials or the reservation confirmation number for their stay.
Un-edited reviews will be posted to the hotel’s website after at least five reviews have been collected. Starwood executives are doing this to encourage guests to engage with the company more and book more repeat stays.
Many of the hotel marketing professionals I’ve spoken with say it’s highly likely other hospitality companies will follow suit and begin collect their own guest reviews. This, and the fact that more reviews are validated by bookings, provides increased assurance to executives that this feedback can be trusted for making management decisions.
But quality data without the right tools to extract meaning from it is useless. Review collection and analysis technology has become much more sophisticated over the past year, and now we’re seeing examples of hotels doing very interesting things with this.
For example, Cristina Mulet and her team at Sol Melia Hotels do a great job of taking insights from their customers on the social web and using them for product improvement, quality management, and revenue optimization.
Diego Sartori and his team at CitizenM Hotelsdo something similar, taking online review feedback into consideration for each new property they open. And on the individual property level, Ricardo Samaan at Olivia Plaza used this approach to improve the quality of their breakfast.
In order to use customer feedback to consistently improve product quality and business performance, semantic analysis of online reviews is very helpful to identify major issues that need to be resolved.
Specific, department-level reporting for each manager is critical, as is a workflow system to manage the whole product improvement process. It requires a culture of using guest feedback to guide improvement. Co-creating with customers helps hotel and travel brands build loyalty and create a product that better fits market needs.
Semantic technologies made sentiment analysis a lot smarter
Valyn Perini wrote about the opportunities semantic technology will provide consumers in her Tnooz article this week, but there is also a powerful opportunity for using semantic analysis to understand sentiment from online customer feedback (as Martin Soler and I wrote about back in September 2011).
It’s providing travel executives with valuable insight in how to improve both their business operations and marketing communications, by instantly revealing exactly what guests like and don’t like about the business.
Here’s an example semantic analysis report from a popular New York City hotel:
As you can see, quality, location, views, and the bar are all parts of this hotels’ experience that guests talk about positively. These elements should be present in all marketing communications and mentioned over and over again in the advertising copy.
Meanwhile, we can see that price is something that comes up as negative. This typically happens when the hotel is giving the impression of having great value, but guests do not perceive it that way.
This hotel could increase the effectiveness of their communications by focusing on promoting these elements guests appreciate most, and guide the customer perception of the hotel before the booking.
Promoting these attributes of the hotel through advertising will likely lead to an even better online reputation, since it will help attract guests that appreciate what the business does best.
Short-form and mobile-based reviews dramatically increased in popularity
While written reviews began as the standard in travel planning websites, the rapid rise of social networking and mobile communications has lead to short-format and mobile reviews becoming increasingly important.
I’m increasingly finding myself hesitant to write a long text review of a hotel or restaurant - I simply don’t have time.
But it is very easy to send out a tweet or check-in on Foursquare to leave a tip for my network there while I’m waiting for something. I suspect I’m not alone.
The quickly growing popularity of mobile-based social networking combined with time-starved travelers makes it likely to be even more important in the year ahead.
For companies using the social web for service or reputation management, it’s critical to focus on these types of feedback. And given the real-time nature of the web, response time is critical.
But when looking at all of the tweets and social networking content in aggregate, hotel executives are also extracting valuable operational and marketing insight.
While it’s clear these individual pieces of feedback play an important role in customer service and reputation management, all this data together provides a rich source of business, market, and customer intelligence.
Reviews and social played a bigger role in search visibility
Generating business from the web is often very dependent on how easy your business is to find. Do you appear on the radar of travelers planning a trip to your destination?
For many consumers, search engines are the first stop on this travel planning process. Google research found that on average, every travel purchase is preceded by 2.5 hours of research time and dozens of unique queries.
This has been true for a while. What’s new is that now social activities affect search rankings and search content.
Building visibility and authority in social networks provides a benefit beyond that site…and into search results pages.
While many in the search marketing industry have guessed this for some time, last year we clearly saw social media affecting search engine results pages.
Bing integrated Facebook data as a way to personalize search results based on someone’s social network – such as links or content that friends have Liked. When a person’s friends have not shared any content related to a search, Bing will prioritize content that is popular with the Facebook community at large.
And while Google has been experimenting with social search for quite some time, this week it introduced a whole new approach to including social content – initially from Google Plus – in results pages.
Danny Sullivan of SearchEngineLand called this the "most radical transformation ever" of the Google algorithm in his detailed overview of the changes. On TechCrunch, Jason Kincaid explained why he thinks there are bigger changes afoot:
"This may not sound like a huge deal, but it’s foreshadowing a bigger change to come: Google is going to increasingly become a search engine for all of your stuff....
"The key, [product director Jack Menzel] says, is that Google is getting a lot better at figuring out when to incorporate this socially relevant data. They’re focusing on showing content not simply because your friend shared it — but because it might actually be helpful."
So both search positioning formulas and the very content showing up in those search results pages is changing based on activity in the social web.
Why exactly is search engine visibility important?
As mentioned above, web search plays a central role in the travel planning and purchase process. Each of these searches is an opportunity to introduce your brand….if people see your website. A few statistics from Hubspot to remember about the importance of ranking well in search results pages:
- The top 3 results get 79% of the total clicks
- Only 3% of searchers go beyond the first page of results pages
Clearly, your placement in search results plays a disproportionate role in website traffic they will receive. If your websites are not near the top of page one of a search results page, the website is practically invisible to potential guests.
The key takeaway here is to invest in building your social media presence and cultivating as many online customer reviews as you can to increase your ranking and drive more website traffic.
Encourage customers to review you on Google Places and any other review websites they participate in. Also, make it easy for people to share content about your hotels on the social web.
From Google Plus to Pinterest, people are looking for material to post – so make this easy for them.
In the next and final part of this series, we’ll look at international marketing, location-based services, branding, and other big-picture ideas.
NB:Image via Shutterstock.