By Daniel E. Craig, Founder, Reknown
After over a decade of social media in the mainstream, the online reputation management function has reached a maturity level in the hotel industry. As we look to 2017 and beyond, we can draw from past experience to develop our future strategies.
The online reputation management function grew out of the explosive popularity of social media, which connected consumers, gave them a voice, and facilitated the exchange of purchase information and advice at scale. Today, most travelers check out online reviews as part of trip planning, and a hotel’s reputation can significantly impact its ability to attract business.
Social media has elevated the travel experience by obliging hotels to be more transparent and accountable. The old “bait and switch” tradition so common in travel marketing in the past is much riskier today. Hotels that fail to meet the expectations they set for guests face a backlash in bad reviews. Today, it’s about reality marketing: setting realistic expectations.
All types of social media tend to be lumped together, but it’s important to distinguish between online reviews, as found on TripAdvisor, Google, online travel agencies and other travel sites, and content shared on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
As a marketing channel, social networking sites are crowded and inefficient. On Twitter, it feels like everyone is talking and few people are listening. Facebook, having all but shut out brand posts from user news feeds, has become an advertising platform for hotels. Yet these channels can’t be ignored because they are used by travelers as a customer service channel to make inquiries with hotels and share feedback.
Hoteliers are easily distracted by the interactivity and instant gratification of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, whereas online reviews can be raw, bruising and disruptive. It’s easier to disregard or downplay online reviews as extreme, unfairly biased or fraudulent.
But online reviews must be the top priority, serving as both an operational tool for measuring guest satisfaction and guiding improvements and a marketing tool for building awareness and driving demand. Whereas people go to Facebook and Twitter to socialize and catch up on news, they go to Google, OTAs and TripAdvisor to plan trips, where reviews and ratings are listed alongside rates and booking options.
As the costs of online marketing reach an all-time high for hotels, the “earned content” found in online reviews has never been more important to hotels: highly trusted relative to paid advertising, rich in SEO content, and virtually free.
By now most hotels have implemented basic reputation management practices, but many still struggle to maintain close communication and cooperation among interdependent departments. Operations depends on sales and marketing to set realistic expectations, and sales and marketing relies on operations to deliver on these expectations. If there’s a disconnect, reputation suffers.
Things are even more challenging for hotel groups and brands, where there’s often overlap and friction between corporate office and property management. Hotels within a brand are interdependent; member properties are the building blocks of the brand’s reputation, and one poorly performing property can affect the reputation of the entire brand. When all properties work together to strengthen reputation, everyone benefits.
Looking ahead to 2017 and beyond, as hotels face burgeoning threats from OTAs, hotel conglomerates and Airbnb—all of which have massive budgets for marketing and innovation—reputation has never been more critical to success.
While technology and traveler behavior will continue to evolve, the principles of online reputation remain the same. Hotels and brands that build and leverage reputation with a laser focus on quality, service and value will enjoy greater guest loyalty, higher demand and more market share. Hotels that neglect reputation will increasingly have to rely on price to lure guests in.
Eight Key Steps to Managing Online Reputation
Since Reknown pioneered best practices in online reputation management in 2008, we have worked with hundreds of hotels and hotel groups around the world, and the top performers share a similar approach.
Those that excel in online reputation management take a property-wide, brand-wide approach, integrating reviews into daily operations and culture. It’s a process that involves all key stakeholders—on-property, corporate and ownership—and requires leadership that can rise above departmental concerns and short-term thinking, mobilizing all staff toward the common goal of strengthening reputation.
The key components of an effective online reputation management program haven’t changed much in the past ten years. They remain:
- Set Objectives. Establish clear reputation objectives related to ratings, rankings and overall reputation score and a timeline for achieving them. Articulate a clear vision of what you want guests to say about your hotel after they leave, and identify the role employees play in shaping perceptions.
- Identify Strategies. Outline the activities you will undertake to achieve reputation objectives. Instill the importance of reputation in staff and provide them with the knowledge, guidelines, training and empowerment they need to achieve objectives.
- Monitor. Set up alerts, notifications and reputation management tools to track mentions on review sites and social networking sites, including reviews, photos, videos and comments.
- Analyze. Mine reviews for insight into the needs and preferences of guests and key market segments, and use the data to identify patterns, competitive strengths and areas that require attention.
- Take Action. Share feedback with staff and use it as a constructive learning tool. Fix problems, using guest feedback to prioritize investments in staff training, services, amenities and capital upgrades.
- Respond. Respond promptly to feedback when your hotel has something meaningful to add to the conversation, whether to apologize, clarify information or simply thank the guest.
- Measure Performance. Track progress toward achieving reputation objectives over time, and benchmark performance against competitors and hotels within your group and region.
- Recognize and Reward. Motivate staff to achieve objectives by keeping them informed of progress and recognizing and rewarding their achievements.
The original version of this article was published in The Hotel Yearbook 2017: Digital Marketing Edition.