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Postcard from Thailand

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I just wrapped TripAdvisor’s Master Classes in Bangkok (at Banyan Tree) and Phuket (at the Moevenpick Spa and Resort Karon Beach).  It was really great to see our customers in both places – I still remember the first client visit I made in 2009 to Thailand – it was at the Moevenpick and I met with the General Manager, Hans Frutiger, and the Director of Sales and Marketing, Craig Fong.  At that time, social media was a seldom talked about topic in hospitality but Hans and Craig were kind enough to give Brand Karma a chance.  They are tied for being the first customer for our analytic tool (the contract for Novotel Clarke Quay in Singapore came in on the same day around Christmas 2008 – the best present we’ve ever gotten!).

Since then we’ve gotten more customers in Thailand – mostly through word-of-mouth in this small and tight-knit community.  Therefore, coming back to Thailand, especially to Bangkok and Phuket, always warms my heart, because of the support we’ve had here, and the great customers we’ve gathered over the last few years.

The Bangkok sessions were packed – I think there were in total over 400 people who attended both the morning and afternoon sessions.  It was interactive, fast-paced, and fun.  Even though I had heard Alvin give the TripAdvisor presentation 4 times in Indonesia, every time I had a new thought bubble and I’d Blackberry my team on the newfound insight.  Siew Hoon – being the energetic and gracious moderator, kept the pace moving and the audience engaged.  Particularly insightful in the Bangkok session was the panel discussion involving Arnaud Girodon (formerly GM of Indigo Pearl, now, GM of the soon-to-be-opened InterContinental in Koh Samui) and Eric Hallin (GM of Rembrandt Hotel in Bangkok).  Both are very forward thinking in their approach on digital and direct booking – and with results to prove it.

The Phuket sessions were also packed.  Both Scot Tune (GM of Paresa) and Michael Nurtbalian (E-Commerce Manager at Indigo Pearl) shared war stories about their forays into social media.  Scot had an incredible ROI case from his investment in TripAdvisor Business Listings, and Michael had an incredible ROI case from his investment in Facebook advertising from last Christmas.  All in all – great learnings.

If the presentations and the panel discussion fed my brain, something that happened in the last session in Phuket moved my heart.

After Alvin finished his 8th (and final) presentation for this series, the questions that came in about some of TripAdvisor’s policies were passionate – much more so than in any other Master Class.  There were a lot of concerns about the policy for fraudulent reviews.

When TripAdvisor explained that the process for detecting fraudulent reviews begins with an algorithm and is then sometimes supplemented with human editors, an attendee responded with, “I didn’t start my business on an algorithm.”

He went on to passionately explain that mistakes are costly because they impact a proprietor’s business in a direct and significant way.  From the back of the room, I saw a lot of people nodding their heads in agreement.

There I was, sitting in the ballroom of my first client, next to the GM who signed our first contract, and in a roomful of my customers.

We began what we had to offer with a set of algorithms; at the time, that’s all we had… but it’s people who have carried us to where we are today.

Thank you Hans, Craig, Simon (from Novotel Clarke Quay in Singapore) for signing a contract with an unknown entity when we first started.

And thank you, Thailand, for reminding me for whom we started Brand Karma for: people, not machines.

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Postcard from Indonesia

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I had the pleasure of presenting at the inaugural Asia-Pacific TripAdvisor Master Classes in Jakarta and Bali with Alvin Ch’ng, Commercial Director APAC for TripAdvisor, and Siew-Hoon Yeoh, Producer of Web In Travel (WIT).  We did 2 classes per day per location, and along with local hoteliers like Susanna Yong from Shangri-La Jakarta and Kevin Girard from the Conrad Bali, managed to share a lot about what we were seeing and what some hoteliers were doing to get ready for the digital marketing wave.

When I arrived in Bali, I had a few hours to kill, so I decided to hop in a cab and go to Tanah Lot.  This is one of seven sea temples along the south-west coast line.  There’s another one within walking distanced called Pura Batu Balong which I also visited.  As we’ve been expanding rapidly this year, it had been a while since I took anytime out for myself at all, so the few hour break was a much needed “work snack.”

On the perch of one of the cliffs I watched waves come in from afar.  When I visit my resort clients, I’m so used to going to their beaches to see the waves coming at eye level, the new perspective at Tanah Lot from a great height above was both refreshing and revealing.

Waves begin their formation miles from shore.  As they move closer, they either gain momentum and become larger to form white cap curls that surfers love to sneak under for a ride or they fizzle out and go flat.  The rate at which the waves come in, whether they become a curl or not, is consistent, persistent, and fast.  Who says nature moves at a slow speed?  I used to be a lifeguard, but I can imagine how overwhelming (and scary) slow swimmers must feel when they get pounded by unrelenting waves.

And it was with this realization that I understood how brand managers must be feeling with all this new digital stuff coming at them.  New digital stuff pops up constantly; some end up becoming powerful waves (like Facebook), others fizzle out (like interactive TV).  Some surprise you because they break the old patterns (like touch device — remember the tablet PC or Apple’s Newton?), some are highly anticipated but end up failures (like MySpace, Google Buzz).  What tool do you pick when things are constantly changing, and you can get swallowed up at anytime and end up with sand up your nostrils?

The answer lies in who you are.  Just like it really doesn’t matter what swim trunks you wear or what surf board you have if you know how to swim and surf, brand managers who know how to market will ride the wave of meaningful waves and skip the ones that fizzle out.  Will they make mistakes?  Absolutely.  But on average, the good ones survive, just like good surfers get good waves most (but not all) of the time.  And like people learning how to surf, as brand managers get better at marketing, they’ll be able to ride larger waves, experience thrills, and earn bragging rights that no one else can.

An invisible hand has been guiding me, Mario, George, and the rest of the company in this direction already. This started after the Brand Karma party at WIT last year, which showed us that in addition to the Brand Karma tools, the company, as a group of people, had something else valuable to give.  The question we’ve been wrestling with has been how to communicate that, make it actionable, as well as make it scalable.  So we’ve been purposefully quiet since then, trying to organize ourselves to grow into this new shell after much soul searching.

We had planned to launch our new initiative starting in August, and Bali, being the last speaking engagement for me in July, serendipitously gave me a vivid metaphor of the challenges our customers face, and reaffirmed my belief that we’re moving in the right direction.

Thank you, Bali.

Is Social Media David or the Emperor (Part II)?

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The following is a continuation of a post that discussed whether social media is the Emperor without clothes or David in David v. Goliath.  This post focuses on brand engagement in social channels.

One of the questions I often get asked is, “How can I use social networks like Facebook and Twitter for my brand?”

And while they teach us in school not to answer a question with a question, I inevitably always do.

“What are you trying to accomplish?” is my usual reply.

Before you engage in social anything, you should have a good answer to this question.  Are you trying to increase brand awareness?  Extend your brand experience online? Attract influencers? Create an alternative communication channel? Obtain lifestyle information to incorporate into your CRM? Make a few sales?  None of the above, some of the above, or…  all of the above?

What, exactly, does success look like?  This is step 1 and the one question that you must answer.

There is no simple answer to the question, “How can I use social networks for my brand?” because a good answer involves your overall brand strategy.  Without proper planning, throwing up a fan page or a micro-blog, in any language, is a one-way road to zero in terms of impact. Facebook, Kaixin001, RenRen, Twitter, Weibo, YouTube, YouKu, etc. — all of the popular social services that have millions of users — are littered with failed attempts by brands trying to authentically join consumer conversations without a clear plan as to how.  Social networks, and the user-generated content each network’s members produce, are not cubs but lions of brand communications.  This is a serious medium, and one that should not be handed over to a junior intern unless you want to deal with the consequences (see Marc Jacobs’ recent situation for what could happen).

Facebook is Like Big Bang

Digital social engagement is new human behavior, and not everyone likes it.  Also, we’re adapting to the variables of this medium at the same time the medium is being formed and changing.  In a way, Facebook is really like the Big Bang — and its resulting universe is still volatile and changing.  However, like the laws of physics that govern our offline universe, it is the rules of human relationships that provide valuable insights on how brands can engage within the online (or social) universe.

To have a better chance at engaging successfully, I recommend understanding the 5 development stages in interpersonal relationships.  According to Wikipedia, these are:

  1. Acquaintance – Becoming acquainted depends on previous relationships, physical proximity, first impressions, and a variety of other factors.  If two people begin to like each other, continued interactions may lead to the next stage, but acquaintance can continue indefinitely.
  2. Buildup – During this stage, people begin to trust and care about each other.  The need for intimacy, compatibility and such filtering agents as common background and goals will influence whether or not interaction continues.
  3. Continuation – This stage follows a mutual commitment to a long-term friendship, romantic relationship, or marriage. It is generally a long, relative stable period.  Nevertheless, continued growth and development will occur during this time.  Mutual trust is important for sustaining the relationship.
  4. Deterioration – Not all relationships deteriorate, but those that do tend to show signs of trouble.  Boredom, resentment, and dissatisfaction may occur, and individuals may communicate less and avoid self-disclosure.  Loss of trust and betrayals may take place as the downward spiral continues, eventually ending the relationship.  (Alternately, the participants may find some way to resolve the problems and reestablish trust.)
  5. Termination – The final stage marks the end of the relationship, either by death in the case of a healthy relationship, or by separation.

While the stages in this model were first developed to describe adult, romantic relationships, then later applied to other relationships, sociologists have found applicability of this model to consumer-brand relationships.  Social networks have accelerated the understanding of this model because the evidences of these relationships can more or less be easily seen… and over many many relationships, which, by the way, is another reason why understanding social media about your brand is critical.  Not doing so is tantamount to not ever listening to the compliments or complaints of your friend/spouse/co-worker/parent/child/teacher/etc.

Back to engagement: understanding stages 1-3 is critical for every brand manager in order to avoid stages 4-5.  Note that “selling as a hidden agenda” is a quick way to get to stage 4 — either because the other party feels bored by the constant hawking or betrayed from an abuse of trust.

So what are the social network manifestations of stages 1-3?

In the Acquaintance stage — it’s important to establish a positive first impression.  So — you should think, where will people get their first impression, and how positive will that impression be?  Here, you’ve got a paradigm shift.  Whereas in most of the 20th century the ‘where’ and ‘how positive’ first impressions could be largely controlled by a (very good) advertising agency and a (very good) PR agency — that’s no longer the case.  Nowadays, in addition to the controllable sources, the first impression people have of your brand can, and most likely will, come from 1) snippets in organic Google search results (from sites that have user reviews like TripAdvisor) or 2) fan likes/posts/comments on walls.  If you want the maximum prospects, pay attention to the non-traditional sources and make sure you’re making a good impression.

A slight aside — it is completely possible that you have the best brand but no one knows about it.  So one way in which you could gain more acquaintance is through advertising.  In this way — any type of online advertising will do.  Banner, PPC, SEM, social advertising, etc.  Each of them have their own strengths and weaknesses.  For social advertising — if the goal is to gain more acquaintances — then you should make sure you clearly identify whom you want to be acquainted with.  Ideally, the whom should look pretty close to the profile of your ideal customers — i.e. the ones that are going to be most satisfied with your service AND also allow you to declare success if you get the chance to have a relationship with them.  This means that it’s just as important for you to define whom you won’t target (i.e. the type of friends that would raise eyebrows if you brought them home to meet your family).

In the Build Up stage — the trust and caring begins for both parties in the relationship.  For brand managers, it’s the make or break stage.

[In Part III, the final part of this series, we’ll look into how brands can make Build Up a successful stage for them, leading to Continuation, and what that means to the bottom line.]

Is Social Media David or the Emperor?

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Recently there have been articles and things said at conferences about social media that question its use in travel.  I think this is a healthy debate and I’m glad that there are skeptics because they keep things honest.  So is social media the emperor with new clothes or is it David in David v. Goliath, where Goliath is the traditional way of doing things?

The main reason I hear from skeptics as to why social media is the emperor with no clothes is because while it’s the hot topic nowadays, it has offered almost nothing in the way of hardcore ROI that many people in the digital space are used to.  And, as a communications channel to engage fans and customers, that road only has a few bright lights.  So it’s tempting to leave social media as a playground for the twentysomethings.  After all, by spending $X dollars on SEM one can consistent get Y bookings, so why not stick with something that’s proven?

Those that are in the David camp thinks that social media is the next big thing — the media to change the way brands connect with consumers; it’s at least an evolution, if not a revolution from the web connections of the 2000s.  Many see the potential in social media’s distribution power, particularly because they feel their own direct bookings have been impacted by positive social media even if the positive social media isn’t always directly linked to their booking engine.  Most often, they’ll cite movements in their TripAdvisor rankings as having a discernible impact on bookings.  They get to this conclusion by talking to their actual guests and asking them where they found out about their brand.  Though I’ve yet to seen a specific model that says (N move upward in Ranking on Tripadvisor) = (+X bookings), hoteliers generally believe there is a connection, however tenuous, between those 2 variables.  The more daring ones then venture out to facilitate the creation of more positive social media by establishing a presence in social networks in the forms of fan pages and tweet accounts, sometimes without their corp management company’s consent… to leverage social media as a resource to possible convert in the future.

What is Social Media ROI?

To figure out whether social media has any validity or not in the way of ROI — let me start by saying that it’s hard to figure out what business you’re actually losing, which makes it hard to come up with the strongest answer.  Did a customer not book because they didn’t discover you, because they didn’t like the review they read about you, because your competitor offered a cheaper price, a combination of all of the above, or some other unknown factor?  Who knows, but I’d say — most of the other factors have been around for a while — and most businesses have figured out a way to deal with the other factors (e.g. awareness, competitive pricing).  However, people reading public reviews about you written by strangers — now that’s a new thing.  Hence it is worth your investment just to see whether bad reviews relative to your comp set is having an impact on your business.  Therefore, the first and most basic rule of social media ROI is: don’t lose business due to bad reviews… put your best foot forward to make sure you have a good showing.  It won’t hurt that whatever improvements you make in response to bad reviews will also make future customers happier for the most part.

Early in Brand Karma’s journey in 2008, we met with someone from the PR team of a famous historic hotel that is well-known.  The hotel already had a lot of reviews, and many were negative for a hotel of this stature — most were complaints of how the service wasn’t worth the history or the high rates.  When I pointed this out, the woman we met nodded, then told me the hotel was really not for people who would write reviews or research reviews online.  Their clienteles were ‘CEOS and Heads of States’ and they don’t necessarily value or want the business of people who would write reviews online.  You can imagine how shocked I was.  In the economic downturn, the hotel was sold.  Of course we never know what exactly happened, but I’ve got to imagine that the previous owner wasn’t too happy with the financial performance.

Was the PR team wrong? No, not necessarily.  It’s within every business’ right to have a target customer base.  But the thinking was incomplete in assuming that CEOs and Heads of States don’t use social media — even then.  Barack Obama, a Head of State, successfully used social media and micro-donations to raise a war chest that helped him become the President of the United States in that same year.  On the other hand, Heads of States who didn’t pay attention to social media until it was too late are failing recently in the Middle East.  As far as CEOs are concerned — I’ve not met one CEO in the last 12 months who isn’t curious about how to make social media work for his/her company.

But perhaps because it’s difficult to measure the business you unintentionally lose, it’s hard to answer the social media ROI question with the strongest numerical answer.  Nonetheless, the most basic thing you can do with social media is to protect your business.  I think it would be foolish for any brand that has a lot of user-generated reviews and posts to ignore what’s being said.  It’s just common sense to pay attention to how your brand is being perceived.  As for brands that don’t have enough user-generated reviews?  You want people to talk about your brand, so you’ve got to figure out how to get your brand into the conversation in a relevant manner.  That’s where using social media as an ‘engagement channel’ part can come into play.

[In Part II of this post, I will discuss more about the effectiveness of social media as an engagement channel]

Written by Morris

March 29, 2011 at 7:23 pm