For hotels, the first priority in online marketing is to make sure travelers find you when planning trips. That’s become increasingly challenging in the realm of paid search, where online travel agencies, big brands and now Google Hotel Finder dominate results, driving costs up and organic results down.
Why even try to compete? Instead, shift resources to where you’ll get a bigger bang for your buck: owned and earned media.
Paid vs. Owned and Earned Media
Whereas paid media is purchased content like cost-per-click and display advertising, owned media is content you own on platforms you control: your website, social profiles and listings on third-party sites like TripAdvisor, Google Places and OTAs.
Earned media is user-generated content (UGC), or content your guests and other third parties post about your business. It includes reviews and ratings, blogs, media articles, photos, videos and social endorsements like pluses, shares and likes.
Unlike paid and owned media, you can’t control earned media, but it’s more influential because consumers trust the opinions of other consumers more than any other advertising source. (Nielsen’s Global Trust in Advertising survey, 2012).
Plus it’s free. Well, almost. To maximize reach and impact you must incorporate earned media into marketing strategy.
But first, how to generate earned media? Above all, it’s cultivated on property, in that fertile ground between guest expectations and results. Simply put, pleasant surprises generate positive reviews, social endorsements and visual content sharing. Then it’s a matter of leveraging the power of this content on the social Web.
Search Meets Social
Online we have two primary audiences: travelers and algorithms. Google, Yahoo and Bing run on algorithms, as do Facebook and TripAdvisor. They decide how content is displayed based on ingredients like relevancy, quality and importance.
Increasingly, the type of content that influences travelers also influences algorithms. This includes fresh, local content and “social signals” that a business is popular and relevant. Social signals are essentially earned media.
The integration of search and social is everywhere. TripAdvisor was an innovator with its Facebook integration, and Yelp offers a similar feature. Facebook friend activity is layered into Bing search, and Google+ activity into Google search. Most recently, Facebook’s Graph Search allows users to search within a walled garden of friend activity and interests.
The Social Website
Don’t let Facebook and Twitter distract you too much; your website remains the primary platform for promoting your hotel online. But to maximize effectiveness it must become a living, breathing, social entity that integrates fresh, local content with user and expert content. In addition to social icons and widgets, many brands now feature a review feed on their website. Why compromise this last bastion of control with raw, unedited guest feedback? Because it increases conversions—even when reviews are less than glowing. Travelers aren’t seeking perfection, they’re seeking the truth. And if they can’t find it on your website they’ll look elsewhere.
It’s not just the quality of reviews that’s important. Travelers and algorithms, including TripAdvisor’s popularity index, lend greater weight to a high volume of recent reviews. This has ignited an arms race in the hotel industry to stockpile reviews.
And don’t overlook the other type of earned media travel planners seek: expert content. Post or link to the latest media articles and blog posts that mention your hotel, and include travel journalists, bloggers and influencers in social networking activity.
To please algorithms and travelers, your website must be user-friendly and well designed, with high quality, optimized content and lots of visuals. To take it to the next level, post fresh content regularly that answers questions travelers have before and during trips, whether searching by desktop, smart phone or tablet.
This includes information about local activities, businesses, restaurants and current events, such as a list of top ten things to do in your destination in May. Add social plugins to encourage sharing.
Publishing helpful information indirectly related to your business is called utility marketing. It’s the next generation of content marketing, with benefits to SEO and guest satisfaction. (Check out Avinash Kaushik’s blog.).
Done well, a blog is a great platform for utility marketing. Check out the Chaa Creek Lodge in Belize, Sands Beach Resort in Canary Islands and Thompson Hotels. For a social website on steroids check out Whistler Blackcomb’s The Movement.
This isn’t to say that paid media is a waste of money. Paid media can amplify owned and earned media—and vice versa. According to Altimeter Group, the future is converged media.
“Welcome to the empowered buyer: a savvy and dynamic customer, armed with information, multiple options, and devices, and backed up by an ever-expanding network of peers and references,” say Rebecca Lieb and Jeremiah Owyang. “Marketers who fail to learn to reconcile paid, owned, and earned media today will be at a distinct disadvantage in the future.” (The Converged Media Imperative, 2012).
An example of converged media: a hotel introduces and a new eco-friendly package with a contest and promotes in on its website and Twitter feed (owned media), advertises it on Facebook (paid media), and invites fans to share contest details and photos with their social networks (earned media).
Do content integration well and deliver on your promises, and on the next visit your guests may skip search entirely and go straight to rebooking your hotel.