Interview with Max Starkov, President & CEO of HeBS Digital, on the hot topic of the emerging role of the community manager in hospitality.
Masha Polshinskaya, Senior Project Manager – Hospitality Worldwide, Cleverdis: There has been much discussion about the need for social media to be managed at the property level by a new breed of employee focused solely on social media. How would you define the role of such a “community manager” at the hotel?
Max Starkov: Social media is a customer engagement channel and a customer-service channel, and not a distribution channel. The role of the social media marketer is already evolving to better reflect the hard-learned realization of the role social media should play in travel and hospitality. The “owner” of the hotel social media profiles—the one who manages and is responsible of posting, monitoring and reacting to customer comments—is also evolving and is being transitioned from outside social media agencies and PR agencies to property-based social marketing coordinators and community managers.
The customer engagement side of social media at the hotel means branding and marketing engagements and requires involvement by the hotel sales and marketing team and perhaps an outside PR or digital marketing agency. The customer service side of social media requires the services of a new type of social media-savvy employee or a team of employees who are able to monitor and react to customer service-related social media engagements 24/7. In other words: I see a dual role at the property:
- One that is more branding and marketing engagement-focused and could be handled by someone within regular business hours
- One that is strictly customer service-related and should monitor social media and customer review postings 24/7
In addition, I have noticed that the industry does not make a clear distinction between the two media formats in question here: social media and customer reviews. Even though they both fall into the realm of user-generated media, there are clear distinctions between the two.
There is no doubt that social media has changed how travel consumers research and plan travel, access travel information, and perceive credibility of information. Internet users are increasingly influenced by social networks and peer reviews. By utilizing a comprehensive social media strategy, hoteliers can create social media “buzz,” target receptive audiences, and stimulate hotel website visits, interactions and bookings, as well as instantaneously resolve arising customer service issues.
We see more and more hotel customers using the hotel Facebook wall or Twitter profile to communicate their customer service frustrations, in many cases in real time: “There is no hot water in my room!” or “The lights are out in the bathroom,” etc. In other words, there is a convergence of customer reviews and social media, which exacerbates the situation even further and creates the need for hoteliers to monitor their social media profiles and customer review sites in a 24/7 fashion.
Traditionally, customer reviews on TripAdvisor, the OTA sites and more recently on major hotel brand websites have been reactive i.e. post-stay. Lately, we see more and more “real-time” reviews where customers are posting reviews during their hotel stays, especially disgruntled guests. All of this necessitates the 24/7 monitoring and reacting to customer reviews, especially negative ones, which should be addressed and resolved as soon as possible.
Cleverdis: Why is social media not a distribution channel? Many hospitality marketers would claim otherwise.
Starkov: In my view, hoteliers that are still trying to use social media as a distribution channel are the ones trying to find some kind of meaningful ROI to justify their efforts. Smart hoteliers understand that social media is not a distribution channel in hospitality and therefore use a different set of metrics to gauge success. Despite the monumental efforts by many hotel marketers in the past five years to use social media as a “new and revolutionary” distribution channel in hospitality and travel, they all failed miserably. Today the social scene is littered with the abandoned corpses of hotel and other travel-related profiles.
Why? Because a distribution channel is primarily a one-way street: the owner or aggregator of travel inventory/information pushes inventory/information through distribution channels which have been accepted by interested parties such as the traveling public, travel agents, group planners, etc. These distribution channels have been incorporated in travel planning technology and marketing solutions like GDS, travel supplier sites, OTA sites, etc.
Social media is not a one-way street. It is a multi-street maze of peer-to-peer, marketer-consumer and consumer-marketer engagements and relationships.
In other words, in travel and hospitality, social media is a customer engagement channel and a customer service channel, not a distribution channel. Hoteliers should use the same performance indicators they apply to customer service and branding initiatives.
Cleverdis: What would your social media strategy be for 2013?
Starkov: I would do everything possible to bring social media management and customer review monitoring in-house and at the property level. I would create internal social media management and customer review monitoring processes, preferably in the following manner:
Social Media Profiles on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.:
Services provided by an outside agency
I would hire an outside agency to provide best practices and train my staff with quarterly guidelines and concrete ideas regarding social media postings, contests, sweepstakes, etc. This agency would perform quarterly audits of my hotels’ management of social media profiles and provide recommendations. This company would be in charge of designing and implementing all of the digital technology tasks: Facebook custom tabs, Facebook sweepstakes, reveal tabs and promotions, Twitter backgrounds, YouTube Channel customizations, etc.
Services I would retain in-house:
- Customer engagement side of social media – For the ongoing management of the social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, etc. I would appoint a designated marketing coordinator/community manager to work as part of the Sales & Marketing Department. This community manager would monitor customer posts, manage customer engagements, post branding and marketing messages and handle questions and reviews by customers via the social media profiles during regular business hours. Any customer-related issue outside of business hours should be referred to the customer service team at the property.
- Customer service side of social media – This would include monitoring and reacting to customer service-related comments, issues and complaints. Hotel employees from the client-facing staff, including designated reception/front desk managers and clerks would be in chare of these services. The goal is to have a person monitoring customer service issues during each shift, thus ensuring 24/7 “social media” support. Once again, the 24/7 social media monitoring applies only to customer service issues that require urgent attention and immediate resolution.
Monitoring customer reviews should be handled at the property and not by an outside agency and should be assigned to different teams similar to the social media management strategy. During business hours, this could be a marketing coordinator/community manager and after hours, specially-trained members of the front desk servicing teams (including designated reception/front desk managers and clerks).
Utilizing reputation-monitoring tools like Revinate and ReviewPro is highly recommended for efficiencies, breadth of review sites, and monitoring the comp set.
Cleverdis: What social media platform would you spend the most time on in 2013?
Starkov: To be successful in the social space you cannot focus on just one social channel. In any multichannel marketing strategy, it is important to focus your efforts across all social channels that are incorporated into your marketing mix.
In 2013 I would make sure that my property presence is optimized to the max and I am doing everything possible on the following social media platforms:
- Facebook: for brand building and deep customer engagement
- Twitter: for instant communications with customers and as a customer sentiment “listening tool”
- Google+: as an up-and-coming social network; at a minimum create and optimize the hotel profile
Updating your social channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ with fresh content daily harnesses the power of a successful social media strategy. The whole of these efforts is exponentially greater and more valuable than the sum of its parts.
Cleverdis: What’s the difference in communicating on Twitter and Facebook?
Starkov: Twitter is an open platform where hoteliers can easily search buzz surrounding their brand and reach out and engage new customers. Twitter is becoming more and more a customer service tool where hoteliers must monitor and handle feedback and requests from guests in real-time. Consider Twitter as an instantaneous communication tool. You can use Twitter in place of a short promotional email. Or in place of an SMS message. At the same time, Twitter is “an early warning system” for service problems at the hotel. Therefore, you need to monitor tweets 24/7.
Facebook is more of a brand relationship tool for fostering customer loyalty and building a robust community of fans. Prompting fans to share photos and experiences is key in building a strong brand community and virally promoting the property in the Newsfeed. Consider Facebook as an extension to your property website, a platform which adds an interactive capability to your customer engagement strategy. Unlike the predominantly static hotel website, Facebook allows two-way conversations (marketer-customer and customer-marketer) as well as peer-to-peer engagements. Example, having one or more “brand ambassadors” among your Facebook fans goes a long way in promoting your hotel and engaging the rest of the fans and building brand equity and loyalty.
Cleverdis: What other social media would you use?
Starkov: In this age of rich media and exploding video format, I would spend the necessary efforts and resources on enhancing and optimizing my property’s YouTube channel and Flickr profile.
I would also create 30- to 60-second videos focusing on various aspects of my hotel product: leisure travellers, meeting planners, wedding planners, family travellers, spa, etc. and use those for the hotel website, YouTube channel, Google+ Local and Bing local listings, as well as for MMS promotions.
The search benefits of Google+ are becoming vital in an SEO online strategy. The power of Google+ results in Google organic search cannot be ignored, and this growing presence in search results are turning the heads of social networks such as Twitter who used to own social search result listings.
Another social platform hoteliers should leverage in 2013 is Foursquare. Foursquare is intrinsic in socially engaging guests on a local level. Offering Foursquare check-in specials for guests is a perfect way to up-sell onsite accommodations such as dining and spa as well as increase viral awareness.
Emerging social networks such as Instagram and Pinterest should also be on hoteliers’ radar.
Cleverdis: What content would you put online? Where can you find it?
Starkov: One of the biggest challenges in our industry is the creation of new, original and engaging content for the hotel website, the hotel blog, email marketing, social media postings, etc.
The 2011 Google Panda Update made most hotel websites and other hotel digital content assets obsolete by introducing very strict requirements for content, interactivity, and page download speeds. The update requires hoteliers to generate engaging and unique website content (as opposed to bland, old and tired content) that would intrigue users and increase the site’s “stickiness.” An even more recent algorithm update by Google now known as the “Freshness” update added a strict requirement that determines how news-worthy and how current the content is on the hotel website, blog, etc.
Social media added an additional complexity to the equation. Social media users dislike pompous over-the-board content. The “official” content – the content that comes from the hotel in the form of website copy, blog articles, Facebook postings, etc. – should be as close to the style and format of the “unofficial” content or the user-generated content. The bigger the gap between the official and unofficial content, the less credible the official content is since people tend to trust their peers more than any official entity.
Hoteliers should be looking into generating good and engaging content for the social media profiles and the hotel website blog using all available sources:
- Hotel Website’s Content Management System (CMS): does your property website CMS have the functionality to automatically push “fresh” content in the form of specials and promotions and the latest events at the hotel or the destination to your Facebook wall, Twitter, mobile site, etc.?
- Good copywriting skills should be a requirement for any community manager/social media marketing coordinator. This should be part of the job description and job requirements.
- Create an internal system within the hotel for sharing “Facebook-worthy” news, happenings, events and activities. Your in-house experts, from famous chefs to popular spa practitioners to wedding coordinators, are your biggest assets. Ask them to share their stories, best practices, case studies and recommendations. From seasonal recipes to “How to…” advice to “Top 10…” lists—all of these constitute valuable content worth publishing.
- PR Agency: your contract with an outside PR agency should also include a Facebook and a blog version of any consumer-focused press release they produce. Such announcements about a hotel promotion, new amenity or service, happening at the hotel, etc. should be shorter and structured as sharing exciting news with your Facebook fans or hotel website blog readers.
Traditionally, hotel websites have been content rich vs. news rich, with descriptions and information featuring and explaining in detail every facet of the hotel business and service, from the bed linens to the capacity of a meeting room. The static content is there, but the “fresh” content or the “original and engaging” content is certainly lacking, and this is the main issue with current hotel websites after the latest Google algorithm updates.
Cleverdis: If you were an independent hotelier and had only 1,000 Euros, what would your online marketing strategy be? Would you use only social media?
Starkov: With only 1,000 Euros I would address social media only if everything on my website was fully optimized and functional. Is your website SEO up to par? Do you have a mobile website? How about a booking engine on both the desktop and mobile sites? Are the calendar of events and activities on the site updated? Do you send monthly email promotions to your customers? Do you have content on the site addressing all of your important and key customer segments? How about landing pages describing all aspects of the hotel product? How about content in foreign languages to address your main foreign feeder markets?
With a low budget, it is important to take full advantage of organic visibility in natural search results. I would begin optimizing all property local listings including Google+ Local, Yahoo Local Directory and Bing Local. I would optimize the TripAdvisor presence and set up free links from online directories and destination sites to the property website to boost Google rankings and your Google PageRank. Once I have optimized my presence across the web, I would take advantage of Google AdWords to launch paid search campaigns – these could be micro-campaigns in selected feeder markets or promoting a concrete hotel special/package.
I would create an internal system to monitor customer reviews about my hotel on all important review and OTA sites, from TripAdvisor to Booking.com to Expedia. I would train my staff how to monitor customer reviews and how to react in each of the following three instances: highly negative, but true reviews; negative, but false, and highly positive reviews. I would create internal guidelines with concrete “owners” of the process and even recommend “official property comments” in each of the above instances.
Then and only then would I start thinking about building a social media presence, starting with the hotel fan page on Facebook, including a custom tab with the hotel logo, photos, descriptive copy, a reservation widget, an email capture widget and call-outs to the hotel website.
Here are some final quick tips for managing a robust social media strategy:
- Fresh content is key to maintaining a Facebook Fan Page community.
- Engagement is the true measure of ROI. Engage fans with open-ended questions, fill-in-the-blanks, and trivia.
- Use Facebook Insights to tailor your Fan Page content. Use the power of social analytics to find out the best time of day to reach the highest number of users and what type of content is receiving the most engagement. Use this insight to shape your strategy.
- Let your fans shape your community. Facebook is a two-way marketing platform, and it is important to make sure you are answering all comments/questions and providing your fans with the content that inspired them to “Like” your page.
- Focus on local engagement. Utilize Facebook Deals to offer check-in specials to guests. Local, social marketing is becoming strategic in resonating with key customer segments.
Blog on the Hotel Website
- Post fresh, unique and engaging blog articles.
- Host blog contests to engage customer segments. Prompt visitors to comment on a blog post to enter to win a prize/free stay.
- Create blog categories that target your key customer segments. Create sections tailored around Travel Tips, Specials & Packages, Dining, and other onsite amenities.
- Link to your Blog in highly visible real-estate on your website homepage to capture more traffic and qualified leads. Promote your blog on social channels such as Facebook, Twitter, etc.
- Link to your blog on your email marketing template, and highlight your latest posts in monthly email marketing pieces.
5 ideas to gain more visibility
- Tag relevant social media pages to gain qualified fans and followers.
- Favorite relevant Fan Pages on Facebook or “List” relevant handles on Twitter to build strategic connections and visibility.
- Post fresh and engaging content for more visibility in newsfeeds.
- Link to social community profiles on your website, email template, and blog.
- Cross promote your social channels.
The “Don’ts” of a community manager
- Don’t ignore your community. Listen. Learn. Respond.
- Don’t neglect your brand. Foster positive buzz, and shape the conversation to align with your persona and branding.
- Don’t tell your community what they want, ask them.
- Don’t be a bore. Engage your community with fun contests, trivia, and more. Remember social media is just that…social.
- Don’t isolate. Integrate your community into the comprehensive marketing mix. No community can grow on an island.
Communicate to bloggers to incite them to talk about your hotel
- Host blogger contests where you prompt them to write about your hotel (linking to your website) in order to be entered to win a free stay.
- Create a Special Package specifically for bloggers where they can stay at the hotel at a discounted price and then blog about the experience.
- Prompt bloggers to write guest articles for the hotel blog to give them a free “plug” (great for reciprocal linking).
- Create an email list targeted specifically to bloggers so you can begin building a brand relationship and prompt them to blog about the hotel regularly. To build this list, you can host a blogger sweepstakes.
- Feature a “Blogger of the Month” section on the hotel website for cross promotion (great for reciprocal linking).
About the Author and HeBS Digital
Max Starkov is President & CEO of HeBS Digital (Hospitality eBusiness Strategies), the hospitality industry’s leading full-service digital marketing and direct online channel strategy firm based in New York City (www.HeBSdigital.com).
HeBS Digital as pioneered many of the best practices in hotel Internet marketing, social and mobile marketing, and direct online channel distribution. The firm has won over 220 prestigious industry awards for its digital marketing and website design services, including numerous Adrian Awards, Davey Awards, W3 Awards, WebAwards, Magellan Awards, Summit International Awards, Interactive Media Awards, IAC Awards, etc.
A diverse client portfolio of top tier major hotel brands, luxury and boutique hotel brands, resorts and casinos, hotel management companies, franchisees and independents, and CVBs are taking advantage of HeBS Digital’s direct online channel strategy and digital marketing expertise. Contact HeBS Digital consultants at (212) 752-8186 or email@example.com.
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