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Social Media 2016: What Hotels Need to Know Now

This article previously appeared in Hotel Business Review on Feb. 1, 2016. HotelExecutive.com retains the copyright.

Social media continues to be akin to a wild rollercoaster ride with new developments around every curve. Yesterday’s top influencer may find itself on a steep decline with upstarts becoming mainstream in a moment. For the uninitiated—or those with a day job that differs—it can be overwhelming. But to those of us in the business of connecting B to C, it’s exhilarating and ever stimulating. Here’s an overview of some of what’s happening now on the social media landscape—developments that hoteliers may want to consider as part of marketing strategy. Opportunities abound to connect with—and surprise and delight—guests and to attract new ones. On the surface, it’s all about creating relevant content that resonates with travelers. But a deeper look into analytics can uncover new strategies and approaches to connect, engage and turn prospects into customers. Before we look at some trends, let me offer the disclaimer that the few weeks’ lag time between the writing of this article and its publication may have produced even more to think about for 2016. Let’s take a look.

It’s All Integrated

Remember when the world of hotel marketing regarded social media as distinct from other marketing tools? You may have identified a need in the early days of social media to seek out a specialist—perhaps an agency that had been in business less than a year, sporting a clever name, and no staff member over the age of 25. Early social media was treated as a special endeavor distinct from other marketing—something that required a separate strategy and tactics against it. Many in hospitality went into it warily, straining to understand the phenomenon and wondering, first and foremost, how they might monetize the effort.

Gradually, the real power of social media surfaced. People began understanding how social media channels allow brands to 1) connect directly with guests and potential clientele, and 2) reach social media-based influencers. The latter category is composed of certain bloggers and, more recently, people who have large social “graphs” or followings in a particular category. Influencers have the power and potential to become brand advocates, speaking peer-to-peer with fans and followers who trust their opinions and, in many instances, are more than happy to do as they say. It is word-of-mouth marketing amplified online.

As early social media policy gave way to broader use, hoteliers began to experiment with direct engagement with guests, using this medium to foster positive interaction, answer customer service questions, and launch social media-only promotions and sweepstakes to spark consumer excitement and create new opportunities for engagement on these channels.

This very public type of forum may still seem like risky business to those entrenched in the control-safe environments of traditional advertising and direct mail. Those of us in marketing who earned our chops in public relations were raised on the notion of crafting and articulating brand messaging and then releasing it to editorial professionals who would receive it, evaluate it, pick it over, massage it and make it their own to provide for their readers and viewers what is now more commonly referred to as “curated content.”

Accepting social media into the fold of a public relations program was seamless; we simply adjusted messaging conventions to encompass 140 (or so) characters along with brief written and verbal pitches, longer news releases and 1,000+-word bylined articles (like the one you are reading here). The adage “write once, publish everywhere” became a mantra among those of us involved in what became known as “earned media.” As time went on, we started to take a close look at the analytics—not just audience size, but level of engagement—to learn as much as we could about our constituents.

Social media also became an advertising vehicle to create a very targeted campaign to reach not only focused markets but people who fit the demographic perfectly. Using social analytics, you can pinpoint interests, age, geography, income—you name it—and target your message very effectively. This created a new channel to create custom content against a brand’s goals. In social, brands can more naturally take on a personality and entertain, educate or align with people to bring them into their community.

Today, you’ll find brands that exclusively market on social channels, and, more often, those with an integrated marketing strategy that leans on social but involves public relations, events and experiences that combine to create the ultimate recipe for success. Whether handled in-house or using one or more outside resources, integration creates an efficient and effective marketing approach to leverage your content and efforts to achieve success.

Money Talks, Data Drives

At this writing, Facebook and Twitter are, arguably, the top two platforms through which hotels effectively connect with constituents (subject to change as these platforms evolve and user habits shift to new ones), understanding the “marathon versus sprint” comparison of organic to paid growth. While many are still relying on organic growth for fans and followers, an increasing number of hotels are applying advertising dollars, particularly to Facebook, to spur quicker growth. Without it, the typical post is reaching only about two percent of followers. Given the low cost, easy implementation and control, and ability for deep-dive targeting and the instant gratification of meaningful analytics, putting dollars to Facebook advertising is a no-brainer and highly recommended. It is achievable at a fraction of the cost of any other form of advertising and can provide almost immediate results.

The greatest benefits of engaging a hotel with Facebook is for recommendation and reviews. Women top men in Facebook usage by about 10%, according to the most recent report from BI Intelligence (Business Insider) and many studies show that this platform continues to grow among newer (that is, older-age) people entering the social media fray. With mobile apps the preferred access point for many, it’s interesting to note that 44% of Facebook users access their accounts from their phones, according to DMR, another industry resource.

Getting into Facebook advertising is a good first step. From there, the targeting can be continually refined and, as you gather data, you will want to deliver dynamic ads to a microtargeted community containing truly personalized content. In other words, the days of running one ad or content across a large audience are dwindling. And, while small and inexpensive compared to traditional advertising, ad creative needs to be ever more compelling while fitting into the size and specs dictated by the various social media channels.

Bloggers and Instagrammers: The Growth of Pay to Play

The world of blogging has become increasingly sophisticated and influential to the point that many of those with the largest and most engaged followers are seeking pay for play. That’s right. Unlike a journalist who will cover a story that he or she thinks is of interest to readers/viewers—and may even be required to pay a full or media rate for an overnight stay—bloggers are, more often, independent operators who establish their own guidelines, which may evolve as they gain traction. As such, there is a trend toward requiring a stated fee—averaging from $50 to $500 or more—to gain coverage from proven popular bloggers for an angle or event. This goes for certain Instagrammers, too. The good news is that these pay-seekers will take the initiative to let you know and they will establish a verbal or simply stated contract up front so you can evaluate whether such an investment makes sense for the given situation.

Pinterest on the Rise

Given the visual nature of Pinterest, the hospitality industry has the opportunity to engage, inspire and drive potential guests to “buy it now” by linking hotel website offers to a branded Pinterest board, which makes it easy to make a reservation. Unlike attempts by Facebook, which have fallen short of widespread success in this area, Pinterest’s “buy it” nature makes it a place people go to find inspiration, ideas and products, serving as much as a very visual search engine as anything else. While this idea is catching on, there are many within hospitality who have yet to discover the magic of engaging via Pinterest. Give it a look-see and you may find yourself quickly adding this to your marketing toolbox.

Geotagging Instagram

Already very popular among teens and young adults, and like all things social media, aging upward, is the practice of geotagging photos within Instagram. This is ideal for guests wanting to share images and experiences at resorts, hotels and destinations. Increasingly, hospitality entities are getting into the act, geotagging their own photos, “favoriting” guests’ posts and mounting promotions via Instagram. Apart from the time and effort involved in doing it right, Instagram reaches important constituents in a manner and style in which they want to be reached.

By the time you read this article, you’ll notice social media evolving and will likely be reevaluating your hotel’s engagement in this highly dynamic world. To spark your own ideas and to gain inspiration, you need only to go to the Internet to see what peers and competitors are doing in social media. It is a changing thing, indeed, so you may want to get into the habit of monitoring industry activity by adding it to your work calendar or setting up targeted Google Alerts.