By Daniel Edward Craig

In our most recent ReviewPro webinar, Top Social Media Strategies for 2014, we asked our expert panelists to discuss the latest trends in social media and what hotels should do about them. Here's a recap of our discussion.

Strategy #1: Identify and target social media personas

Hotels often try to be all things to all people in social media, but you'll be more effective if you identify and focus on key target markets. "Traditionally, hotels have broken target markets into categories like corporate, group and FIT and by geography or demographics. But those segments often miss critical questions," said panelist Robert Cole, founder of RockCheetah.

Cole recommended targeting social personas. Identify who they are, what they want and why they stay with you. Give them a name such as "adventurous honeymooners" and write down everything you know about them: income, lifestyle, hometown, needs, etc. "Then identify the services you can provide to give them an incredible, unforgettable time," he said.

Strategy #2: Integrate content

Panelist Suzie Wotton, vice president of marketing at Red Carnation Hotels, recommended integrating three types of content in marketing campaigns to amplify visibility and reach.

Paid content includes cost-per-click, display ads and OTA listings, whereas owned content includes your website, blog, media releases, Facebook page and Twitter feed. For both types of content, you control the messaging-but its influence is limited.

Earned content is what other people say about your hotel. It includes user-generated reviews and imagery, media and blogger coverage, and social endorsements such as "likes," "pluses" and shares. You don't control the messaging, but it has high influence because consumers trust other consumers more than advertising.

"Traditionally, marketers focus on paid and owned content, which often involves 'aspirational' brand messages," Wotton told ReviewPro webinar attendees. "Social media provides an optimum platform for integrating all three types of content. The key is to understand how all three types work together."

As an example, she cited a recent post to Red Carnation Hotels' Facebook page about gift certificates. The post is owned content, controlled by the brand. It received several shares and over 500 likes, which is earned content. The company advertises it as a sponsored post, which is paid content.

All three content types increase reach, but, "It's the earned content in the form of guest comments that authenticates the message," said Wotton. To maximize opportunities, she recommended "creating unique, bite-sized pieces of content that encourage engagement and can easily be shared across multiple channels."

Strategy #3: Make reviews the priority

Review sites must be the priority because people visit them to shop, whereas social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are primarily used for socializing. Moreover, reviews are a valuable resource for guest feedback. That's not to say social networking sites aren't important; they have emerged as important marketing and guest service channels.

Panelist Adele Gutman, vice president of sales, marketing and revenue at Library Hotel Collection, shared the remarkable story of how her four New York boutique hotels climbed the ranks on TripAdvisor's Popularity Index.

"We started out in 2004 with no budget for advertising whatsoever," said Gutman. "When one of our hotels, Hotel Giraffe, reached the top-seven on TripAdvisor, our phones began to ring off the hook." So they set a bold goal: get all four hotels within the top 10. Six years later, they occupied the top four rankings, and today they consistently rank within the top 10. As a result, "the majority of our bookings come direct from our website," she said.

Gutman's advice for achieving similar success? "Start by imagining the kind of reviews you want, and become the hotel that inspires those reviews," she said. "Share your vision with your team. Expect the best and don't settle for less. Give staff the coaching they need, and let them know you're all striving to reach the goal together. Your reward will be the thousands of people who visit your page on TripAdvisor."

Strategy #4: Get social with Google

Google reviews still lack in terms of volume, recency and helpfulness, but their integration with Google products like Search, Maps, Places and Hotel Finder make them an essential part of a hotel's marketing strategy. Once you receive five reviews, your star rating will be displayed in gold.

By now, you should have verified your Google Places listing. To take things to the next level, create a Google+ business page and merge it with your Places listing. Then link it to your YouTube channel.

Referring to The Milestone Hotel's merged page, Wotton said, "This is the perfect example of owned, paid and earned content working together to quickly present the consumer with an informative, localized and socially inspired page with which they can engage at any stage of travel."

Strategy #5: Optimize Facebook for Graph Search

Graph Search turns Facebook into a search engine for friends, and friends have more influence than strangers. The more Facebook users like your page, check in, tag photos, the higher the likelihood you'll show up in searches. You should also optimize your About page much like your website for search engines.

And now that star ratings and review boxes appear on Facebook brand pages, Facebook reviews must become part of your reputation management program.

Strategy #6: Engage guests visually and interactively

"Social visuals are more important than ever," RockCheetah's Cole said. He encouraged hoteliers to use social in creative ways to make the experience "very visual and personal".

As an example, Cole sited Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts' "Pin. Pack. Go" board on Pinterest. The trip planning service allows users to create a board based on an upcoming trip, and local experts will pin recommendations. "It's a remarkably creative and effective use of social technology," said Cole. "It shows how social media can truly be leveraged-not just for broadcasting information."

Remember that social networks are searchable, so tag imagery with your brand name, location and description, and use consistent hashtags across platforms.

Strategy #7: Make your website the social hub

Your website remains the primary platform for promoting your business online. Make it a living, breathing entity by integrating social content.

As an example, Wotton showed Red Carnation Hotels' Get Social page, which features streaming content from various social channels. "This way, all owned, paid and earned sits on brand.com," she said.

Strategy #8: Manage guest expectations

A huge part of success in social media lies in setting realistic expectations. Said Gutman, "At Library Hotel Collection, to minimize negative comments we ensure that descriptions on our website and OTAs are as authentic and honest as possible."

As an example, she cited the "Petite" room category at the Casablanca Hotel. "Is it bad marketing to tell our guests these rooms are small?" she asked. "I don't think so. Why mislead them? If I don't tell them, they will tell everyone. I've disarmed them with a painfully authentic description."

"If there's no view," she said, "we tell them up front there's no view. We'd rather they be happy somewhere else than unhappy at our hotel. This drives brand loyalty. Also, it helps sell the bigger rooms. And it prevents guests from booking wrong room. So everyone's happy."

Gutman also discussed the importance of synergy between operations and the sales and marketing department. "Front desk and all staff are our stars, our secret sauce, who guests will fall in love with and rave about," she said.

Gutman considers it her job to be their advocate, and to make sure that they have the tools and support they need. "Happy, empowered staff create happy, loyal brand ambassadors who give great reviews. This generates far more demand that I could knocking on doors."

Strategy #9: Use social media for service

Red Carnation Hotels dominates the charts on TripAdvisor in London, occupying four of the five top positions of over 1,200 hotels. But managing all social channels is important, said Wotton. Increasingly, travelers turn to Facebook and Twitter for service, often in real-time. "We're looking at implementing an infrastructure and procedures to support the monitoring and responsiveness of these platforms 24/7 next year," she said.

Wotton acknowledged that not all hotels have the resources for this, but she thinks 24/7 social media coverage is where the industry is heading. "If a guest calls the front desk at 4:00 am, do we ignore it?" For any category of hotel, the key is to provide a consistent level of service online and offline.

Wotton added that 2014 is said to be "the year of help, not hype."

To that end, her company is focusing on publishing more helpful content on social channels. "We research questions travelers are asking on forums like TripAdvisor and integrate them into our content strategy," she said.

Strategy #10: Measure performance

Lastly, Cole stressed the importance of measuring performance. "You don't know if you're doing well unless you have your goals quantified and are measuring performance against those goal. Measure the gap and either close it or set a new goal," he said.

A big thanks to Robert Cole, Suzie Wotton and Adele Gutman for sharing their wisdom and insight, and to ReviewPro for making this free webinar possible. To watch the webinar, click here.

About Daniel Edward Craig

Daniel Edward Craig is a former hotel general manager and the founder of Reknown, a consultancy specializing in social media strategy and online reputation management for hotels and the travel industry. He collaborates with ReviewPro as Industry Advisor. Visit www.reknown.com.

Contact: Daniel Edward Craig

dcraig@reknown.com

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