By Geoffrey Ryskamp

Over the last decade, social media reviews have transformed from a minor element of brand monitoring to a significant indicator of consumer perception.

The social media landscape for hospitality has changed dramatically in recent years: hotel social reviews have grown 20 times since the start of the decade, and in the last ten years, many new online review sites have emerged globally. In addition to, TripAdvisor and Google–which account for more than 80 percent of hotel social reviews–China's largest online travel agency and review site Ctrip is now a major global player, achieving 16x growth between 2012 to 2016 and prominent in the luxury hotel market as the third biggest global website in social review volume.

The growth of social media reviews directly correlates to business revenue. Companies that monitor social reviews or other online sources for customer feedback are 15% more likely to improve customer experience in a year than companies that do not. Engaging with guests online, and understanding social media’s role as part of the guest experience, is no longer optional — it has become a business imperative.

Why Chinese social reviews are exploding Emerging markets, in particular, are experiencing explosive growth. A 2017 Medallia study of 141 million global hotel social reviews shows that almost 80% of hotel reviews originated from Europe and North America, but emerging markets are growing faster year-over-year (28 percent for South America, 26 percent for Central America, and 23 percent for Middle East & Africa) than European markets.

China’s fast-growing outbound travel demand, driven by higher income per capita and the lifting of travel restrictions, increased by 4.3 percent in 2016 and resulted in more than $109 billion in spending abroad on everything from hotels and tours to shopping and dining. In a recent interview, Jane Sun, the CEO of Ctrip estimated the number of people holding a passport will double to 240 million by 2020. For a basis of comparison, nearly 140 million valid passports are in circulation in the US. This growth presents a lucrative market for hotels looking to attract Chinese travelers and positions Ctrip, which promotes itself as a resource specifically for Chinese travelers to book travel and leave reviews, as an important platform to know and understand.

Decoding customer expectations by geography and culture Hoteliers with current or aspirational global footprints need to recognize this growth and understand how different cultures’ attitudes and expectations impact social feedback trends across China and other markets. For example, Central America and Asia Pacific hotels receive consistently higher ratings, while North American hotels have relatively lower ratings. European hotels generally are rated somewhere in the middle.

The strength of a customer relationship is strongly influenced by prevailing cultural expectations around factors like authenticity, timeliness and respect. A 2017 Medallia study of 1,000 US hotel properties shows that companies may face differing customer expectations across geographical and cultural contexts. Some general themes uncovered include:

  • Typically higher graders*: Chinese, Spanish and Russian language social reviews are consistently higher compared to English (baseline).
  • Typically lower graders*: Arabic, Japanese, German and French language social reviews are consistently lower compared to English (baseline).
  • Consistent graders: Chinese and Japanese-language reviews have the lowest variation in scores across.
  • Inconsistent graders: High variation in scores for English, Spanish and Arabic-language reviews.
  • High/Low “inverted bell curve” graders: English and Russian-language reviews are more likely to have extreme scores (1 or 5 on a 5-point scale).
  • Midscale “bell curve” graders: Japanese, Dutch, German, Arabic, French-language reviews tend to avoid the extremes and have mid-scale scores (2, 3 and 4 on a 5-point scale).

Cultural expectations also influence the themes that are more likely to prompt a negative review. For example, in U.S. hotels, the top negative comments are associated with non-staff/service related issues like noise, carpet, mold and odor, while the top positive comments are associated with staff and service. Yet even within this data, there are culturally specific nuances. When talking positively about U.S. hotel staff, different language speakers call out different attributes: English-language reviewers frequently use the word “smile” and “friendly,” Spanish-language reviewers use “smile” and “attentive,” French-language reviewers use “attentive” and “listening,” and Italian-language reviewers use “kind.”

While scores and perceived experience may differ across cultures, engagement remains critical. Hotels that respond to more than 50 percent of their social reviews can improve their customer experience, social reputation and even occupancy rates. For executives and operators in global markets, understanding the rise and impact of social media reviews, the expectations of international guests, and the bottom line impact of engagement across social review channels is an essential element of successful growth.