New Delhi: It’s a classic case of marketing guru Jack Trout’s theory on the tyranny of choice being revisited. Only, this time it isn’t about canned food products that stare down at you from the shelves at the local supermarket, trying to grab a slice of your mind space. It’s about how the American online traveler is slowly but surely moving away from travel ads, catalogues and sales pitches, relying instead on social computing tools to draw up a suitable itinerary.
According to a study by global consulting firm, Forrester Research Inc., only 15% of online US travelers say advertisements help them decide what to buy. The majority – Forrester’s study pegs this number at 58% – say the amount of advertising today irritates them, and they’d rather use technologies that enable person-to-person connections, such as blogs, wikis and social networks to make educated travel plans.
Why they do it
The perfect fit:
Forrester says today’s online traveler will want to know “every last detail” in his search for a perfect fit for the kind of trip he wants to take. So, he’ll often post fare class codes on sites like Wikipedia, or on personal blogs to check out fares and availability. And he’ll visit sites like FlyerTalk to find frequent flyers advise one another on issues like whether or not a fare class is upgradeable and how to find that fare. Tools like the “recommendations’ feature on TripAdvisor let travelers share advice on what type of stay a hotel is — and isn’t — well suited for.
Travel Freak is a blog where other travelers share their experiences about hotels, airfares, weather and the like with you, so you can make more educated choices about your own itinerary
Virtual brand ambassadors: Or demolishers, if you please. Today’s traveler is also more than ready to dish the dirt to virtual friends if a service provider falls short of expectations. The Forrester reports says 30% of US online leisure travelers who use the Internet to research their trips read traveler-written reviews on sites like MYTravelGuide.
Of these, 30% say they’ve actually changed the hotel they had already booked after reading a traveler-written review. And with more review sites now hosting user-posted photos and video, travelers’ visual images of the product will be shaped by their peers rather than by the service providers marketing materials.
How then, does the service provider respond to this change in the consumer’s behaviour? Forrester says travel marketing and distribution professionals are shifting from simply pushing information to travelers in the hope they’ll respond, to actively engaging them with brand, products, and offers — all while participating in a two-way dialogue with the customer.
Customization: Some travel companies have involved the customer in shaping product offerings. Starwood Hotels & Resorts, for instance, launched a social computing experiment when it opened the doors of its new brand, aloft, in the virtual world of Second Life. Although currently “closed for renovations,” aloft will open its doors in the physical world in 2008, incorporating the feedback it collected from Second Life citizens.
AirTran Airways asked customers to answer the question, “Where would you like to go next?” by voting on the company Web site. AirTran added Phoenix to its list of destinations based on customers’ responses.
Feedback and recommendations:This is all about letting the traveler judge which products suits him best, based on customer experience and ratings, reviews, or a “recommended for” feature.
Skiers at Vail, Colorado, for example, can upload the photos they take on the mountain from their mobile phones. The photos are streamed to Vail’s desktop widget “Snowmate” so skiers at home or work can vicariously experience the slopes – and dream about their next trip. Marriott’s CEO, Bill Marriott, writes a blog, accepts user comments, and passes along relevant customer comments within the organization.
Forrester says while satisfying customers is just one of many reasons to engage in social computing, the tool is also being used to meet a host of other objectives.
Travelers use social computing technologies to learn and dream
Revenue spinner: Carnival Cruise Lines launched its own social networking site, Carnival Connections, to give groups unique tools for researching and booking cruises. Christine Arnholdt, Carnival’s VP of marketing, says the site drives incremental bookings because cruise planners can use the site to invite others to their cruise, so what might have started as a booking for two might end up as a booking for six or 10.
Market research: When Southwest Airlines announced it was testing changes to its open seating policy, the backlash on its blog, Nuts About Southwest, was overwhelming and immediate: The post received more than 800 responses in one day, mostly in support of the status quo. Southwest’s leaders took the response seriously, not because they assumed the blog respondents were representative of all Southwest customers (they’re not) but because blog participants are such a passionate, vocal subset of Southwest loyalists.
Crisis management: The JetBlue winter storm debacle of February 2007 illustrates how a company confronted the double-edged sword of social computing and ultimately emerged victorious. Passengers armed with camera phones documented the horrors of being stuck on planes for hours on end, and posted videos on YouTube. Part of JetBlue’s response to the crisis included posting a video message from CEO David Neeleman, both on YouTube and on its own site. In doing so, JetBlue entered into a conversation with customers. When the Forrester report was written, the video had been viewed 277,720 times on YouTube and had garnered 482 comments, positive and negative. Turning a crisis into a conversation keeps customers engaged and hopefully willing to give the company another try.