Credibility In The Age Of The Incredulous

One evening last fall, a casual browse of advertising agencies and PR firms on Twitter sparked me to rethink how the marketing world is evolving in this age of instant communication and endless noise that we are presently facing.  Reading through account descriptions, several common phrases kept reappearing. The two that stuck in my head were ‘search engine expert’ and ‘social media guru’.  As an avid fan of game theory, I like to test how this economic principle applies to everyday issues such as this.  So, I thought to myself, “If everyone says they’re an expert or a guru than who’s telling the truth?”

My first thought was one of doubt.  From there, I started asking similar questions like, “How does one actually become a bona fide whiz in social media?” and, “What does it even really mean to be an SEO expert?”  To answer the latter, is it simply a matter of researching the nuances of Google Analytics, reading industry blogs, knowing how meta tags work and being under 35 years old?  Or, is there an earned and laborious process to this involving schooling and professional experience towards mastery?  How does one distinguish between the true masters and those selling snake oil?

Our culture has seen a tremendous evolution over the past decade and the maturation of the Internet and related technologies are the primary influences.  But it’s not all good.  Our emails are continuously spammed by fraudsters.  Photoshop editing software allows us to easily and surreptitiously alter images or beautify people and places beyond their true selves.  Banner ads assault our browsers, all advocating unsurpassed products, services or destinations.  The satiety of all this technology has made us exceedingly disbelieving of the message, so much so that it’s made skepticism towards electronics an unconscious defense mechanism.  Although this isn’t anything groundbreaking, perhaps it can be mined for some new insights for the hospitality industry.

First, let’s examine how the phrase ‘the best hotel’ is used in the online realms, and also through more traditional advertising mediums.  Hotels and hoteliers are constantly boasting that they are the best at something; be it best in the region, the best dining or the best amenities.  Why wouldn’t they?  Managers are proud of their property and they’re trying to make a buck.  And heaven forbid an advertiser not promote them as the best.  They’d lose the contract!

But, much like my game theory dilemma with the use of the words expert and guru, apply this to your competitive set.  If every property claims that they’re the best, than who is the consumer supposed to believe?  When everyone’s a winner, no one’s a winner.  And there’s the problem: comparative modifiers are far too subjective.  By purporting that you’re the best without a specific and legitimate third-party credential – like a top placement in an annual magazine ranking, for instance – you’re imbuing a sense of distrust right from the start of the customer interaction.

From there, everything the customer sees or hears about you is lensed through a grain of salt.  People will scrutinize every adjective used to sell rooms.  What exactly do ‘finest quality’ or ‘superior amenities’ mean anyway?  Ditto for airbrushed photography.  No doubt the imagery on your website is stunning, but nowadays everyone knows it’s a hyperbole of what’s actually there.  Moreover, a colorful, easy-to-navigate homepage is the standard for hotels across the globe.  Unless your programming team installs some palpably different features, you’re only meeting customer expectations with your website, not surpassing them.  Any reasonably savvy surfer will open another browser window and consult TripAdvisor or other such travel review websites for the real answer, an unretouched guest-supplied photography.

Your efforts have become counterproductive.  By claiming your superiority, you’ve instilled the need for customers to fact check via Google.  Congratulations, the OTAs have become the authority on your property, not you.

In the old days, hotels were given diamonds and stars by trained and qualified members of AAA and Mobil (now Forbes) respectively based upon a fixed set of well-established criteria for each level.  AAA and Forbes still exist, but they aren’t foremost on the average consumer’s mind.  TripAdvisor and its ilk have that job now.  Favorable as it may be to have ordinary people lending their opinions, there’s no regulation or standard to how hotels are judged.  Someone’s vacation might be exquisite except for one tiny error which lowered their review to three stars instead of five.  Offering complementary bottles of water or free WiFi might score higher in a guest’s mind than access to a million-dollar spa that’s lavish by anyone’s standards.  Add to this the ability for vengeful guests to maliciously assault or paid employees to fantastically augment a hotel’s rank, and this air of online incredulity is only destined to increase.

I firmly believe that you can still greatly reinforce your hotel’s brand reputation by utilizing traditional media like newspaper and magazine editorials, but fortunate or unfortunate as it might be, the Internet is swiftly usurping these long-established channels.  Accept and adapt.  Even within this electronic landscape of lies, it is possible to gain credibility amongst customers and branch out to new ones.  Here’s what I suggest.

Step one is to ensure that your online scorecard is tiptop.  Most essential to this is guest services.  Regardless of the décor quality or amenities, everyone appreciates a friendly conversation and helpful staff.  People will not expect the world when staying at a midlevel property, but they will always expect attentiveness to their needs.  The margin for error in this environment is zero.  To this end, I consider every employee to be a member of the guest services department.  Everyone from housekeepers to planning committee members must know and be enthusiastic about communications with guests.

Train your staff in all matters related to guest services.  Each employee-guest interaction is a chance to lockdown a stellar review.  Moreover, when a guest makes a request, your team has to know how to rapidly coordinate an effective response.  They must know how to go above the call to rectify any errors.  The customer is always right, and if you keep this in the back of your mind, then your online reputation amongst the OTAs – that is, the much sought third-party credibility – will prosper.  The few fraudulent diatribes that seep through will be drowned out by the other five hundred genuine and likely positive critiques.  Strength in numbers is key.

Next, ask yourself how you would distinguish yourself when all your competitors have passing grades on the OTAs?  Research has shown that prior to making a reservation, guests will undoubtedly check your homepage for a closer look, whether they book through you or the OTA.  Thus, step two pertains to upgrading your hotel’s website to set you apart.

My solution: differentiation through specification.  It’s unreasonable to call yourself the best hotel or boast that you have the best restaurant.  Instead, think of a select few details that you can earnestly proscribe the royal treatment.  For instance, promote your lobby bar by talking about how many different martinis your bartenders can create.  Perhaps you just implemented a tablet menu system at your flagship restaurant that remembers/stores past meals and recommends similar dishes or wine pairings.  Advertise the superiority of your rooms by highlighting the materials used to make the linens soft and the mattresses comfortable.  Gain credibility and sell through descriptive qualifiers rather than ambiguous comparatives.  The devil is in the details.

Just as the OTAs are commoditizing the hospitality industry by reducing properties to a rating and a price, you can fight back by treating your guests to features that are undeniably unique.  People will always remember the experience over a price (provided that the experience is a good one I might add).  It’s not just about being situated downtown; it’s about being a two minute walk to the train station and the express corporate package that streamlines all the minutia for the weary business traveler.  It’s not just about having spa facilities; it’s about offering one or two brilliant treatments you will not find anywhere else.  Locally sourced, organic products are a great start for this.  Be prudent and focus your efforts – target everything and you achieve nothing.  Those few aspects that are extraordinary will be the ones people talk about and the ones that drive repeat business.  The way I see it: specificity is credibility.

Step three is to tie this all together through your social media channels.  Sites like Facebook and Twitter are great places to solidify your fan base by showing off your character in earnest.  Much like how I encourage staff training for guest services, all top tiers managers have to be active on their hotel’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.  Lead by example then the rest of your team and your fans will follow.  Once you have that core momentum, post quick facts, fun events, resourceful feedback and plenty of candid photography.  Whereas your website will set the tone, your social media will give your story its narrative spine.

To truly succeed, however, you can’t just pay lip service.  Your past guests will friend or follow you online, and maybe talk about it with a few of their friends, but how you breach untested waters?  How do you go about finding new customers with completely different social circles?

What you need are specific features that will incentive new prospective consumers to seek you out, but you are just that irresistible.  And to do that, your social media marketing campaign has to be empowered from the planning committee level, and ideally, the corner suite.  Your social media manager needs the fiscal leeway to offer an eye-popping promotion to your Facebook fans as well as a slice of the web budget to support fancy customizations and proper Twitter management software.

The tricky part here is to incentivize without diluting your core.  That’s why it’s best to think of these types of promotions as bonuses towards an already outstanding product.  For instance, how about a $100 (or equivalent) one-time F&B coupon available once a customer likes your Facebook page?  How about a complimentary spa treatment when you book two nights or more using a reservation code only found on Twitter?  Consider social media as another means of creating brand loyalty.

People everywhere are talking about embracing social media, but again, apply your game theory mindset.  The key to this top down social media marketing is that you need to be drastic enough to stand apart from all the white noise.  And that can only happen if the executives endorse a more radical way of thinking.  A reasonably well-off company once used the words ‘Think Different’ for their slogan, and you should too.

(Article by Larry Mogelonsky, published on hotelexecutive on February 15, 2012)

Larry MogelonskyCredibility In The Age Of The Incredulous