Social Media (a part of Web 2.0) is about interacting with information and other interested people via the Internet. As an example of the power of Social Media based Websites over ‘traditional’ Web Sites is the battle for Online encyclopaedia supremacy.
From Hardcopy to Softcopy to Social Media
Before the popularity of the Internet, Encyclopaedia Britannica and World Book ruled the printed Encyclopaedia universe. Encyclopaedia Britannica was particularly well known for its door to door salesmen who sold the multiple volumes. In the 1990’s Microsoft entered the computer based Encyclopaedia market with Encarta. Encarta was immensely successful with its cd-rom format and managed to attain a good portion of the Encyclopaedia market share (in most cases Encarta was given to consumers for no cost). In 2001 however came the ‘killer app’ of Encyclopaedias in the form of Wikipedia. Suddenly we, as consumers, were able to add to as well as read from an Encyclopaedia.
PR to Marketing to Social Media
A similar type of transformation is happening in the travel and tourism industry. Certainly, initially anyway, Public Relations (PR) was a more common method of attaining sales (the methods and strategy of PR would have been very informal). Marketing then took over as the premium source of attaining sales. The advantage of formal marketing for the travel or tourism company was that the information conveyed to the consumer could be managed. Marketing in the travel and tourism industry takes many forms with the most common being advertising and paying commissions to travel agencies.
Over the past few years however, Public Relations, in the guise of Social Media, is rapidly becoming a significant source of decision making for consumers of the travel and tourism industry. As an example, Tripadvisor, a Website where consumers add their reviews of hotels and other travel and tourism products and places, gets a staggering 25 million unique monthly visitors. Sites such as Tripadvisor are very influential in shaping opinions by potential consumers of destinations and hotels.
The Danger of Online Reviews
Online and unedited reviews, such as those on Tripadvisor, are seen as more valuable than other reviews or recommendations by consumers as they are written by fellow consumers (for the most part). Unfortunately Online reviews can also be based on an individual reviewer’s whims and bias. Readers are also more likely to skim read a few random reviews rather than a full set of reviews on, say, a hotel, making an accurate perception unlikely by the reader of the reviews (e.g. say a particular hotel has 100 reviews on Tripadvisor, readers will likely skim read four or five of the reviews which is unlikely to give an accurate perception of the hotel to the reader).
Hotel Review Bias – an Example
This past long weekend my wife and I decided to stay for a night in Sydney. I searched a few travel and hotel booking websites and booked at the Four Seasons Hotel (we got a fantastic rate on lastminute.com.au). I didn’t read any reviews of the hotel as I’ve had breakfast there before and had high expectations of the hotel. The biggest challenge for any business is fulfilling high expectations as the smallest slip in quality can mean the expectations not being met. The Four Seasons absolutely exceeded my very high expectations (I worked as a hotel management intern in five star hotels many years back so got to know what the real challenges are for luxury hotels).
When I got home I decided to see what the reviewers at Tripadvisor had to say about the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney. In general the comments are positive; Tripadvisor has 218 reviews for this hotel with 82% of reviewers noting that they would recommend the hotel to a friend (the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney gets 84% from Tripadvisor however I believe the Four Seasons to be a far better hotel). I was curious why 5% of reviewers had deemed the hotel ‘terrible’ (of course people are more likely to complain than compliment therefore it is unlikely that 5% of total guests deem their stay as ‘terrible’). The most interesting aspect of the negative reviews in that they are generally from over a year ago. It is therefore entirely possible that the same negative reviewers would have a far better stay now that the hotel has completed renovations. The problem is that the Online reviews do not account for time therefore a negative review from a year ago is worth the same as a positive review from yesterday even although it is more likely that people will read the negative review over the positive review.
Reviews as a Guide and not a Given
It is very obvious that Online reviews by consumers should be deemed as a basic guide only. It is important to keep the following in mind when reading, or contributing, to online reviews:
- If reviewers are paid or rewarded in advance to review then they will be biased.
- Note the date of reviews as exceptional circumstances such as hotel refurbishments may result in large numbers of negative reviews.
- People are more likely to post negative reviews than positive reviews.
- Expectations vary greatly; what you may deem unimportant may be seen as devastating for another person (e.g. a negative review of a hotel may stem from no staff speaking German but this may not matter to you).
- The age, sex, nationality or a host of other factors may influence reviews.
- Do your research on multiple Websites. For hotel reviews expedia.com.au, concierge.com and tripadvisor.com are popular.