I have to admit that on a personal level I was a very late adopter of social media. I must have been one of the last of my friends to open a Facebook account and I have all of two followers on my Twitter page which was last updated in 2010! I have never left a review on Tripadvisor (or any review site for that matter) and let's not even talk about Google+, Digg, Reddit and all the other social media tools out there. Who has the time for all that?
But despite my late adoption of social media on a personal level I realized from very early the importance of social media for a business, especially a small hotel with a limited marketing budget. I am sure that most of you have read many an article espousing the benefits of social media and why you should jump on this trend before you get left behind by your trendier competitors. I am not going to do that here, but what I will do is highlight how embracing social media has benefited us at Bay Gardens Resorts.
But first let us start with some of the reasons why many small businesses are still holding out on implementing a properly planned social media strategy:
1. It is just a passing fad - yes, even with 800 million active users, the world's second most visited website (after the online marketing giant, Google) and $4.3 billion in revenue (with $1 billion in profit according to some sources) there are still some who doubt the long term viability of the world's largest social media company (Facebook of course!) and of its potential as a marketing tool. Yes larger companies have failed after initial success, but clearly those who still believe that Facebook is just a passing fad only popular among persons born after 1980 are in the minority.
2. It takes too much time - there are hundreds of social networking sites out there and monitoring and making use of all of them can be daunting. Some claim that monitoring social media is a full time job and in the midst of this Great Recession, small businesses cannot hire additional staff for something as frivolous as social media that will not generate additional revenue. And adding social media to the task list of the few staff who remain after several rounds of lay-offs and cost cutting would just be unfair.
3. You can't control it - its not like traditional marketing where you can control the message. How do you plan for something like that?
4. It won't generate additional profit - and isn't that why we are in business in the first place?
There is some merit to most of these arguments so why jump into this? And successful businesses-people don't like to go into anything half-heartedly. If you can't do it right, don't do it at all!
But here are three of the best reasons (from my perspective) why small businesses (especially hotels) should get started:
1. Be part of the conversation - I am sure that no hotelier reading this would be surprised to know that many studies show that almost of 1 in 3 clients first become aware of their hotel through referrals from friends and family. Referrals and word of mouth advertising has been recognized as one of the most important sources of new and repeat business long before "social media" was even in the dictionary. The difference now is that with social media you (and everyone else) can monitor what others are saying about your brand online. Good and bad experiences are documented in real time on Facebook and Twitter and review sites such as Tripadvisor and Yelp have rendered manual comment cards almost obsolete (though some people still use these so don't throw them out just yet!). Tripadvisor, in particular is probably mentioned at Bay Gardens Resorts by someone on our team at least ten times a day. Did you see what the Johnson family said about us on Tripadvisor? Fantastic! Show it to all the staff! Can you believe that last Tripadvisor review? Completely untrue and off the mark! Must have been written by a competitor or disgruntled employee! And, our General Manager's favourite: We are ranked #2 on Tripadvisor, let's get to #1! Love it or loath it, what guests say about you on Tripadvisor and other social media sites means more to potential clients than anything you put on your website or on a brochure and on television or radio. It has a feeling of authenticity and independence and in this environment where persons have options and limited funds, that means everything. So don't think for a minute that these sites have little or no influence on persons travel plans. They do. So rather than stay on the sidelines, it is best to be part of the conversation and understand that while you can't control it you can turn it to your advantage in many ways. Be proactive in managing your own reputation online!
2. Increase traffic to your website - this does not happen right away, but having an active, consistent presence on the major social media sites will help to drive high quality traffic to your site and will help improve your overall search rankings on Google and Bing as these are certainly seen by the search engines as links from "authoritative sites" (SEO geek-speak that I will discuss in a subsequent blog). It is interesting to note that according to Alexa.com, 3 of the12 largest sites in the world are social media sites: Facebook (#2), Twitter (#9) and Linkedin (#12). Also in the top 12 are sites such as Youtube (#3), Wikipedia (#6) and Blogspot (#7) which are also considered social media in some circles. See http://www.alexa.com/topsites for a full list of the Top 500 Global Sites.
3. Potential to generate sales - believe it or not we have been able to generate a positive ROI from our time and financial commitment to social media and we are able to measure it. It is not going to increase your sales overnight but it is possible to generate exposure from social media which will in turn lead to increased revenue and profits and because of the newness of this medium it is still relatively inexpensive compared to other forms of online and offline advertising. I will discuss this in more detail in a separate post.
There are many other potential benefits as well such as the ability to glean useful information from potential customers in real time on new product ideas, share important news instantly and the ability to gain exposure and brand awareness in a cost effective manner that larger businesses spend millions trying to gain. I always remind our guests that leaving a good review on Tripadvisor helps small businesses like ours who can't afford a prime time ad on CNN to get the word out there.
Now that you are hopefully convinced on the need to make a start, here are a few practical tips from my experience over the last two years:
1. Focus on a few key social media sites - there are so many out there and if you try to focus on too many at once you will become overwhelmed. My advice is to focus on Facebook, Tripadvisor (or if you are not a hotel, restaurant or attraction whatever is the top review site for your industry and your market) and probably Twitter if you have time (if you want to take a shortcut, you can download this app that allows your posts on Facebook to be posted automatically to Twitter http://apps.facebook.com/twitter/). It would not be a bad idea to have a presence on Youtube as well, the world's second largest search engine but I would give priority to the first three first.
2. Setup the right kind of account - several persons set their businesses up as personal profiles with "Friends" on Facebook rather than as a business profile page with "Fans" (or "Likes" as they are now called) on Facebook. I am seeing a lot of restaurants and hotels with hundreds of Friends now having to cancel their profile page and set it up the right way. Better to get it right the first time. See http://www.facebook.com/pages/create.php. If you are looking to set up a profile on Tripadvisor, what you want to do is "claim" your listing as an "owner" so that you can manage it. See http://www.tripadvisor.com/Owners.
3. Be committed and update frequently - it does not have to take a lot of time. But if you don't update your Facebook page at least once a day you will not see your fan base grow and persons will lose interest an "Unlike" your page. One update a day takes a matter of minutes.
4. Don't be overly focused on selling and marketing your product - at least not right away. I have found that our 4900+ Facebook fans are more interested in our "Wacky Wednesday Riddles" or random photos of our garden or cocktails than they are in our latest specials. Build a relationship with your fan base first and they are more likely to respond positively to marketing-related posts. People don't want to feel like they are constantly being marketed to on Facebook. I would say have at least as many (maybe more) "conversational" or "social" posts as "marketing" posts on Facebook and Twitter.
5. Measure your results - don't just set this up and hope that it works. Facebook offers "Insights" that allow you to measure the size of your fan base, how engaged they are, where they are from, gender, age among other interesting stats. Use this as well as Google Analytics to determine how much traffic these various media are sending to your site and whether they are converting into sales. Even Tripadvisor offers analytical reports comparing your review performance to your competition. Read them, understand them and share the results with your team. There are more sophisticated tools out there offered by companies such as Revinate that allow you to monitor all social media sites at once and this provides a wealth of data but I would not advise such tools starting off.
6. Get your team involved - I started off doing 90% of the updates on my own but when you are a GM, owner or director in a business beyond a certain size, you have to delegate this. Within a few months I had handed control over to staff in the marketing department who were younger (I am only 30 and already getting obsolete!) and more, let's say "social" (pardon the obvious pun) than myself and the results were remarkable! I still monitor daily, assist and provide guidance but management of our Facebook and Twitter pages and responding to reviews on Tripadvisor is no longer solely my responsibility and the diversity is good for the medium. But even here rules and guidelines apply and be careful that the person who is responsible for this has appropriate knowledge of the business and writing skills. Even on Facebook and Twitter grammar and spelling mistakes are frowned upon when coming from a company!
I will be going into more depth in future posts on how we have been able to monetize our time and financial investment in Facebook and other social media tools but suffice it to say that we have been very satisfied with the results so far. Referrals from Facebook and Tripadvisor make up a substantial portion of our site traffic and thus account for a decent portion of our online bookings as well as bookings made offline.
Social media represents one of the best marketing opportunities for small businesses. Embrace this tool and "Friend" it. You won't regret it.