With Online Reviews Critical to Travelers, Marketers Adjust Their Approach
Travelers have always relied heavily on recommendations for trip inspiration and planning, and online review sites have made peer commentary much more visible and accessible. As this information becomes simultaneously more sophisticated and unwieldy, there are both opportunities and challenges for marketers, according to a new eMarketer report, “Traveler Reviews: Online Communities Reshape Marketing Strategies.”
Travel reviews posted online have exploded in recent years. The number of reviews on TripAdvisor, for example, surpassed 100 million in March 2013, bolstered by a 50% increase year over year. While TripAdvisor far and away boasts the most traveler-submitted reviews, other major online travel sites have also compiled tens of millions more.
More than half of the 15,000 internet users worldwide who responded to TripAdvisor’s TripBarometer study, conducted by StrategyOne in January 2013, said they’d written a review for an accommodation after staying there, and 41% noted that they also shared personal recommendations via other online channels, such as social networks or email messages.
As reviews proliferate, a debate has intensified among travel professionals over whether consumers should trust what they read on user-generated content sites.
Companies that sell travel—both brands and third-party agencies—want to minimize the time and energy it takes to sniff out fraudulent reviews, so most travel booking sites require reviewers to make an actual purchase on the site in order to submit an evaluation. For example, Wyndham Hotel Group’s system collects validated reviews on the brand’s website and then funnels them straight to TripAdvisor, according to Flo Lugli, executive vice president of marketing at Wyndham.
Hard as travel brands might try to weed out fake reviews, though, travelers look to multiple review sites during their research process, which means they’re using both verified and unverified reviews. PhoCusWright found that in 2012, approximately two in five US travelers used online travel agencies, general search engines and travel-specific review sites during their planning process, and about one-third went straight to a hotel website.
While reviews are influential across all travel categories, hotel recommendations carry the most weight, so when hotels respond to reviews, travelers take note. The TripAdvisor study conducted by PhoCusWright found that 57% of travelers said they would be more likely to book a hotel whose management responded to reviews, compared with a comparable property whose management was silent on the subject.
As a result, one of the main reasons hotels monitor and respond to reviews is to manage customer complaints. Accommodation owners worldwide take negative reviews very seriously, with more than 60% saying they both respond to reviews publicly and address review content privately with staff, according to TripAdvisor’s TripBarometer. Just 5% of respondents said they ignored negative reviews altogether.
“Marketing has gone through evolutions that basically have put consumers in charge, and we need to acknowledge that we’re no longer 100% in charge of our brand message,” said Wyndham’s Lugli. “If marketers crowdsource anything, they have to be willing to respond and implement the feedback in some way or form. When consumers are asked for their opinion, their expectation is that something will be done with it.”