Say Goodbye to Payola: The Best “Curators” in Marketing Are Free

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TV advertising is long dead – a part of marketing’s Ancien Régime that communicates less effectively today than a pet rock.

Think about it. When was the last time you actually watched a TV commercial instead of skipping past it with the DVR or burying your face in your phone?

Of course, you already know this.

What you may not know is that the hospitality industry’s current approach to online marketing isn’t far behind those moth-eaten TV ads in terms of its appeal to younger audiences, especially the Millennials.

Last year, Millennials surpassed Baby Boomers as America’s largest living generation, numbering 75.4 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Already, Millennials account for more than 20 percent of travel spending, a number that will grow at an accelerated rate as they take over the higher-paying jobs now occupied by aging Boomers and GenXers.

More important, Millennials differ from previous generations by rejecting the megaphone approach to advertising and marketing communications. They don’t want an authority figure telling them what to buy (which is still the conventional approach to online advertising), and they couldn't care less about traditional brand-loyalty programs. Worse: at any given moment, 615 million devices are blocking online ads, and like the Millennials themselves, that number is also growing.

Millennials are far more likely to explore purchase options on their own, and they will usually give the most weight to “curators” (a.k.a., influencers) whom they trust. Moreover, they tend to read lots of reviews before they’ll even think of making a decision.

As in the art world, curators are people who sift through enormous amounts of data, directing their audiences to only that information – and those products and services – they deem worthy of attention. A curator might be a trusted friend that you see every day or a virtual buddy that you’ve never met. The higher the degree of acquaintance, the higher the level of trust you will place in the person.

Offering better service to curators kills their credibility

Recognizing the immense power of online curators to influence purchase decisions, it was inevitable that savvy marketers would enlist them to serve as marketing tools (or “shills,” depending on your point of view). Currently, more than 80 percent of marketers are planning to launch an influencer campaign in 2017.

The traditional tactic, which is already showing its age, is paid influencer marketing. Put simply, you pay an influencer to increase your exposure and enhance your reputation within a given demographic. For better or worse, this bubble is already showing signs of bursting, which is why other savvy marketers devised an even less honest approach: quietly providing key influencers with much better products or services than the typical consumer will ever receive.

The first issue raised by this practice is an ethical one: Do we really want to create a society in which the quality of service received depends on a score awarded to you by an algorithm – the kind of dystopian future depicted in the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive”? With luck, we will never reach the point where prospective guests are refused hotel accommodations because their “social scores” are too low. In fact, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever live in a society that extreme. In my view, however, even a “baby step” in this direction is a step too far.

The second issue, with both paid and unpaid influencer marketing, is that it assumes the consumer is an idiot. Eager to find their own solutions and form their own opinions, while communicating more than any previous generation, Millennials will not be fooled by unsubstantiated marketing claims. If a product or service isn’t a good fit, Millennials will quit, regardless of what the influencers say.

Payola – the technique of bribing someone to use their influence to promote a product or service – has been employed many times in the past. Every time, the practice was eventually exposed. Every time, the organizations using it suffered a big hit to their reputations.

Influencer programs, especially those that roll out the red carpet for the influencers, are bound to be counterproductive in the long run. A few days or weeks after the influencers post rave reviews about their amazing hotel experiences, some of their followers will book rooms at these hotels. Imagine their disappointment when they don’t receive a warm personal welcome, there’s no champagne waiting in the room, and they have to pay full price for a stay in a standard room.

The blowback will be immediate and long-lasting.

First, angry guests will begin posting real reviews that are far less kind than those of the influencers. Second, these customers will realize – or at least strongly suspect – that the influencer is a shill who can’t be trusted. Third, there’s a good chance these guests will spread negative word of mouth about the hotel and the influencer throughout their private networks. You won't have a clue what just happened, and neither will the influencers when their lists of followers shrink like a wool sweater in the dryer.

Dark social and the importance of true word-of-mouth

It’s vital to understand that, although Millennials live their lives online, they frequently communicate privately. Because 70 percent of all online referrals come from “dark social” – private and protected communication channels – there is no way to trace their origin or to directly affect their volume and quality.

The essential take-away here is that within dark social, consumers are communicating with their trusted friends. This is where the “sellout” influencers are “outed” and more trustworthy curators are discovered. Assuming you provide a hotel experience that measures up to your marketing claims, your bottom line will eventually reap the benefits of dark social, but you may never know where that positive word of mouth came from.

How do we succeed tomorrow?

There is only one marketing strategy guaranteed to succeed in the long run – communicating the genuine benefits of what you sell. Word-of-mouth marketing is more important than ever before, which means that high-quality service is more important than ever before.

Don't succumb to the temptation to differentiate your service based on the score you assign to a guest. Instead, make sure that every employee is equipped and motivated to always deliver the best possible service to every guest.

Listen to your customers to learn what they want. Then, demonstrate that you’ve been listening by making improvements where necessary. Use customization options, both pre-arrival and during the stay, to cater to your guests’ wants and needs. Don't take the shortcut of hiring shills to hype your wares. Instead, give trustworthy curators a chance to convey the honest story of how well you care for your guests.

While curators might have big circles of influence, if their story does not add up then non-curators greatly outnumber them. As important as online reputation and reputation management is today - a surefire way to generate horrible online reviews is to dash the expectations created by your marketing messages.

Empower your employees to succeed

Share feedback from your guests with all your employees, and make it part of their jobs to set new goals and propose improvements at your hotel. One of our clients has gone as far as replacing employee satisfaction surveys with measures of real-time guest satisfaction because “if our guests are happy, it means our employees are also happy.” The company believes that guest feedback provides a more accurate measure of how employees feel about their jobs.

Keep in mind that Millennials are not just consumers, but also employees. They have grown up being told that they could accomplish anything they wished, and most of them wish to feel proud of their jobs. They want to believe that they are doing something that matters.

Loopon is run by Millennials who are extremely proud of our products. We care deeply about the effect we have on the industry, and we want to work with hotels that truly care about all their guests - no matter the size of their Twitter account.

Nothing would delight us more than getting the opportunity to talk to you about how we can work together to create better hotel experiences!