UGC sites need to facilitate a purchase decision making process

Published: 23 Oct 2007

So how do experts see Travel 2.0 headed in the next year or so?

"My prediction for the next 12 months is the opening of the other major social networks to third party application developers which will enable Travel 2.0 companies to add travel planning applications with built-in relevancy within those social networking sites. I also expect the social networks will allow this relevancy or social graph to be exported and embedded in other sites. Finally, pursuant to the opening of LinkedIn, I expect a frenzied land grab for social applications that target the business traveler," according to Sam Shank, Vice President, General Manager of, SideStep.

Shank, who was recently in Las Vegas for EyeforTravel's Travel Distribution Summit North America , said 2007 will be remembered for the launch, and wild success, of the Facebook Platform, which more broadly can be defined as the opening of social networks to enable a new category of software – the socially aware application.

"SideStep has several popular Facebook applications that combine travel planning and advice tools with the Facebook social graph. Our goal with these applications is to introduce a whole new audience to the SideStep brand and services," he said.

In an interview with's Ritesh Gupta, Shank spoke about at what level UGC works, communicating with consumers via UGC sites and much more.

Talking about RSS, Video content, mapping, podcasts, blogs etc, during our conference in May it was shared - new technology delivery of content is empowering and critical, but should be tied back to the business objectives that one wants to achieve. What is the key to achieving business objectives?

Sites that utilise these features should set specific, measurable goals related to business metrics, and then track them regularly and measure the ROI. For example, if you add video content to your site at a production cost of $50,000, goals for it may include 25,000 views of the videos per month, a 5% increase in overall site traffic, and, most important to the bottom line, $7,000 per month in increased revenue from the video ad impressions and increased site traffic. Setting these goals and track performance against them is key to achieving the business objectives, and these features and technologies should be evaluated and measured similar to any new business initiative.

User-generated content will work well on the visceral or emotional level. However, it doesn't work so well at the functional level. Keeping this in mind, how are UGC sites delivering in terms of search strategy, technology, website design and rich media content or what are the learnings for the industry (especially suppliers)?

The learnings for the industry are to put the customer first and give them the information they want, vs the old way of doing things and give customers the information you want them to have.

In your opinion, what is critical when it comes to communicating with consumer via user-generated content sites and eventually this leading to increased conversion rates?

For user-generated content sites to be successful businesses, they need to facilitate a purchase decision making process. That is why hotel review sites, which provide unbiased advice about a very subjective and disaggregated product category, are so successful and lucrative.

Some content works at the visceral level, some at the functional level, and some at the self-reflective level. What would you recommend when it comes to shaping content on UGC sites?

When shaping content on UGC sites, it's important to balance the needs of the person who will read the content with the needs of the person contributing the content. If the content entry process and format is too directed or forced, then you will dramatically limit participation and therefore overall site utility will decline. For example, a travel review that requires the user to enter 15 fields of information covering restaurants, attractions, safety tips, neighborhood photos, etc. may yield a very helpful piece of content, but few will have the patience or time to post it. Another important balance is between self expression (such as personal photos) and altruistic, useful advice (such as a review on where to stay). We've found that combining these elements but leaning more heavily to the later, yields the right mix of user generated content, at least in our category.

Many studies show that consumers trust consumer and peer review sites more than advertising messages, and even more than editorial reviews. In this context, how are suppliers using UGC sites as a tool? Do you think suppliers have embraced the fact that peer review sites function similarly to "word of mouth" travel planning?

When we started, suppliers fought UGC sites like ours, or preferred to pretend we didn't exist. That has changed considerably and the most savvy suppliers utilise peer review sites as marketing channels - we have a free marketing program, for example - , and as a way to get real time feedback and insight about their businesses. We have RSS feeds for each hotel that makes it easy for hotels to monitor their reviews, and we encourage hotels to actively respond to reviews, both positive and negative ones.

In your opinion, how are trip planning tools allowing consumers to plan and successfully execute their complete travel experience?

Travelers continue to plan more trips online using email, photo sharing sites, and, to a lesser but growing extent, websites that focus specifically on travel planning, such as SideStep's Trips application on Facebook.

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