Expedia’s social journey into the ‘recommendation age’

Like many travel companies Expedia is looking at how it can exploit social media to business advantage. As a company positioned at the intersection of travel and technology, it feels well placed to lead the way but is a new social network service on the cards? Pamela Whitby finds out

Whether it is tapping into Facebook, Twitter or the blogging and trip obsessed ‘travelrati’, Seattle-born Expedia Inc is thinking very seriously about its plans for an integrated social media strategy.  So seriously that there have been some suggestions, as reported in this Business Week article, that: “Expedia hopes to unveil its own social networking service next year.”

Not exactly, according to Sarah Keeling, the group’s director of integrated communications. However, while a standalone social networking service is not on the cards, there are clear plans to further integrate the business with existing social platforms.  “We aren’t selling paper towels, we are selling travel which is inherently social so we really see this as good natural opportunity,” she says. Indeed people are far more likely to engage on a range of social media platforms – and from a mobile device – while they are travelling. “No one has really tapped into this all the way yet and it is somewhere we think we can seek to be leaders.”

Last year the company commissioned independent research to establish whether any correlation could be drawn between people actively engaging with Expedia on Facebook and those going on to book a holiday with the site. “We found that this was absolutely the case,” says Keeling.

What is more, there were two clear business reasons for Expedia to engage more closely with social media for competitive advantage. Firstly, as a brand-building exercise and secondly to generate more transactions which is Expedia’s core business.

Leading with Las Vegas

To test this further, the company recently conducted a social media experiment using mainly Facebook and Twitter to promote Las Vegas as a holiday destination.  The company declared it ‘Vegas Week’ and set about building a campaign which focused on nothing but the city using some traditional online promotion strategies but social media too. “There was a gaming sale going on at the same time so we tied into that, but also did a whole lot of promotions across the site with email and so on,” explains Keeling.  When it came to social media the strategy was to focus on a specific hotel each day. It used Facebook’s new Timeline – which launched around the same time - to showcase “big, beautiful photographs of hotels” and a ‘Vegas week’ Twitter hashtag to engage people for a six-hour period each day.  Various competitions, which tapped into the human psyche about how people feel about Las Vegas, tested people on songs, films and facts associated with America’s most populous city.

The brand-building piece was based on the view that if Expedia could build a really good connection with consumers during this period, then the next time they are planning a trip to Las Vegas, they may just turn to Expedia first. But as Expedia is in the business of transactions it also wanted to see what impact the experiment had on sales. The campaign paid off: “When analysing the data we found that on the days the hotels were promoted each experienced year-on-year double digit growth,” Keeling says.   

The age of recommendation

There is undoubtedly a clear business reason for all travel firms to look more closely at the role social media can play in building a brand and drawing in more business. Carl Michel, from European low-budget chain Generator Hostels says people today, and especially the younger generation which is their target audience, identify strongly with brands. He points to recent US research which finds that 43% of young people in Generation Y ‘like’ over 20 brands on Facebook. “With young people spending three in every four minutes on Facebook and revealing an astonishing amount, there are very clear reasons for a coherent social media strategy which engages them and helps them to feel warmer about the brand,” he says. Clearly when friends start to recommend a brand that instils confidence in like-minded others and it becomes a very powerful tool that any business can benefit from.

Bagging the bloggers  

Speaking of others that the likes of Expedia are trying to befriend is the so-called ‘travelrati’. These are either regular travel bloggers or those ‘travel influencers’ who know exactly where to go, where to stay and when – and are prepared to tell people about it on a forum like Twitter. Expedia has been very successful targeting this latter group; each week it has several hundred people who spend up to 90 minutes engaging with the Expedia brand about travel.

But working with bloggers is certainly something Expedia – and many others - are increasingly considering.  One thing seems certain, for this relationship to be credible it is essential that bloggers retain editorial independence. Just because a company has paid for a blogger’s trip, should not mean they can skew the angle of the story. Expedia reckons it is pretty ‘light-handed’ with bloggers; it might pay for the trip but the traveller designs his own itinerary. All they ask is that there is a pointer at the end of the story to, for example, and Expedia sale on flights to that destination. Transparency and independence is essential.  

Lessons from the retailers  

A clear social media strategy that is complimented by mobile is certainly something Expedia is working towards and as part of this process it is looking closely at other successful digital brands. Amazon, another Seattle-based company, is the first obvious example and its customer review programme is something Expedia hopes to replicate in the travel space. “Amazon has done reviews incredibly well,” says Keeling. While Expedia is not quite as far down the line as the Amazon Vine selected reviewers’ programme, it has recently launched its verified reviews programme which requires that the person has booked their travel experience through Expedia.

Sephora, a French-born beauty products chain and now global website, is another brand that Keeling finds interesting for its success in targeting customers with specifically tailored offers. As Nishma Robb business development and marketing director at I Spy, a UK-based digital marketing agency points out, targeted marketing messages are really important for converting customers to sales. And the travel industry is notorious for low conversion rates compared to other industries.

Going forward

So far far Google+ and Pinterest have been viewed as more experimental channels for Expedia but this is an area it is tentatively exploring.   

 “There is a community there and we want to figure out how we engage it and how we exploit the search engine optimisation (SEO) potential that both those spots have,” says Keeling.  Of course the audiences are very different. Google+ users tend to be male, students or technology workers so Expedia is doing a series of experiments to understand, for example, how to bring user generated content into search capabilities or making search engine optimisation more successful for its mobile app. Pinterest, on the other hand, is occupied mainly by women (+-94%) and 20% log on every day. Engagement is high but travel conversations tend to be more in the planning stages. “So Pinterest is incredibly interesting from brand building and SEO perspective,” says Keeling.  

Another area where the company is investing heavily is in mobile. “Our vision is that mobile and social will become far more integrated.” So when you are looking at accommodation options on a social or mobile platform, the idea would be that you would be notified if a friend had ‘liked’ a particular hotel and this would become part of the booking process.  Other examples are along the following lines: if a customer has shared data about his surfing passion, Expedia could make some really smart recommendations for activities in say, Hawaii. Or if they ‘like’ Elvis on Facebook, a Las Vegas hotel featuring an Elvis show could be the ticket. “We are not there yet but the vision is to have those two things totally integrated,” says Keeling. That is still 12 to 18 months away.

With consumers increasingly willing to share information across the web’s public spaces one of the big issues will be striking the right balance between maintaining consumer confidence and trust and successful marketing. But that is the subject of another story.

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