The first network e-mail was sent in 1971 between two computers that were in the same room. Programmer Ray Tomlinson sent the e-mail as a test while exploring ways to use the newborn computer network ARPANET (the predecessor of the modern-day Internet). The content of the e-mail was completely forgettable and, according to Tomlinson, likely a string of gibberish. Its legacy, however, continues to expand.
Social media is the latest mega-trend to evolve out of those early days of networking and completely reshape personal and business interactions. The first generation of social networking was introduced in 1997 as sixdegrees.com. After the .com bubble burst, Friendster was another solid attempt with three million users. When MySpace launched in 2003, it was first perceived as a Friendster copy; but MySpace came to dominate the social networking arena until Facebook (born in 2004) overtook it in 2008.
In 2011, there are more Facebook pages than websites. The Web once offered answers to the question “what,” but now social media is answering the question “who” and new location-based overlays are answering “where.” The power and accessibility of this breed of word-of-mouth requires that businesses engage.
The road that must be traveled
The impact of social media on guests’ choices of travel products is not disputable. Several surveys revealed that almost half of the travelers will not book a hotel unless it has reviews — of course positive ones. Almost 80 percent of travelers say that user reviews are important before making a decision regarding which hotel to stay at.
If your hotel or restaurant does not have a social networking presence, you are already behind. Structure and management of social media relations can no longer be left to an Intern, or supplemented in the spare time of the boss’s teenage kid.
Hospitality companies must have a solid social networking strategy and policies. Within these, the company should have a unified voice in different outlets of social media and offline. In addition, the organization should respond to all social media posts, positive or negative, in a timely manner. Even a simple “thank you” shows current and potential customers (and their friends) that you care. The average Facebook user has 130 friends. In these tough economic conditions and with already thin profit margins, these things can make a difference and turn guest interactions into relationships.
Social media changes the rules of selling: instead of traditional sales pitches, companies can leverage “fans” as sales agents and can interact in more social ways. Posting a how-to video for making a best-selling appetizer doesn’t say, “Come to my restaurant,” but it will get people to crave your food and put your brand in their minds.
Hoteliers and restaurateurs must also understand that managing a social media initiative goes well beyond the initial effort of creating profiles and activating accounts. It is a very engaged, hands-on, ongoing marketing effort. A hospitality organization cannot afford not to respond to a guest comment, negative or positive, in social media outlets. This includes not only the major social outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, TripAdvisor, Frommers, Oyster, and igoyougo.com; new start-ups such as Bizzy and Pegshot should be monitored. On top of that, hospitality organizations should not just monitor themselves but also their competition. Doing so can teach some very valuable lessons: good, bad and ugly.
Social media is here to stay and, like the evolution of the networks that have come before, the extent and sophistication of social media will only increase. Guests already can search for a restaurant based on the beer they have on tap (www.findmytap.com). Next, we will see hotel companies offering concierge services through Twitter. GPS-enabled devices will receive coupons when they get within the vicinity of a favorite restaurant brand, based on information from opt-in geosocial activity. Eventually, perhaps guests will even design their own menus. If your company isn’t in the loop with social media, get involved before it is too late.
Cihan Cobanoglu, Ph.D., CHTP is Dean of the School of Hotel & Restaurant Management, University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. Share your questions and comments with Dr. Cobanoglu online at htmagazine.com or e-mail him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.