City Insider: Only dinosaurs sue TripAdvisor

City Insider - A City perspective on the travel industry from FT journalist David Stevenson’s aggressive stance on TripAdvisor is futile at best – engagement trumps lawsuits every time

In this week’s column I’d like to take the opportunity to announce my very own unique business award.

It’s rather a mouthful as titles go but I’m currently soliciting competitive entries for the “Business Exhibiting Most Lemming-Like Behaviour in the Face of the Bleeding Obvious” or the “Dinosaur Cup” for short. At the moment one company is leading the pack: step forward

I was prompted to set up this very prestigious new business award as a result of on a report in last week’s Travel Weekly which suggested that the afore mentioned company was “considering representing property owners who claim there are false allegations on TripAdvisor…”

The excellent article by Edward Robertson in our sister publication – highlighting a social media session at the upcoming Abta Travel Convention – also contained the following the pithy observation that “although some agents regard the review site as the bane of their lives, travel firms must learn how to handle it if they are not only to become victims of negative reviews and comments but also benefit from it”.

I’d suggest that the previous comment is another example of stating the bleeding obvious – in my humble opinion many business ventures over the coming decade will live or die based on their management of the TripAdvisor review process.

And I’d also suggest that KwikChex’s approach is exactly the wrong place to start – it is bad business practice which will only solicit spasms of anger online and a welter of bad publicity in the media.

The way to go is to follow the best practice of a good friend of mine. Martin, whose very large France-based business runs lots and lots of resorts and properties, rides what he calls “the TripAdvisor Whirlwind”.

In effect he is chief TripAdvisor troubleshooter as well as a PR supremo and brand extension maestro.

Martin’s business first noticed the effect of TripAdvisor a few years ago when they saw bookings from the UK drop off at a number of their resorts.

Strategists within the business tried to tie in this drop-off to wider economic trends but a secretary in the PR media had the more obvious explanation – some of the prestige resorts were being mercilessly slagged off online. Further research discovered a wall of negative comments on the net. The TripAdvisor rating for its resorts was in freefall.

The CEO’s reaction was similar to that of namely to sue the asses off those “Anglo Saxon numb skulls” i.e you and me.

Until, that is, the Gallic CEO discovered that the Germans and the Italians were also starting to make extensive use of the site as were his French compatriots.

At this point those rare corporate qualities, intelligence and insight, were wheeled into play. Some bright spark in the strategy department said something remarkably intelligent like ‘Let’s work with the internet and crowd-derived views and try and influence behaviour’.

At first the fight back was episodic and disconnected. Relevant resort managers were encouraged to look at their reviews, take notes, and then respond as best they could online. 

Some resort managers did a fine job, but responses from the owner always look a bit automated, impersonal and, well – let’s be honest – rubbish. Also most of the responses online were in typically formal corporate English with a slight gallic tinge.

Cue Martin. One rainy Thursday his employers decided that they had to bite the corporate bullet and get serious. They christened him “chief Crowd Pleaser and Tripadvisor trouble shooter” (not an actual corporate title, by the way).

What came next is in my view a primer on how to deal intelligently with sites like TripAdvisor. Martin went back to basics and articulated the following basic principles:

  > Don’t deny the wisdom of crowds. They are usually right in the aggregate. Listen to the them, respond to them and consistently monitor the flow of opinion online. Take it seriously and act on it. 
  > Learn from that wisdom, both negative and positive. Look at what gets a good rating and start to studiously copy what the crowd likes. But also act on the bad reviews. Take ownership of the complaint. 
  > Be open to opinion, admit mistakes and deliver the killer promise that “ we genuinely listen”. Promise to follow up online statements with real change. 
  > Recognise that users tend to look for broad hints of functionality not extreme opinions. They want to use the site to gauge whether a resort is child-friendly or very noisy in the summer.
  > Try to influence the rating by soliciting positive feedback – but be realistic about the likely success of your gerrymandering.

The company encouraged positive customers to set up their own ‘reviews’ forum within a bigger site and then encouraged open and honest debate concerning their product.

The key insight here is to find the most enthusiastic brand proponents and then work with them to encourage debate of your product online. This echoes the very successful use of user feedback already powering outfits such as Amazon and eBay.

Last, and by no means least, understand the digital commentariat, the online shapers of opinion and purveyors of comment.

Understand how much impact they have and then see how they distribute their opinion online, through tweets, Facebook and all manner of social media. Once identified try your damnedest to influence these people.

Now I can’t say that Martin and his small team of helpers – all of whom have proper day jobs – has done everything in this list or even succeeded completely with the main initiatives. But they are adopting a surprisingly positive and engaged attitude.

It is, I suggest, the only way to face off to the power of crowd opinion – constructive engagement built around making your business a better customer experience.

Or you could just sue the crowd and waste your money. Anyway, time to don the penguin suit and head off to my Awards ceremony with the dinosaur-shaped metal plaque for the winner.

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