Building Brand One Customer at a Time

April 26, 2012
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Brands within the hospitality industry are constantly evolving as they respond to consumer needs, market conditions and changes in the competitive landscape.  In response to years of a struggling economy, many of these brands aimed to increase their value proposition by offering more services to their guests, lower rates or more loyalty program benefits. However, in order to stay competitive, brands need to constantly strive to understand their customers, what motivates them to include them in the consideration set, and ultimately, what it takes for them to return and develop loyalty. 

Websites are often the first experience consumers have with a hotel brand and become a frequent interaction point for return customers. Thus, the website experience can serve as a strategic tool for gathering information about your customers’ perceptions based on their overall experience with the brand. With this in mind, it’s important to retain a brand’s DNA – or raison d’être – as the underpinning of any customer feedback strategy in order to foster and sustain longer term brand impressions.  Just as important is making sure that websites are an integrated component of the full marketing platform and delivering on visitor expectations, which is critical for brand building and customer retention today.

How can you turn online customer experiences into brand building?

Create synergy between channels

A brand’s website has evolved from being an extension of the marketing mix to a central component that is often the primary source of revenue generation. However, regardless of where the website sits in the brand’s overall strategy, synergy across all communications channels is key. This means that the creative elements and the brand essence it conveys must be the same as with what is being delivered through other media such as television, print, and social networks, so that consumers receive one consistent message and impression that they associate with the brand. A uniform strategy across all platforms facilitates brand recognition and ensures that consumers understand the brand benefits, which ultimately helps drive brand loyalty.

Align what they see with what you’ve got

The online channel is an excellent way to showcase what your visitors can expect if they book with you. Consequently, the copy and images used on your website should reflect your brand personality and quality. For example, if you are a luxury brand, using cartoons will likely not align with your brand image; if you are a midscale brand, you might want to communicate the value you provide by highlighting the services you offer in a clear and compelling way. Regardless of where your brand sits in the spectrum, however, remember that your visitors will judge you by what they see on your website. Therefore, it is worthwhile to invest in quality images and multimedia in order to “put your best face forward” so as to bolster the image that your brand projects.

Strike the right balance between information and clicks

The majority of visitors to a hospitality website are Lookers – they are information seekers. Therefore, focus on providing sufficient content to meet visitors’ needs. The good news is that most hospitality brands excel in this area, relevant content often surfaces as the highest scoring element of a website, according to the Q4 2011 iPerceptions’ Hospitality and Tourism Industry Report.  But many hospitality websites struggle when it comes to supplying the additional layer of more detailed content that the visitor is looking for, such as information on hotel services, room amenities, and so on. This is because there is a fine line between providing enough and too much information, such that the latter could result in a cluttered page view, thus overwhelming the visitor and making their online experience less pleasant. Therefore, it is important to understand the kind of information your visitors are looking for, and to display that prominently or make it easy to access. At the same time, brands must understand that no one likes to have to click through layers and sub-layers of menus to find what they need; however, this will be somewhat inevitable due to the architecture of a website as well as available real estate. Ensuring that navigating to this information is intuitive goes a long way to meeting visitor expectations, and ultimately, promoting likelihood to return to the website.     

Another important point to consider is how well the website responds to the needs of the visitor .In the same report, responsiveness, which involves aspects of the experience such as searching properties and availability, progressing through the booking funnel, website functionality and performance – is the lowest rated and most influential driver of the visitor’s overall experience. Further, the research shows that technical difficulties encountered when using a website are the leading catalysts for pushing visitors to a competitive site. Therefore, ensuring that the website is functioning optimally, room inventory is up to date and that all features are working smoothly are key to maximizing website satisfaction and boosting chances of conversion, and in the longer term, brand loyalty.    

 Let your website visitors be your consultants

Hospitality brands are always striving to understand what is important to their customers and what they can do to meet their needs. There are many ways to gather this information, but the most reliable and expedient method is to simply ask your customers what makes them tick, and online Voice of Customer (VoC) research is a great way to accomplish this initiative.

The advantage of online VoC research allows brands to interact directly with their customers – or potential customers, in the context of their current website experience. With the website experience fresh in their minds, the feedback they give will be accurate and not based on memory from an experience they had with your brand some time ago. Keeping the benefits of online voice of customer feedback in mind, however, there are some best practices in terms of what kinds of solutions to implement and questions to ask (as well as how to ask them) in order to get the information you want.

1) Understand your objective: It is important to understand that the type of solution you put in place plays a large role in the type of feedback you will get. For example, if you are looking to inform the site strategy, a representative sample of study participants will most accurately measure the consumer experience so that you can understand strengths and opportunities for improvement. If you want to address a particular issue or business need (ex. evaluate a microsite, new property page, feature usage, etc.) targeted sampling delivers a focused audience so as to optimize site initiatives.  This can be approached survey style or feedback style depending on objectives. Finally, if you want to know what needs to be fixed immediately on your website, comment cards (page level feedback) are the way to go as the bias is more negative since website visitors use them as a sounding board to share what is bothering them. Different VoC solutions serve specific purposes, and each plays a role in telling you what is happening on your website to help you build a stronger brand.

2) Respect your customers’ time: Once you have decided which VoC approach you want to use, the most important rule of thumb is to keep your online research as short as possible. This is true when website visitors fill out a survey on their desktop computer, and even more critical when responding to a mobile survey.  Research shows that after about 40 screen interactions, respondent drop off from a survey is exponential. (Source: iPerceptions Online Research and Predictive Modeling; Solicitation, Data Collection, Methodology and Supporting Numbers, 2006)

If the survey is too long, respondents are more than happy to let you know through the feedback mechanism itself, and this not only compromises the results you are trying to gather, but leaves a negative brand impression as well. Therefore, when it comes to the initial structure of the research, less is more; get the answers to the most burning questions first, and replace them with others as needed.

When designing an online survey, keep questions short and easy to digest – your website visitors don’t want to have to pull out a dictionary in order to understand what they are being asked. Moreover, if you talk over your visitors’ heads, they’ll not only abandon the survey, they’ll abandon your brand because they’ll think that you don’t understand them.

It’s best to keep the number of answer choices to a minimum. When your visitors have to scroll through a long list of possible answers, they become overwhelmed and impatient and simply choose the first option on the list. This pollutes the quality of your data, and also annoys your visitor.

3) It’s about them, not you: With this in mind, make sure to ask your customers questions that will help enhance their online experience so that they will want to not only book with you, but return to your website in the future and refer it on to others.  Understanding all areas of their experience is important to build your brand impression, because any snags your customers hit along the way can lead to frustration and thwart chances of booking in the short term, and repeat visits in the long term, which carries the risk of negatively affecting their brand opinion.

Therefore, iPerceptions developed a practical and intuitive strategic framework designed specifically for evaluating various elements of the online experience. Dissecting the experience through this model helps pinpoint website strengths and opportunities, and identifies which parts of the experience have the strongest influence on those longer term outcome measures that lead to website adoption and brand loyalty.    

Website feedback can keep you ahead of the curve

The increasing competitiveness within the hospitality industry is here to stay, making customer loyalty to any one brand that much more difficult to secure. Since brand experiences occur within the online channel – often primarily – this medium represents an excellent portal through which brand impressions can be nurtured, as well as a vehicle to listen to customer needs in order to stay ahead of the curve and promote brand growth.