Matt Bitzer

Matt is the co-founder and benevolent overlord of Blue Magnet Interactive. From his humble origins as Marketing Manager for a small hotel online marketing agency to his rise to power at the head of ecommerce for two flagship Hilton properties in the Washington DC area, Matt's entire career resides at the nexus of hospitality and ecommerce. As Managing Partner of Blue Magnet, Matt is responsible for internal operations, training, marketing and business development. But for Matt, Blue Magnet is more than just another marketing agency. It's a passion--a labor of love built from the ground up. It's evident in the way his eyes glisten at the mere mention of web analytics, or the way his heart flutters every time Google announces a new product. You hear the excitement in his voice as he trains his team on new online strategies, and you can see the pride beaming from his smile upon every successful new website launch. For Matt, it's easy to get up and go to work everyday because he loves what he does, enjoys the clients he serves and believes in the people who are part of his talented team.

Happy Independence Day, fellow readers! As you celebrate our country's indepedence this July 4th with your friends, family, flags, fireworks, food and 'freshments, please remember what makes this country great: our freedom.

I was always raised to believe that the United States was the land of freedom--freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of speech. As a country, we choose the government leaders we want to lead us. We don't torture people. And our government certainly does not spy on its citizens or engage in unnecessary search and seizure. Other countries do that--countries with oppressive regimes and tyrannical dictators, who monitor their citizens in an effort to crush all opposition and torture dissenters to keep the public in line. Those were examples of how not to run a country...and certainly not the American way.

Sadly, with the recent unveiling of the NSA's massive survellience of the American public, the US government has placed our country's safety above our liberty. This mass spying effort is most certainly unconstitutional under the "unreasonable search and seizure" language of the 4th Amendment of the Constitution. The government has forced companies like Google, Verizon, Microsoft and other major internet and telecommunications companies to hand over private data about you (emails, phone records, etc) to the NSA, all in the name of fighting terrorism. As founding father Benjamin Franklin once said, "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." Let's make sure we keep our essential liberties intact this July 4th and bring back the America that we all learned about in grade school. Keeping America safe shouldn't mean turning this country into a police state, nor should it involve sacrificing liberties granted to us by the constitution.

Please make your voices heard to your congressperson to let them know that these actions against the American public are unacceptable.  Click the image below to send a message to congress now!

Happy 4th of July, NSA!

 

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Last week, Google took another step in encouraging site owners to properly optimize their mobile websites. And by "encouraging" I mean "forcing site owners do so under penalty of mobile search obscurity." But Google's not one to penalize indiscriminately (ha, almost typed that with a straight face), and has offered to set us wayward webfolk on the right track with their guide to building mobile-optimized websites and their list of common mistakes in smartphone sites.  But it looks like this is just the beginning, as Google continues to impress upon the web world the importance of properly optimizing your mobile website.  And in true Google fashion, failure to heed their warnings can result in a dark void where your mobile traffic used to be.

Yes, yes, we get it: mobile is important

falling pianoLike many of you, my mobile phone is always with me. When I'm eating breakfast I'm scrolling through tech blogs; On my train commute to work I'm checking my emails; During the day it sits next to my laptop, alerting me to dinner plans via text messaging; and at night it's perched on the edge of my nightstand like a gargoyle, its cycloptic "charging light" eye casting a faint green glow across my pillow, watching me as I sleep.

I spend so much time with my smartphone that if the cell radiation FUD stories are true, someday my phone and I may literally be joined at the hip in some sort of biological mutant technomonstrosity.  And I know I'm not alone, because I see others out there that spend even more time on their smartphones than I do: texting while driving, walking while browsing, Facebooking while intoxicated, playing Angry Birds under a falling piano, and any number of potentially hilarious and deadly situations...well, funny if they were cartoon characters. 

Yes indeed, mobile optimized sites are important.  Especially for those businesses in the travel industry (I'm looking at you, hotels). After all, travelers tend to do what they do best: travel. And that means their on-the-go lifestyle goes hand-in-hand with mobile website accessibilty.

Website success 3 years ago ≠ Mobile site success this year

In the past your hotel might have been able to get by with a poor mobile presence. Maybe your standard website performed admirably in the search results, plus it was a few years back so mobile wasn't as ubiquitous as it is today. In those days--the good old days, you remind yourself--a mobile site for your hotel was just another bit of eye candy for the main attraction: your standard desktop site.

And let's face it, you just didn't have the budget this year to create a mobile-optimized site anyway. It happens. And in the good ol' days, you could always plead ignorance to the SEO gods and beg for forgiveness if your hotel's website performed poorly on smartphones and other mobile devices. You knew the search giants didn't really scrutinize mobile sites the way they do your normal desktop site, so you focused your energy on those standard webpages instead. Plus, maybe mobile traffic to your site was still in its infancy. Still, seeing this the SEO gods would shake their heads from on high and tsk-tsk your decision to remain mobile-averse, like a parent does their reckless teen.  "Foolish mortals," they'd mutter with arms crossed, all the while planning your site's impending doom with a swift and righteous algorithm change that would quickly smite your site's humble existence from the face of the internet.

The SEO gods are angry, my friends.  And only an offering of a well-optimized mobile site will quell their tempestuous rage!

Evaluating your website using common sense

Sure, none of your website's Flash videos play on iPhone or Android phones--replaced instead by an imposing white block smack dab in the middle of your homepage--but at least the text still shows up, you assure yourself. And despite the fact that your webpages take 5 minutes to load on a 4G smartphone, you shrug your shoulders and rationalize that patience truly is an underappreciated virtue, and your website is simply giving your visitors a chance to appreciate that virtue more than they ever have before. Use common sense--if those things drive you crazy on others' mobile sites, then why would you force the same horrible user experience on guests of your own site?  It's bad for business.

It's time to change your ways before it's too late. By now you should have some form of smartphone presence, but is it truly optimized for smaller screens and slower internet speeds? Fortunately, Google provides a roadmap of sorts to help you sort through your mobile site issues.  Let's have a look.

Explaining the common mistakes on smartphone websites

Check out Google's official developers portal for the full list of common mistakes you'll find in your smartphone website, but here's a quick breakdown with a few explanations and images:

  1. Flash videos and other unplayable videos - iPhones don't play Flash videos.  Neither do Android phones.  This means that if your beautiful desktop website has an amazing Flash slideshow at the top of your page, your mobile guests will see a big white void in its place.  It's annoying to mobile visitors. Plus, with HTML5 taking shape with specific tags for video, there's no reason you have to rely on Flash for slideshows or videos. Avoid providing crappy usability for your mobile guests.
    Adobe Flash fail on smartphone
  2. Redirecting mobile users to the wrong page - Your website can be set up to detect whether a user is arriving from a mobile browser or a desktop browser.  Depending on which is detected, your site can present a different page to guests (mobile vs desktop).  Are guests looking for your hotel's wedding page on their mobile devices? Set up the site so that it redirects those visitors to the mobile wedding page instead of sending them to the mobile homepage, like so:
    Correct mobile redirectsOn the other hand, let's say you only have a single mobile page.  And let's say your mobile guests try to access your dining, accommodations and wedding pages.  If you redirected all these visitors to your mobile homepage because you didn't have a mobile version of your dining, accommodations and wedding pages, then you are guilty of a faulty redirect and your site will likely be punished.  Don't do this:
    Incorrect mobile redirects
  3. "This page can't be found" errors - Commonly known in the biz as 404 errors, some sites have been improperly configured so that if a user visits your site on their smartphone it displays the dreaded "404 error: This page cannot be found" message. Your site visitors have reached a dead end and are now lost and confused. Looking for directions to the hotel? Well, I'll just click on this little map link and...404 error?! What the heck? How am I supposed to find what I'm looking for on the site if the pages won't even display properly? Fix these 404 errors and save your visitors the headache.

  4. Keep mobile users on the correct site - Google refers to this as "Irrelevant cross-linking."  It just means that if a user comes to your mobile site on their mobile device then all the links on that mobile webpage should point to other pages within the mobile version of your site.  You wouldn't want users on your mobile site to click the Accommodations link and suddenly end up on the desktop version of the site! Why would you do that? Most likely it's an accident, but it should be cleaned up. In fact, it's likely that the only place you'll really cross over from mobile site to desktop or vice versa is if you have a "view desktop site" on your mobile pages or a "view mobile site" link featured on your desktop site. 

  5. Page speed - I, like many of my mobile-equipped brethren, have no patience for slow loading sites.  This is true in the world of standard websites, but it's crucial in the smartphone world. If a page doesn't load on my smartphone within 10 seconds it's dead to me.  I have so many feeds and photos and games and apps on my smartphone that if I'm given 10 seconds of downtime my scrolling finger doesn't know what to do with itself and instantly seeks other areas of my phone to explore.  There are lots of ways to make your mobile site load faster: decrease image file sizes, use browser caching, minify your code and more. If you don't, you'll soon find faster loading competitor sites smacking your site down to lower search rankings.

Instant narcolepsy: slow loading mobile webpages

Fix your mobile problems now!

Make sure you or your hotel online marketing team take a good look at your hotel's mobile website and address any of the issues identified by Google as explained above.  Failure to do so will likely result in your site ranking lower in Google's mobile or smartphone search results. And while you may have shirked off mobile as a viable traffic source in the past, today, smartphones have become the computers we're connected to 24/7. We've seen mobile traffic compose about 20-30% of our hotel websites on average, and that number is steadily rising each year. Neglecting mobile is a good way to ignore about a third of your potential visitor base. And just keep in mind that it's much easier to fix mobile website issues now, rather than trying to recover from a massive Google penalty smackdown later. And while Google has announced these fixable items on their blog, you can bet the same smartphone policies apply to Bing's search results as well.  

The goal of the two search engine titans, Google and Bing, is the same: provide the most relevant, most authoritative search results to its user base. If your site loads slowly on smartphones it's no longer relevant because you haven't updated your site's structure to keep up with the on-the-go smartphone user.  And if your site is no longer relevant, it's no longer an authority in the online marketplace. Just be sure to take care of your mobile site and the search engines will take care of you.

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It's been so long since we last contributed to the ever-expanding knowledge base that is the web that you probably assumed Blue Magnet had been the victim of a very localized 2012 Mayan apocalypse. Not so, my fellow digital denizens. Fortunately, 2013 has jump-started us into another great year.  So much so, in fact, that we've had to put the blog on hold while we manage the growth of our company--a welcome change, indeed, but I'm sorry to say it has come at the expense of our own blog contributions. In other words, we're preachin' but not practicin'.

Nevertheless, we're back and ready to dive right in with a topic almost as legendary and mysterious as the Maya themselves: SEO.  Specifically, I'd like to explore the core areas compose a given business's search engine optimization efforts.

Those outside of the search industry typically associate SEO with keywords...and only keywords. Their understanding of SEO is somewhere along the lines of optimization circa 1997, where simply stuffing your content with keywords alone may have bought you top rankings in Altavista or Hotbot. But in our brave new online world, keywords alone do not an effective SEO campaign make.  The way I see it, there are 3 keys to setting your website up for SEO success: building great site usability, creating relevant content and establishing your site as a trusted authority.

The Search Engine Raison d'Être

In order to understand the core components of SEO, you have to first understand the purpose of a search engine.  Like any major business, the end goal of the major search engines is to make money through a sustainable business model.  As you've probably figured by now, the model of choice for the search engines is advertising.  Just like the newspaper biz, search engines thrive on advertising revenue.  And the way you sell more advertising is by having a large, targeted audience viewing your product.  Google has just that.  The more users Google gets to adopt its products (like Google Search, YouTube, Google+, Google Maps and all their other products), the more consumer eyes are on Google.com--the perfect place to present targeted Google Adwords PPC campaigns.

How Do Search Engines Build An Audience?

This isn't the Field of Dreams, so building it does not necessarily mean they will come. Search engines create an audience by providing a valuable service to consumers: delivering relevant websites based on a search query. If search engines provided crappy results users would simply turn to other channels to find information on the web (see: social media). That's why it's in the search engines' best interest to provide customers with the most relevant information from the most trusted authorities on that subject. Search Engine Optimization is really just about making sure your website is providing the search engines (and ultimately the searching public) with the most relevant and trusted website content.

We Have The Same Goals!

This is great news! Our goal of providing relevant, trusted information to our visitors is the same goal that the search engines have.  In the end it's all about helping the customer find the information they need. When Google sees businesses providing this information on their websites, it rewards them by ranking them higher in the search results. It's so elegant in its simplicity, and best of all, everybody wins! And it makes sense.  Why would Google or Bing promote a site that uses spammy keyword techniques, has little relevant information to your search and is part of a sketchy link network?  Promoting a site like that is a good way to drive users to other search engines--one which would hopefully offer better results.

The 3 Pillars of SEO

Once you understand the search engine's goals, it becomes clear that SEO is more than just keyword and link building; instead, it's about improving the usabilty of your site, the relevance of its textual content to the searcher, and the level of authority your site has within its industry.  Ultimately, both you and the search engines want to create a better user experience (which means more conversions).  And, although there are MANY, MANY ever-changing factors that determine how search engines like Google and Bing rank your website for given keywords, for the most part those individual criteria all tend to fit nicely into these 3 high level categories:  

  1. Site Architecture (establishes your site's usability)
  2. Content Optimization (establishes your site's relevance)
  3. Relationship Building (establishes your site's authority)

I'll break it down even more so you can get a better understanding of what I mean for each category.  In addition, we'll explore a few good examples of the SEO work done for each.

Site Architecture (for Usability)

Site architecture, as the name suggests, is the foundation of your SEO--it's about creating a user-friendly website.  Any good SEO professional will tell you that before you even dive into writing optimized content or building links, you need to ensure that your actual website is built in a user-friendly way.  After all, what good is it sending thousands of visitors to your site if the site's webpages offer such poor usability that those same visitors leave your site in frustration? Overall, site architecture is about designing and coding your website in a way that benefits your visitors. The easier it is for your customers to find, access and navigate your site, the better you'll rank in the search engines.  

Site architecture is one of the more technical aspects of SEO and includes things like:

  • Site speed - The faster a site loads the better it is for SEO.  Google even stated that it takes page load speeds into consideration as part of its ranking algorithm.  Slow loading pages frustrate users and offer poor on-site experiences.  Search engines do NOT want to promote those kinds of sites.  In addition, with the proliferation of mobile devices, it's more important than ever to make your site as zippy as possible to prevent your webpage from taking 5 minutes to load on your mobile device.
  • File naming and structure - Your website is made up of many different files, including things like HTML, image files and PDFs.  All the files of your site should be properly named and organized in a logical way.  For instance, don't name the photo of your hotel lobby "IMG_2364.jpg."  Instead, name it something more descriptive, like "MarriottAtlantis-HotelLobby.jpg."  Even that small change gives your hotel a greater chance of appearing for the keyword you just included in that photo's file name. In addition, if your site's URL looks like this mysite.com/file123.html?tag=accommodations&special=523, you'd be better off having the URL rewritten as something that makes a little more sense to the untrained eye, like mysite.com/rooms/chicago-hotel-specials.html. Not only does that rewritten URL give visitors a basic idea of its content, but you can even fit a few keywords into the URL as well (ie, "Chicago hotel specials").
  • Canonicalization - Otherwise known as the dreaded "duplicate content" problem, fixing canonicalization or redundancy errors in your site can streamline how the search engines crawl your site.  This problem arises when two pages of your site have identical or nearly identical content.  When this happens, the search engines figure, "Hey, why do I need two identical copies of this page in my database.  What a waste!  I'll just keep one copy and drop the other."  The problem is, you don't get to decide which page Google keeps and which it drops unless you specifically tell the search engine what you'd like to do.  This can be done with canonical tags in the code or by setting up 301 redirects.  It's an important "housekeeping" item that goes on behind the scenes, which clients rarely know about or understand.
  • Server errors - Have you ever clicked on a link to a webpage that displayed a 404 error, stating that the page you are looking for cannot be found? While these pages aren't inherently bad, your site should be scoured for outdated or broken links that point to 404 pages within your own site.  Using a tool like Bing or Google Webmaster Tools can help you troubleshoot those pesky 404 and 500 errors and get your site back on the right track.  Again, although most clients never see this part of SEO, it's an important part of the clean-up process.

This list is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to optimizing your website's architecture, but it's crucial to understand that not all optimization is in plain view.  Some of the magic takes place behind the curtain. And while it's not nearly as visible or glamorous or understood by all clients, it's imperative to the success of your SEO campaign nonetheless.

Content Optimization (for Relevance)

This is what most people think of when they think SEO. Whereas site architecture focuses on the usability of your site, content optimization deals with the relevance of your site to the searcher. How relevant is your page content to the keyword query of your visitor?  

While keyword optimization can be an important part of site architecture (ie, for naming files and organization), much of your keyword research will take shape in the content optimization section of SEO.  It's the meat of the campaign and comprises the (mostly) visible content on the page.  Making your site more relevant to searchers through Content Optimization can be done in the following ways:

  • Meta Tags - This is SEO 101, but optimizing your Title and Description meta tags is one of the most basic things you can do to optimize your website.  While meta tag optimization alone won't rocket you above your competitors in the search engine rankings, it's an important step in the overall process.
  • Alt Tags - Similar to meta tags, alt tags are the alternative text attached to the images on your website.  Adding alt tags gives the search engines crawlable text in the code of the webpage.  Without alt tags the search engines will see a big, fat ___________ where some good, optimized text could reside.  It's an often missed opportunity.
  • Headings - Like any good publication, headings also play a big part in the usability of your site.  They are the titles and subtitles on the page that help break your big blocks of content into smaller, clearly labeled chunks.  Although they have less impact on content optimization, headings (like H1 and H2 tags) should nevertheless be optimized for the search engines.
  • Body Text - Keyword research should be integrated seamlessly into the body text of every page of your site.  Focus on 2 or 3 keywords per page and write for your users, not the search engines.  Your text should always be written naturally and should never become bloated with keywords. Don't write copy like this: "This beautiful Chicago hotel in Chicago is the ideal Chicago hotel in the city of Chicago."  Spoiler alert: You probably won't rank for the keyword "Chicago hotel" writing copy like that.  And even worse, your site will likely get punished for your keyword stuffing.
  • Intrasite Links - Links from page to page within your site are integral to getting search engines to crawl deeper into your site. This ties in with usability, but is typically part of your content optimization efforts.
  • Interesting Content - By making your content more interesting, you make it more likely to be shared, which is an important part of the next pillar of SEO: relationship building.  Not all your pages will have link-worthy content, but the more unique and relevant your copy is to your community, the more inbound traffic see coming to your site.

Relationship Building (for Trust)

It's great if your site is user friendly and the on-page content is optimized to the gills, but if those were the only factors that determined search rankings, there would be a tremendous amount of unscrupulous nogoodniks that could easily game the system. This is because the site owner has complete control over the site architecture and the content on the site.  However, the one thing that the site owner doesn't control is the public's trust in their site.  

The search engines needed a way to establish trust online.  Which sites should be considered an authority in their industry?  And how do search engines assign a value on authority?  Enter link building and social media.  Google and Bing decided that the best way to determine the trustworthiness of your site is by evaluating it based on the company you keep. Which sites link to yours? Who shares your links on social media?  These social cues are indicators to the search engines that your content is a trusted source of information.  It's also why search engine optimization can take so long to impact your site. Trust isn't something you earn overnight; you become an authority through consistent leadership over time within a given field.  

With that in mind, here are some ways that the search engines establish trust:

  • Link Building - Having trusted websites link to your own is one of the best ways to build up authority in a given niche.  The search engines consider every good link a "vote" of trust for your site.  Conversely, links from poor quality sites or spammy sites can negatively impact your authority in the eyes of the search engines.  As someone's mom always said, "Mind the company you keep, and always steer clear of the misanthropes."  Same goes for websites.  Hang with the good crowd and get their links. Don't associate with sites of ill repute.
  • Social Networks - While link building is still an important part of SEO, social sharing is quickly becoming an indicator of both trust and relevance for the search engines. It's all one big popularity contest, and if people are sharing your content on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, then the search engines take this as a cue that your site must be pretty relevant. Social networking actually comes in to play within all three pillars of SEO.  It's important to build social sharing features into the architecture of your site to allow users to share your content. In addition, the on-page content has to be share-worthy enough to pass it along, so content optimization is crucial.  And finally, by building relationships through social networks you increase trust and authority in your brand, making it more likely that customers will spread your content to the own communities.

Making The Web A Better Place To Search

The good news is that you and the search engines are both working towards the same goal!  So build your site with usability, relevance and trust in mind and watch your site climb the search rankings. These lists are by no means exhaustive, but they should give you an idea of why SEO is such a time-intensive undertaking any why the search engines promote sites that benefit their users.  By improving your site content and how your users find information on your web pages, not only will you see an increase in traffic to your site, but you'll also see an increase in those visitors converting to paying customers!

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trapped in a contractWe've recently heard many stories of hotels that feel stuck with their current emarketing provider.  Sometimes hoteliers are immobilized by ironclad contracts that give all website rights to the emarketing vendor. Other times a hotel is locked in a perpetual relationship with an emarketing provider due to proprietary technologies and accounts.  Of course, these types of lock-ins are never a problem when the customer is happy, but when things go south that's when the swords come out and the legal dogs are let loose.

Nobody likes to be locked in a partnership, particularly with a business that has let them down. Maybe the product you purchased didn't live up to the marketing hype. It could be that the customer service just stinks. Or perhaps the quality of the service provided is the pits.

Regardless the reason, you're disappointed. You paid the big bucks and you've got nothing to show for it but frustration.  In the best case scenario, you complain directly to the company via social media or navigate the dreaded automated phone maze in order to reach a live human being, only to get platitudes about "quality" and that company's commitment to "service." Most of the time though, you make a mental note of the offending brand and vow never to support their evil empire of shoddiness again! Unfortunately, in some instances you're met with a dead end: you've purchased a product or service that locks you into some sort of agreement that you are unable to break without some sort of severe psychological or financial cost.

How To Trap A Client

Here are just a few examples that we've seen of hotel clients who have been locked into unhealthy relationships with other vendors. The hotel names have been removed to protect the innocent.

  • Trapped by a Contract:
    Hotel 1 had signed a contract with a vendor that provides emarketing services but was interested in switching to a new emarketing vendor. The old vendor had built their independent website and provided some dubious ecommerce services. Understandably, the hotel was unimpressed with the performance and the company's overall attention to detail.  Since the hotel entered a contract with the vendor, the General Manager was simply waiting for that agreement to expire before moving on to Blue Magnet.  Unfortunately, upon further review of the vendor's contract, the hotel came to realize that the vendor actually owned the domain name and the design of the site!  This meant that even if the hotel let their contract with the vendor expire they still would not be able to take their website with them.  After all, according to the contract, it was property of the vendor! As a result, the hotel would basically forfeit their entire website and any search engine performance earned by the site thus far. Essentially the hotel would have to rebuild their site if they wanted to change vendors. They were trapped, just as the vendor had planned. They wanted out of their contract, but doing so would financially harm their hotel in the short term.
  • Trapped by a Proprietary Product:
    Hotel 2 had paid an emarketing vendor to create their website, but had since decided to go with a new emarketing vendor. Part of that transition from one emarketing vendor to the next involved the management of the hotel's independent website. Unbeknownst to the hotel, the site was developed on the vendor's proprietary content management system (CMS).  This was fine while the hotel was working with the vendor because they managed all the content through the proprietary CMS.  However, the hotel soon discovered that it would be unable to migrate the site away from the old vendor without breaking all the code that tied the site to that vendor's proprietary CMS.  As a result, the hotel had to invest additional funds into rebuilding the broken site in an open, non-proprietary format with the new emarketing vendor. The open format would allow the hotel to freely move the site to whichever vendor they chose without the headache caused by the old vendor's system. Although the proprietary CMS may have offered slick features and options unique to that platform, it needlessly bound the customer to that provider.
  • Trapped by Proprietary Information:
    Hotel 3 had an independent website that was being tracked with Google Analytics tracking software. This tracking provides a wealth of historical information about all kinds of user behavior on the website. The vendor set up the hotel's Google Analytic profile (as well as those of their other clients) on their own central vendor account. This meant that when it came time for the hotel to switch online marketing providers, the vendor told the hotel that they would be unable to give them ownership of the data because it was tied to their own corporate account.  The hotel could create their own Google Analytics account, but they would lose the historic data tracked across the previous years. As a result, the hotel was forced to abandon all their old historical data that helps to analyze and improve future site performance, all because their previous vendor held their data captive.

It's clear why these companies choose to do businesses this way. They assume that trapping customers with contracts, proprietary formats and locked data is a way to ensure continued revenue streams. Let's face it, new business acquisition is challenging and comes at a significant cost to any business (time and money). It's tempting to lock someone into your services. But forcing customers to stay with your company against their will is a shortsighted solution. Once that barrier is removed, that customer is going to bolt, spewing obscenities about your company in their wake. Putting up false obstacles is never good for customer satisfaction either. Blue Magnet was founded on the idea that customers would want to stay with our agency because we've become a valuable part of their team, not because they've been trapped by a proprietary product or slick contract that grants us rights to all their website content.

How To Protect Yourself

There are a lot of sketchy characters out there, and not all of them conspicuously don the Snidely Whiplash mustache with matching "bad-guy" cape. In fact, many vendors appear to be acting in your best interest, and for the most part they are. You just have to make sure you read the fine print on the agreement. The best defense against getting trapped with an unscrupulous emarketing vendor is the same in any industry: do your homework! In addition, these simple tips will help keep you free from the shackles of an unhealthy business relationship.

  1. Call vendor references - Investigate the company with which you are considering doing business. And don't just call the clients the vendor provides you. Snoop around the internet. Google's great for sleuthing! And because many vendors will place a link back to their own company website in the footer of their clients' websites, you have an easy way of tracking down potential references (even ones they may not want to explicitly advertise).  Another good tool for investigating this beyond the search engines is to run a search for the vendor's website in OpenSiteExplorer.org.  Here are the results from a search for BlueMagnetInteractive.com. You can see many of the sites we built for our clients.
  2. Use open source solutions - If you think you may switch emarketing vendors at some point, make sure your website isn't built on that vendor's proprietary framework. Some examples of content management systems that are open source are Joomla!, Drupal and Wordpress, among others.  Unless you really need a custom CMS, many of these open source solutions will be able to accomplish the same goals. More importantly, they can easily be transferred from one vendor to another without having to worry about breaking the system.
  3. Purchase your own domain - Make sure that when you purchase your domain name (examplehotel.com) that the WhoIs information (contact info for the domain) is in the hotel's name. There is no reason for the vendor to own this. In addition, the contract that the client enters into with the vendor should clearly state that the domain is property of the hotel, not the vendor.
  4. Request full access to the hosting - Many vendors will host a client's website on their own servers. This is fine, as long as the client is given access to manipulate content on the back end of the system.  Some vendors prevent outside access to their systems.
  5. Set up accounts in your name - Should you ever choose to leave your current vendor, you're going to want to take all your hard earned data with you. Otherwise, how will your new vendor know how to benchmark your performance? Let's take Google Analytics as an example. The vendor should set up a separate Google account in the hotel's name in order to track your website. Vendors that insist on setting up the account under their own vendor profile are only setting you up to lose all your historical web data when the day comes that you choose to leave that vendor. Ask that any new accounts for your hotel be set up independent of the vendor's other clients, for portability's sake. Also, make sure you request admin access to any accounts they set up for you.
  6. Own all creative rights - This should be a given for any kind of work-for-hire, but ensure that when your vendor builds your website that they transfer ownership rights of all design and development work, all copy on the site, all images to you. The vendor is building the website for you. You should not need to license the site from them. If you paid them to build it, you should own it. Make sure the contract says as much. There's nothing quite like spending thousands of dollars on a cool new website, only to find out that you're not the real owner--the vendor is.
  7. Review the contract carefully - This tip covers many of the items above, but it's important to list on its own. Many clients who think they're free to leave with everything they've already paid for are often shocked to find that the simple agreement they signed states otherwise. Have your legal team review the terms before you give the final sign off on any vendor contracts, particularly if you're unfamiliar with the technologies referenced in the document.
  8. Ask questions - There's a sucker born every minuteGrill your vendor with some hard hitting questions. This is your money! Make them work for it. It's harder to walk all over a client when they're knowledgeable about the emarketing industry. When I bring my car to a mechanic they look at me and see a sucker. That's when their eyes quickly flash dollar signs, a cash register chime is heard, and with a wry smile the mechanic assures me, "We'll take it from here, chump." A little knowledge goes a long way in showing the vendor that you'll call them out if they try any funny business. You don't have to be a jerk about it--just be knowledgeable and ask questions based on the list in this blog post.
  9. Understand what you're purchasing - Finally, just make sure that your vendor tells you, in plain English (not legalese), what your business has purchased from them. What do you own at the end of the day when you decide to walk away? How long are you in the contract? What does the vendor own? How easy is it to migrate the website, hosting, domain, services and accounts over to a new vendor? Even if you're on good terms with the vendor now, always make sure you have an out.

Most client/vendor problems can be avoided by simply understanding what you're buying into as the client. Admittedly, emarketing can be a confusing industry; there are a lot of technologies, intellectual property rights and participating parties involved in website development and marketing the site online. Keeping it all straight can be exhausting. Just be sure to use these tips as a guideline so you can understand what your hotel will walk away with after the relationship has ended. Contracts in themselves aren't inherently evil, and in many cases should serve to protect both parties; However, as identified above, when put into the wrong hands they can certainly be used for nefarious purposes. The more you understand before signing the contract, the less pain you'll experience when you and your vendor decide to part ways. Fortunately, most reputable emarketing vendors won't need to rely on underhanded contracts to secure their business model. Vendors that rely on the strength of their performance and the quality of their support will never need to rely on fine print agreements to lock in their clients. Quite the contrary--those clients will never want to leave!

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Beach on the Poconos IslandsIf you've never been to the beautiful Poconos Islands in the tropical turquoise waters of the Caribbean you should definitely add it to your list of top places in the world to visit. A tiny, undeveloped archipelago floating lazily off the northeastern coast of the Dominican Republic (see map below), The Poconos Islands are what most people envision when they dream of the quintessential beachfront paradise.

Yes, surely add it to your list of exotic, must-see destinations.  In fact, you can add it right up there with El Dorado, Shangri-La, Platform 9 3/4, the lost city of Atlantis, and any other mythical destination you had your heart set on.

Sadly, there are no Poconos Islands. But that photo above sure made you think twice, didn't it?

For hoteliers, the message should be clear: the imagery on your hotel website serves as an incredibly persuasive tool for converting visitors into paying guests. When paired with a description of your property or a claim about your features and amenities, an image can actually enhance the perception of truth about that particular statement.

Dead or alive?

recent study mentioned in Arstechnica highlights this very impact and image can have on "truthiness:"

The authors, based in New Zealand and Canada, performed an "alive or dead" test, showing the names of minor celebrities and asking undergraduates whether the person was still alive. In half the cases, they also showed a photo of the person. When the photo was present, people were more likely to answer that the statement was true.

The obvious explanation for this is that none of the photos were of a corpse, and seeing a person alive would almost certainly bias the participants toward thinking the person was alive. So, they switched the questions, asking another group whether they thought the person was dead. As it turned out, the photo also caused people to evaluate the statement as true, and answer that the person was no longer alive.

To make sure this didn't only work with people, the authors switched to true/false trivia questions, like the macadamia example mentioned above. Again, photos (in this case, images of the subject of the question) caused people to answer "true" more often than they did in a control quiz. And it wasn't just images. They could get a similar effect by reading a short description of the person in question.

Picture vs. common sense

The Poconos Islands in the CaribbeanImagery is incredibly persuasive.  In instances where even the most common of sense should prevail, imagery can cast doubt on your firmly held notions.  Take the introduction of the Poconos Islands above, for instance.  It's pretty convincing when you see a legitimate-looking beach photo labeled "The Poconos Islands" or a map of the Caribbean featuring the mysterious island chain.  Still, you're pretty sure you were always taught that the Poconos were a popular ski destination in mountainous eastern Pennsylvania.  ...on the other hand, maybe there really are Poconos Islands somewhere out there.

While there really are no Poconos Islands, many years ago I created them.  Some coworkers were talking about their recent vacation in the Poconos and how great the skiing had been.  Having never been to the Poconos nor having known much about the destination, the name always sounded Caribbean to me, which seemed an unlikely place to go skiing.  It could be that I was simply confusing the Beach Boys' island ballad "Kokomo" with the similarly sounding Pennsylvanian Mountain range.  Regardless, my followup question about skiing on some snow-capped Caribbean isle was met with a hearty round of laughter.  In retrospect, it really didn't make sense to me either, but in my mind "The Poconos" could only exist as a name for an island.

The power of the picture

To save face I insisted that such an island did exist and that I was sure I could locate it on Google Maps.  So I went back to my desk, opened the Caribbean map in Photoshop, created a new island by cloning Cuba, and labeled it "The Poconos Islands."  I emailed the altered map to my coworkers and then made my rounds to each office to witness their confusion firsthand. It turns out I received some head shakes of disbelief, an apology, and some exclaimations of frustration from those who simply couldn't locate the fabricated islands on their own computer.  But even though my coworkers remained fairly skeptical, they had trouble refuting the altered map and eventually accepted the lie.  All because of an image.

These coworkers knew better, but the fact that they now had an image to support my erroneous claim caused them to abandon what they new for sure to be true (the Poconos of PA) for the uncertainty of a newly proposed fact (the Poconos of the Caribbean).

What hotels can learn from The Poconos Islands

I'm not suggesting that hoteliers should lie to customers about features of their hotel.  Instead, the Poconos Islands--while an extreme example--should remind us of the power of imagery to persuade.  Here are a few items for hoteliers to consider in managing their online presence:

  1. Use photos to strengthen the perception of your claims - If your selling feature is your proximity to the downtown area, show a photo of downtown.  If your hotel's spa has the best Swedish massages in town, show a photo of the spa service.  If your hotel is just minutes from the airport, show a photo of the closest airport.  Each image can have an impact on how truthful your customers perceive each of those statements to be. After all, it's much easier to make a judgement about a single photo of a guest room than 10 paragraphs of text about how great it is.
  2. Budget for professional photography - According to the study, just having any relevant photo is enough to convince people of a statement's truth.  But that doesn't mean you should skimp on good photography. It's been said before, but due to its importance in every online marketing channel, it bears repeating: good photography is crucial to selling your hotel.  Don't cut corners by using your iPhone to capture killer shots.  Hire a professional who understands good composition and can sell your hotel through interesting framing rather than relying on Photoshopping in features you don't have.
  3. Don't lie or exaggerate through your photos - You may fool customers into booking at your hotel, but once they arrive they'll be sure to correct your mistake with photos of their own--photos which will quickly be shared on TripAdvisor, Facebook and any other network of which they are a member. Not only will be losing that customer in the future, but all potential customers with which that person shared their experience. Don't Photoshop ocean views into your suite photos if you're a mile inland.  In the age of internet transparency, many travel sites already do a great job of exposing the deception of over-doctored hotel photography.

In addition to images' ability to enhance content's truthiness, we've seen that photo gallery pages are consistently one of the top viewed pages on hotel websites.  We see the same engagement on social media channels, where imagery posted on our clients' social networks always gets greater interaction than plain text status updates. When done right, professional photography can be an expensive investment but one that's well worth it, especially considering how ubiquitous imagery is in the online travel world. Those photos can be used on your hotel website, OTAs, social media, menus, brochures, blogs, TripAdvisor and other third party sites, to further support your claims about your property.

So whether your hotel is in Aruba or Jamaica, Bermuda or Bahama, or anywhere else around the globe, when it comes to the the power of your hotel's photography, just remember a little place called Poconos.

Key Largo, Montego, baby why don't we go
Down to Poconos
We'll get there fast
And then we'll take it slow
That's where we wanna go
Way down to
Poconos.

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As a hotelier, you rely on many different tools to sell your product: professional photography for marketing collateral, training programs for the sales team, advertising in traditional media, wining and dining potential clients, emarketing and even business cards. They all come at a price. Whether it's at the property level or supplied by the brand, someone has to pay for the tools that are essential to marketing and selling your hotel. So what is the ROI on those tools? If you've never bothered to calculate the return, why not?

Most likely you've never bothered because it's difficult to measure the ROI on things like photography, sales training and social media, but that doesn't mean there's no return on those investments. Instead of always focusing on the direct financial return on those investments, consider the other value those tools bring to your business.  These might be things such as:

  • Gaining insights into customer sentiment
  • Receiving feedback about your product
  • Encouraging happy customers
  • Diffusing angry customers
  • Offering customers another channel with which to communicate with your hotel
  • Improved rankings in search engines
  • Improved rankings in TripAdvisor
  • Assisted Conversions (see below)
  • The billboard effect and branding

How do you calculate the ROI on business cards?

What always strikes me as odd and somewhat hypocritical is that many hoteliers will automatically include in their annual marketing budgets items of such nebulous ROI as business cards, printed brochures, training and traditional advertising; however, when told to budget for social media marketing suddenly the alarm bells ring, red flags go up, and the familiar scrutiny over this channel's dubious ROI suddenly rears its ugly head. Why do the hackles go up and the purse strings tighten at the mention of Twitter, Facebook and Google+?

Matt Bitzer: Super GeniusWhen was the last time you questioned the ROI on business cards that you purchased for your team? Surely you know the return on investment for your hotel's photography. Were you able to isolate the ROI on that out-of-state training seminar your sales team attended? What kind of return were you able to measure from that investment?

Clearly there must be value in these investments; otherwise it's just wasteful spending for no better reason than because "it's just where hotels have always spent money." But when was the last time anyone questioned why you were spending $10,000 a year on printed brochures of your meeting space? Has it ever happened? Although the cost may be scrutinized and negotiated, my experience is that hotels see that kind of collateral (as well as many of the other aforementioned expenses) as a necessary cost of doing business as a hotel. The ROI is never questioned, even if it should be. What if every potential client that receives your $10,000 printed brochures dumps it in the trash after their thorough site visit of your hotel? It seems to me that $10,000 would be better spent elsewhere.

Why do we invest in tools that have an unknown ROI?

Most travelers--and I would hope by now, most hoteliers--would agree that professional hotel photography is a crucial component of a hotel's success in marketing itself both online and offline. Not only can we draw from our own personal experiences (I know I head straight for the photo gallery when researching various accommodations), but most hotel website analytics will point to the photo gallery page as one of the most visited pages of a hotel's website.

So how do you attribute a return on that investment? Good photography isn't cheap, so why do hotel's put money aside for it when the ROI is unknown? One possible estimate would be to say that X% of visitors that booked a room also visited the photo gallery page. It still doesn't give you an exact ROI though. Instead, it tells you that photography is important to visitors, but it doesn't tell you by how much. Of that X% that checked out your gallery before booking a room, how many would still have booked if your hotel had no photos? You don't know an exact number, but all signs point to photography being a marketing component that is important to your potential guests. Even if you assume that $1 million in revenue was generated from visitors who also access your photo gallery, you can't possibly attribute all that revenue to the effects of the photos. What if those visitors entered through your email campaign? Certainly some of that $1 million in revenue would be attributed to the ROI of the email campaign as well as the photography.

The point is, it's difficult to attribute exact ROI figures to certain necessary items like quality hotel photography or training for your sales team, despite the fact that both are crucial to the hotel's overall sales process.

It's just the way we've always done things

I get it. Social media is unfamiliar territory for many hoteliers. Business cards, printed brochures and photography are old stand-bys--tried and true friends that have been around since the day Statler first met Waldorf. Hotels have continued to invest in those tools because it's what they've always done as part of their sales process. It worked last year, so it'll work this year. ...at least, you assume it will.

When it comes to ROI for many sales and marketing investments you simply need to guess or make a guesstimate or make an educated guess, but in the end it's still a big question mark. It's just like when you purchase a billboard ad and the ad agency assures you an average of 500,000 cars pass by that billboard each month. That's great, but how many people are really looking at the billboard? Then, how many of those people actually took action after seeing that billboard? Do you ask guests at your hotel: "so did you hear about us from our billboard ad?" If not, you should...if you care about the true ROI of that ad.

But billboards are simple. Their purpose is clear. A business advertises, consumers read and consumers consume. Social media, on the other hand, can be used to benefit businesses in so many different ways that many hoteliers become overwhelmed by this open-ended channel and lack of a singular purpose. As a result, they become wary of social media's effectiveness and ultimately pull the plug, or never start at all.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

We've seen echoes of this trepidation towards new technologies and communication tools throughout the hospitality industry's past. For example, when the hospitality industry was just starting to get its feet wet on the web, there were many hoteliers that rejected building websites due to cost or because it didn't seem like a viable booking channel at the time. Or, in cases where they did have a website they may have heard about this crazy new thing called "search engine optimization," but dismissed it as another vial of snake oil cleverly marketed by those dastardly SEO companies. Looking down the barrel of hindsight we get great examples of opportunites missed.

In the end, this hesitation paved the way for the OTAs to dominate the online travel world. Their websites were designed well, provided better usability to customers and were properly optimized for the search engines. In addition, they enhanced their online visibility through paid advertising. The OTAs had embraced these online tools that many hoteliers and major hotel brands had rejected. As a result, many hotels websites are still trying to catch up to this day. As philosopher George Santayana cautioned in his famous quote in the subtitle above, the hospitality industry needs to learn from these past mistakes and realize that social media is not a passing fad. While the tools of social media may change drastically (Myspace who?), the core concept of word-of-mouth marketing will continue to be one of the most trusted marketing channels available. Hotels can't afford to be late adopters in such a competitive arena anymore.

Losing control

Not only is social media unfamiliar territory, but as a hotelier, you no longer have complete control of your marketing message. In fact, your customers are now part of your marketing team, and that scares the hell out of many hotel folks. Still, sticking your head in the sand and pretending you don't need this crazy Twitter or Facebook thing, doesn't mean people will stop talking about your business. If you're rowing against the social media tide, then every day will be a public relations struggle.

It may be the case that your social media ROI remains as elusive and mysterious as the sasquatch; however, ignoring this important channel means your customers have the final say in your hotel's reputation online--not you. The goal isn't to completely control what every guest is saying, but rather to be a participatory voice to help foster loyalty, diffuse discontent, and learn from the comments of your customers.

Measuring other returns on social media success

There is a way to measure the ROI on social media, but it depends on what you consider to be the "return." While metrics such as Facebook likes and Twitter followers may not tell you exactly how much revenue social media is generating for your hotel, other social metrics can give you valuable insights (such as feedback and customer sentiment about your property).

Some savvy hotels and emarketers even assign estimated ROI values to those figures. For example, if a customer complaint is diffused by the hotel through conversations on Facebook, what is the value of that resolution? How much is it worth to you, being able to prevent that irate customer from blowing up on TripAdvisor with a full-page, scathing review of your hotel? Is it worth the value of that one customer's stay? Or do you estimate the value based on how many people you would have lost had you left that customer to fume and paint the web with expletives about your hotel? How much is that prevention worth to you?

If you are hellbent on assigning a financial return on your social media investment then you need to agree on the value of these interactions. How much is it worth to your hotel to accommodate an angry customer? To gain feedback about problem areas at your hotel? To get "billboard effect" type exposure across your social networks? To connect with potential guests interested in your city? There is a value here, but it's up to you to determine its worth.

Measuring direct financial ROI on social media

In addition to those more amorphous means of attributing ROI to social media, you can measure its direct impact on your revenue. Provided you have the appropriate analytics integrated into the backend of your website, you can see the direct contribution of various social media channels to your bottom line. That's right, exact dollar amounts! You can even see Assisted Conversions. An assisted conversion occurs when a visitor returns to your hotel website multiple times through multiple channels (Google search, email campaign, pay-per-click ad, social media, etc) before finally making a purchase.

For instance, consider this customer's path through the booking cycle:

  1. The guest initially visits your hotel's website from a friend's Facebook link about your property.
  2. Soon that visitor leaves your site to do more research.
  3. Five days later that same guest is finally ready to book, remembers your hotel and returns to your site through a natural search result in Google.

In this example, the final step in the customer's booking funnel was a search engine, so Google gets credited with the direct conversion. However, the Facebook link was the first channel that drove the customer to your site. Facebook was the site that got that customer started down the booking funnel, and thus gets credited with an assisted conversion. These channels work together to assist each other and help move the potential customer down the sales process. So even though Facebook didn't result in a direct booking for the hotel, it did assist in the conversion and thus deserves credit for revenue booked as well.

The value of an assisted conversion

Take a look at the Google Analytics chart below for one of our hotels. It shows that 18 Assisted Conversions generated about $4,260 for the property. In addition, if you look at the column labeled Last Interaction Conversions you will find the number of conversions that were a result of the user coming directly from a social media channel. In this case, the hotel made almost $12,000 from visitors who arrived directly from sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and others.



Also, keep in mind that this hotel has no active social media presence. The conversions shown above are a result of a basic presence featuring minimal engagement with their potential customer base. If this is what the hotel is generating without even trying, just imagine the potential of social media if they actually invested in an active marketing campaign!

Direct revenue from social media is low? So what?

Yes, financial return that is directly attributed to social media will likely be low for most hotels. So what? If you think about it, people don't join social networks so they can read advertisements or be spammed with special offers. If that's your idea of social media then your campaign definitely needs a new strategy.  Consumers are there to connect with friends and families. Fortunately, many people also follow companies and brands they like, as long as those businesses provide interesting, valuable content, and don't spam their followers with constant advertisements.

Social media for most hotels will never be the revenue generator that organic search has been, so stop thinking of it that way. Social media is a more open, friendly communication. It's the General Manager walking around the hotel, shaking hands and asking, "So, have you had a pleasant stay with us?" It's not so much about advertising your product, but rather it's about making your product more valuable, more approachable and more accessible to your customers. Social media is that handshake with customers before they even enter your doors.

It's how your customers choose to communicate with you

Even if you completely write off social media ROI as nothing more than smoke and mirrors, social media is the way customers expect to be able to contact your hotel in the 21st century. It's not the only way customers want to connect, but it should be an option offered by the hotel. Currently people can make reservations at a hotel by calling or booking online. But if the hotel suddenly dropped its phone service and forced new customers to only book online, there would certainly be a lot of unhappy customers who would have preferred to call in their reservation. Although offering both options certainly comes at a higher cost for the hotel, it also makes it more accessible to a wider audience who might prefer one mode of communication over the other. Hotels should want to provide as many channels for their customers to communicate with them as possible.

Social media makes other features of your hotel more valuable

Your hotel would still function without a concierge, without a pool and without a bellhop, but those features add value to your overall product. Social media is the same. It doesn't function in a vacuum. This means you need to fully integrate social media into your overall marketing plan. When paired with natural search, added to your website, tied in with local events and encouraged onsite at your property, social media makes it easier for customers to connect with your hotel. Moreover, it gives them the opportunity to provide you with valuable feedback and then share their experience easily with friends and family. Best of all, it means your own customers can become the most valuable marketing tool in your entire arsenal: a positive, word-of-mouth recommendation.

Everything online has a social component these days, so don't be a wallflower

TripAdvisor and Facebook integrationEven if you don't subscribe to the concept of "connecting with customers," consider this: search engines such as Google and Bing have quickly moved towards more socially-integrated platforms. This means that your rankings in the major search engines are already impacted by your reputation (or lack thereof) on popular social media networks. Google's local search has already been assimilated into their own social media platform, Google+. Likewise, Bing has been taking social cues from your Facebook friends and relevant experts in order to provide you with more useful search results. Even TripAdvisor has integrated Facebook, highlighting hotels that your friends and family have liked or visited. The popular travel site then uses that information to give ranking preference to those hotels more highly favored among your social network.

Social media is still important even if it never creates a single direct booking for your hotel

Even if you never know how much direct revenue is being generated by your social media campaign, at this point it should be clear that social media has a tremendous impact on your hotel's other online marketing channels. When a significant portion of your online revenue comes from search engines, and social cues are influencing search engines rankings, you can not afford to leave social media out of your marketing mix.

Although most people focus on the financial return when they consider the R in ROI, that's not always the case. The return on your investment is the additional value (different from money) that is created through your investment. The value of this return could come in the form of:

  • Illustrating complex data more efficiently (ie, printed floor plans)
  • Enhancing the aesthetic appeal of your product (ie, professional hotel photography)
  • Improving your team's skills (training programs)
  • Providing your contact information on a handy-dandy note (ie, business cards), or...
  • Connecting with brand supporters, understanding customer sentiment, and ranking better in search engines (ie, social media marketing)

In the end, you may not know exactly how much exact revenue each of these tools generated for your hotel, but there's no question each plays a valuable part in the overall marketing of your hotel. Next time you demand to know the ROI on your social media campaign, consider the other kinds of return that will likely be realized, beyond the direct revenue. It may difficult to assess that value, but not every important investment needs to have direct financial return in order to be valuable to the growth of your business.

 

Want more information?

Give us a call at 877-361-1177 x202 or send us a note if you are interested in finding out more about independent websites or how Blue Magnet can help you achieve your hotel's ecommerce goals.

 

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When visitors arrive at your hotel website using their mobile phone what do they see? Is it easy for them to book a room? To find directions? To call the hotel? Or have you forced your potential customers to try to view and navigate your standard website--which was designed for large computer monitors--on a small, mobile screen about the size of a playing card?

If your customers are still pinching, zooming, scrolling through your standard website on their mobile devices, it's likely that you're losing out on room revenue from mobile visitors due to your hotel website's frustrating mobile experience. Discouraged customers will book elsewhere if it's too difficult for them to navigate your mobile website. Stop driving paying guests to your mobile-optimized competitors by creating a mobile version of your own website!

Just take a look below at how a standard website appears on your mobile phone versus the mobile-optimized version. As you can see, the mobile optimized website on the right is much easier to read and navigate right from the get-go--no zooming required!

As a hotelier, being able to communicate effectively to your potential customers on their mobile phones can have a tremendous impact on your bottom line. Unlike a standard computer, most people are tethered to their smartphones all day, every day. Think about it: if you're a smartphone owner, try to recall the last time you were separated from it for more than 10 minutes. Chances are that gadget is next to you at all times: while you eat, while you sleep, while you commute, while you're at work and maybe for some of you it's even with you in the bathroom. Your mobile phone is an always-on, omnipresent device that's connected to the internet 24 hours a day, thanks to the wonders of fast 3G/4G data streaming. The chances of someone searching for your hotel on a mobile phone are quite high when you consider how much time we smartphone owners spend with our gadgets. This is great news, because there's nothing a marketer likes more than an always-connected audience to advertise to.

Why bother with a mobile hotel website?

There are two primary reasons why your hotel needs a mobile site:

  1. An increasing number of users are reaching your site through mobile devices
  2. The way a mobile user interacts with your website is very different than that of a non-mobile user

Because of the sheer volume of mobile users it makes it that much more important to address this growing group's needs. In order to foster the best conversion rates on your site you need to present the right content in the right format depending on how the visitor is accessing your site. If you just bought a new house you wouldn't use a single pickup truck to move in all your furniture! Sure, it might save you a little money and would get the job done, but it would take forever! Using a moving truck with professional movers is a much more efficient way to accomplish the task. The same goes for your website. Sure, users can muddle their way through your standard website on their mobile device, but it's much more efficient to have the site optimized to fit their mobile browser. It's all about providing the right tool for the size of the job.

The rise of the mobile user

So just how many users have gone mobile, you ask? Well, you've likely heard the recent statistics about mobile phone ownership outpacing personal computer ownership (PDF). Or how half the population of US mobile subscribers now own smartphones. Or that it is estimated that there will be over 108 million tablet users by 2015. While there are plenty of sites that have these statistics, at Blue Magnet it's even more compelling when we look at our own client data.

For instance, take a look at the increase in mobile visits to this hotel's website in July 2010 vs the same month in 2012. Keep in mind that by 2010, the original iPhone had already been out 3 years, yet this hotel still only saw 5% of their traffic coming from mobile devices. Fast forward to July 2012 and you can see that in those two short years mobile visits to the hotel website now represent 25% of the total site visits! That's a full quarter of their traffic that represents over 8,000 visits in that month alone.

If you've made it difficult for these people to book a room or call your hotel by showing them a non-mobile optimized page when they arrive at your site, you've drastically cut your conversion rate for those visitors. You've made it much more difficult for them to navigate your cumbersome, standard website.

In another example, let's compare three months worth of mobile traffic for a cluster of hotels in 2011 (orange) versus the same months in 2012 (blue). Comparing the same 3 months year-over-year we see an astounding 140% growth in mobile traffic to this website. And, as you can clearly see from the chart below, the mobile trend line continues to move upward and onward. In one year this cluster of hotels managed to more than double their mobile traffic (from 22,839 visits last year to 54,748 this year).

What does it mean to have a "mobile optimized" hotel website?

As you probably know, most modern smartphones are able to render mobile-optimized and non-mobile optimized sites without a problem. If you view any website in your mobile browser, chances are your Android, iPhone, or Windows phone will be able to show you the page without a hitch. But just because you can view a webpage on your mobile phone doesn't means it's optimized for that smaller screen size. Consumers interact with websites on mobile devices differently than they would on their standard computers, and because of this, your site should be optimized appropriately to help them accomplish their goals.

Consider these elements when creating a mobile-optimized hotel website:

  1. Consider your audience and how they're consuming your content - We want to format our website in a way that makes it easier for consumers to browse our content no matter what device they are on. At the most basic level, this means creating two separate version of your website: one that can be viewed on a normal computer monitor, and one that can be viewed on a mobile device (which includes both smartphones and tablets). In order to send the correct version of the website to the correct visitor, some code is placed on the backend of the site that determines whether the user is viewing with a standard computer or a mobile device.

    Some businesses even go as far as to create separate website layouts to address the distinction between smartphones versus tablets within the "mobile devices" category. After all, the behavior of smartphone users is considerably different than that of tablet users. As such, the content should be structured in a way that is most conducive to the usage requirements of each type of visitor.

    There's even a new web development technique called responsive web design, which involves a single website that reformats dynamically to the size of the user's viewing screen. This is a great option that entails essentially creating three versions of the website (standard, tablet, smartphone) in one. Regardless of which technique is used--creating different versions of your website or using responsive web design--the goal is the same: present visitors with content that is optimized for viewing on their specific device.
  2. Show only the most important content - Mobile users navigate a site differently than their non-mobile counterparts. Things such as directions, contact info, and click-to-call are some of the most important actions a mobile user might want to make on your site. You probably don't need to feature every little niche landing page you've ever created on your mobile site. Those kinds of pages likely aren't at the top of the list of useful content for your mobile visitors, so they probably don't need to be featured on your mobile site.

    Consider this: according to an article in USA Today, Vice President of Marriott eMarketing Andrew Kauffmann states that about half of Marriott's mobile bookings are same-day reservations. This means that these mobile guests will be probably be using their smartphones to 1) see photos of the hotel;  2) review accommodation options;  3) call the hotel with questions; 4) book their same-day reservation; or 5) find directions to the hotel. If you don't have elements on your mobile-optimized site that quickly and clearly address these key customer goals, you're making it much more difficult for those mobile users to become heads in your beds.
  3. Avoid Adobe Flash - Many mobile phones, notably the ubiquitous iPhone, simply won't display Adobe Flash content. Instead, that Flash content will show up as a nice, big, ugly grey box in the middle of your pretty website. If you think your standard website looks absolutely breathtaking with a nice Flash slideshow of your property on the homepage, keep in mind that most mobile users will never see it. With mobile-friendly HTML5 and jQuery alternatives, there is no reason a hotel should need to rely on Flash for their website slideshow or photo gallery.
  4. Make text larger - When mobile browsers render your non-mobile site they often start "zoomed out" to fit the entire webpage width in the screen. Then, for the visitor to read the teeny tiny text on the screen they have to pinch and zoom in order to hone in on the section they want to read. While many users have gotten used to this format, it's far from ideal. For one thing, if you've zoomed into to one part of the screen to read an article, you then need to zoom out in order to reorient yourself within the page and then zoom into the next section of the page you want to read.
  5. Beware of small links for fat fingers - Similar to the previous item, small links on mobile devices can cause problems for even normal sized fingers, let alone those with over-sized digits. For instance, many main navigation bars have many links listed close together. If your site isn't optimized for mobile devices it's too easy to accidentally "click" the wrong link with your wide digits. Shoppers tend to get frustrated with having to constantly go back and try again; by utilizing a more ‘mobile-friendly’ template you’ll be able to get your potential guest the info they want more quickly.
  6. Improve cumbersome booking widgets - Don't make booking a room at your hotel a chore for your mobile customers. For most mobile users a click-to-call button would easily accomplish the same function as a booking widget, but would require less steps and less input. There are likely many people that don't want to have to manually enter their credit card information into your system to reserve their room. Ideally, you might give the mobile customer a choice: offer a click-to-call button but also offer a "Book Now" button that takes the user into your mobile-optimized reservation system. Regardless of what you offer, simpler is better on the mobile device.
  7. Streamline lengthy forms - Although I have some friends who can probably text faster than they can type on a standard keyboard, for most consumers it can be a pain to fill out lengthy forms on mobile devices. These kinds of forms might be okay when viewing the page on your standard computer, but no one wants to fill out 20 fields in a Contact Us form on a mobile device when a well-placed click-to-call phone number would accomplish the same goal much more quickly. Also, I'd venture to say that, based on my own experiences, consumers hate filling out lengthy forms anyway, regardless of whether your site is mobile optimized or not.  Keep 'em short!
  8. Give customers the option to return to the non-mobile site - If you have a mobile-optimized version of your website, make sure you at least give your visitors the option to view your standard website. Since many mobile sites only display content that is most pertinent to the mobile user, oftentimes some of the standard website content might be omitted to avoid clutter. While this can be a good tactic, it can be quite frustrating to view a mobile website only to realize that the content you want to view is only available on the standard website.

    In fact, many sites now place a link at the bottom of their pages that says "view full website." This ensures that your visitors aren't trapped in mobile view if they'd prefer not to be. As an example, you can view the mobile version of the Hilton Chicago website. Notice that while they do a great job of providing a mobile site with essential information (phone number, address/map, hotel policies, reservation button), the site does not provide a way to go back to the standard website. If I wanted to view this hotel's dining options or special offers I'd have no way to do it from their mobile site. Giving customers this option helps reduce frustration, a key user experience goal for any website.
  9. Track and analyze - Make sure you track the actions of your users across both your mobile-optimized and standard websites. You need to understand how mobile users are interacting with your content so you can help improve and refine their path to your desired goal: booking a room. Which mobile pages are most popular? Is there a call to action on those pages? If you find that too many visitors are clicking the "view full site" link then it might mean your mobile site has omitted important content that visitors want. You might even consider purchasing a call-tracking system to determine the conversion rate on your mobile website's click-to-call button. If mobile visitors compose a quarter of your site traffic, it's important to understand the how the conversion rates, booking windows, ADR and conversion funnel differ from that of visitors to your standard website. Chances are those two groups behave very differently, and understanding their actions can help you better guide those users towards their goal.

Optimizing your hotel website for the mobile visitor can have a tremendous impact on your mobile conversion rate. Simply by making it easier for that user to navigate your site on the small screen, you've given a boost to your mobile ROI. As such, the user experience on your website should always be one of your top priorities. Your website might feature great content, amazing photos and perfect calls-to-action, but if it's excruciatingly difficult to navigate and view your site then you've failed to deliver that great content to your potential customers in a way that's convenient for them.

Unless your site was built using responsive design, it is likely not a one-size-fit-all scenario. Yes, there will probably be an additional cost to create a second site targeted to mobile users. Yes, this means you may have to update two different versions of your website. But the alternative, if you don't optimize the website format for this audience, is that you're possibly missing out on a chance to convert a large segment of visitors to your site. Furthermore, with increased data speeds, easier-to-use mobile interfaces and faster smartphone processors, the mobile user base is only going to continue to expand.

Time for a little exercise: Take out your mobile phone and access your hotel's website. So, how does it look? Will your mobile visitors be converting to paying guests?

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If you were to ask most travelers how many distinct stages are involved in the general act of travelling, I would guess that most people would identify two: the research phase and the booking phase.  And for most people that's what they do--they research the destination, the transportation, the rates, and then make a final decision that leads to the booking for hotel rooms, flights and car rentals.  It's a good start, and I'm guessing that many hoteliers are only concerned with the actions a potential guest takes up to the point where they actually select their hotel, but it's not the whole picture.  In fact, Google has identified 5 stages of travel, and as online marketers its important for us to target customers at each point in that buying process.

Research and Booking: A Fraction of the Travel Cycle

For most hotels, the booking is the final goal of their online marketing efforts.  It is seen as a linear path that starts off with the consumer planning and researching their travel plans online, and finishing at the checkered flag at the hotel reservation.  Unfortunately, once that guest crosses the finish line some hotels will wipe their hands clean of that customer.  Well, you could stop there...but then you'd be missing out on a huge opportunity to foster brand loyalty and have guests' experiences at your hotel work in your favor long after their stay in the form of word-of-mouth advertising.

Google's Take On How We Travel

Just take a look below at this nifty little infographic that Google developed, identifying what they consider the 5 Stages of Travel.  Whether you agree or disagree with the specific stages featured below, there's no denying that there is a multi-faceted sales cycle and different online marketing tactics can and should be used to target travelers at each of the various phases in this process.  Whether the customer is dreaming about their next vacation or experiencing it firsthand, it provides a huge opportunity to connect with your customers at each of these key moments in their travel buying cycle.

Google's 5 Stages of Travel

So based on this interactive infographic from our buddies at Google, how can hotels target potential customers as they move from stage to stage in planning their vacation?

Stage 1: DREAM A Little Dream

As a traveler, you've got to start with a dream.  Maybe you saw a billboard of a spectacular Hawaiian sunset emblazoned with the simple phrase, "Visit Hawaii."  Maybe you're friend just posted a video of their hilarious attempt at surfing in Maui on Facebook.  Or maybe your little nephew just picked up the ukulele and suddenly your mind wanders to the land of luaus, leis, and lava rock.  And then again, maybe it's 3 degrees in Chicago and you just need one sweet week of pure tropical escape.  Regardless of how the idea entered your head, you're now starting to talk it over with your friends and family, casually tossing out the idea of sometime heading to the Aloha state in the next year.  The seed has been planted...and it won't take long for that palm tree to grow.

Why is this stage important?

  • In 2011, 49% of leisure travelers reported researching online after viewing an online ad.  Start that spark early and get potential guests moving through these 5 stages of travel.  The dream is what starts the potential customer through the buying cycle.

So how does a hotel reach this dreamer in stage 1?

  • Email marketing: Reach out to your past guests with a well-timed email campaign.  Hopefully you've made good use of your email collection form on your website or have been diligently collecting emails at your front desk and now have a solid list of interested travelers just waiting for that perfect vacation idea.  Put an idea in their head.
  • Social media: Encourage past guests to share their experiences on your social media channels.  The end of their trip can be the spark that ignites the start of a future traveler's trip.  Expand your word-of-mouth reach by encouraging your guests to share and interact with your communities online.  The social media component should be present at all stages and helps to tie the hotel to the user throughout the process.  However, it's more critical as a word-of-mouth marketing opportunity when people start dreaming about and researching their potential trip.
  • Blog about it: After a while websites for big brand hotels can get a little stale.  There's only so much new content than can be run through the limited pages within the official brand site.  Standalone websites allow for a little more flexibility but can still run into the same problem.  Creating a blog allows you to open the floodgates of possibilities for new and exciting content.  With a blog you are not bound by the confines of an accommodations page, a dining page, a services page and so on.  Blog about top things to do in your city; write about the amazing new restaurant that just opened up near your hotel; or, inform readers of the Star Wars convention that's coming to town and what to do if you encounter a Jawa.  The blog allows you to generate plenty of new content on a regular basis, and best of all, search engines crawl this new content quickly, giving you plenty of opportunities to rank for new niche keywords.

Stage 2: PLANNING The Master Plan

Now you've got them thinking.  That random consumer is now a potential traveler because you've managed to spark an interest in a future trip.  But you still have a long way to go before you're rolling out the red carpet for Anonymous Hotel Guest #1.  Your hotel is just one of many in a nebulous idea-cloud of potential destinations and locations.  In fact, over the course of this consumer's travel cycle, he or she will have visited over 20 different travel websites in over 9 separate research sessions on the internet.  Yep, you've got some competition.  The question is: how do you help the consumer cut through the online clutter to see that ethereal beam of light illuminating only your hotel?

Why is this stage important?

  • The average traveler visits over 20 different travel websites before making a booking
  • 62% of leisure travelers use the internet for researching their trip

So how does a hotel reach this planner in stage 2?

  • Diversify: Did you read that? Consumers research at least 20 different travel websites! Yikes! This means that travelers are going to be checking all kinds of channels to compile their research about their vacation: TripAdvisor, OTAs, hotel websites, Google searches, blogs, social media channels and more.  It's true that you probably can't be everywhere online at once (particularly with a modest budget), but the key is to create enough of a presence on these sites to at least have a fighting chance.  Just be careful not to spread yourself too thin!
  • Search engine optimize your website: Hopefully you didn't wait until now to realize that your website should be optimized.  Stage 2 and 3 are where your SEO efforts should start to pay off. Make sure you've conducted thorough keyword research to determine what your customers are searching for.  Did you optimize the content on your official hotel website?  What about any independent websites you own?
  • Optimize your local listings: Nothing helps a traveler orient themselves like local mapping sites such as Google Maps or Bing Maps.  Make sure your hotel's listing in the local search results is claimed and fully optimized so travelers can find you as they investigate their potential destinations.
  • Clean up your OTA listings: I know.  You don't like the OTAs.  They don't always rank your hotel first in your city and they eat away at your rates with their ever-growing commissions.  Still, if you opt out of OTAs or don't optimize your listings, you're missing out at likely one of the first opportunities your hotel will have at getting in front of the customer.  Let's face it, whether you like it or not, people love to comparison shop.  Hotels are no exception to this online shopping trend.  And sites like Expedia make it so dang easy to compare you and all your competitors it should be criminal!  ...if it wasn't so helpful for the consumer.  And when it comes down to it the OTAs aren't all bad for hotels.  You may have to play the game, but you don't have to like it.
  • Manage your online reputation: Sign up for Google Alerts to monitor online buzz about your hotel, respond to TripAdvisor reviews (good and bad), address comments on your social media channels and just be aware of what users are saying about your hotel online in general.  If you don't speak up for your property then the public will have the final say in your reputation.  If you don't communicate you let the most vocal consumers determine your fate.  Don't sit on the sidelines.

Stage 3: No Reservations About Making A BOOKING

By now the research stage is just about over and Johnny McHotelguest is ready to lay down some clams for what he hopes will be a vacation that lives up to his dreams from stage 1.  How easy is it for this consumer to find your website now that he knows he wants to book?  Will he find you though your official brand website?  An OTA?  Groupon?  Ideally, you'd like him to book through your official brand site, but what have you done to ensure that your site is found first.

Why is this stage important?

  • 37% of travelers said the internet was the primary source prompting them to book (word-of-mouth was the second most important factor to influence bookings, coming in at 16%)

So how does a hotel reach this booker in stage 3?

  • Don't make people think: Make your website easy navigate and easy for users to reach their goal.  Usability is crucial to getting users on your site to convert to booking guests.  If you make the booking process too cumbersome or make it difficult for users to navigate your site, potential guests will look elsewhere to book their vacation.  Include a reservation widget on every page of your site; don't call the link in your main navigation bar "Your Special Day" instead of "Weddings;" and don't clutter pages with unnecessary bells and whistles that overshadow the main site content.  Precious seconds lost to these usability disasters can mean the difference between a booking guest and just another free-loadin' website visitor.
  • Optimize for your brand - In the previous stage, users were researching their travel plans and were likely searching for more generic keywords such as "downtown Chicago hotels" instead of "Hilton Chicago."  Now that they have narrowed down their search and are ready to book, make darn sure that your site appears for its brand keywords.  It seems like a simple thing that should be common sense, and most websites should already be ranking well for their brand terms, but this is key and isn't always guaranteed to be the case by default.  Some smaller brands may need to work to optimize for their brand name.  Also, travelers may not know your domain name, so they'll likely run a search using some variation of your brand name.  Make sure that your site appears in natural, local and PPC search for brand-related terms.  They're in the home stretch of the buying funnel and it would be awful to work so hard to drive qualified website traffic, only to lose the customer right before they cross the finish line.

Stage 4: It's About The EXPERIENCE

At this point you've got the customer right where you want them...at your hotel! While online marketing can still help to some degree, for the most part, it is up to the hotel staff to create a memorable experience for the guest on site.  Do you provide good service? Is your property remarkable in any way? Have you exceeded the customer's expectations?  The greatest impact to a guest's experience happens on property and will influence their decision to return to your hotel in the future and share their experience with friends in Stage 5.

Why is this stage important?

  • 53% of travelers have used a mobile device to find travel-related information

So how does a hotel impact a traveler's experiences in stage 4?

  • Presentation is everything - You're only as good as the product you're selling.  If your hotel is dated, dilapidated and disgusting then no amount of friendly, attentive customer service is going to win your guest over.  Take care of your product.
  • Service with a smile - Make sure that the friendly, accommodating attitude conveyed through your website and social media channels is reflected in the service the customer receives at the actual hotel.  Keep a consistent voice online and offline.
  • Tie offline marketing with online marketing - Speaking of keeping consistency from the last point, make sure that you are promoting your social media channels in the offline world at your property as well.  Whether it's Facebook and Twitter decals at your front desk, readerboards that flash "Like our Facebook Page," or Foursquare checkins at your restaurant, you have people at your hotel that like your product enough to give you money.  Why not remind them to participate in your social media communities as well?

Stage 5: SHARING The Moments

This is the point at which the traveler who just experienced their dream vacation can help plant the seeds for someone else to start their journey down the 5 stages of travel.  Whether it's a well-written user review, a great photo of the hotel's pool deck, or a quick tweet about all the great restaurants right next to the hotel, harnessing this word-of-mouth marketing is the key to a successful social media marketing campaign, and perpetuating the 5 stages of travel for others.

Why is this stage important?

  • 53% of leisure travelers say they share pictures of their vacations online
  • 49% of leisure travelers enjoy reading about others' online experiences, reviews, opinions and general travel information

So how does a hotel encourage travelers to share their experiences in stage 5?

  • Tell them where to share: Similar to the final bullet in the previous stage, let guests know where they can share their experiences.  Hotels should have Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, TripAdvisor and other icons present at the front desk, to alert guests that they can engage with your property and share their opinions through those participating channels.  Make it even easier for guests by providing a friendly URL or a QR code that takes guests directly to those sites.  You may even want to have a card in the room near the high speed internet instructions that mentions your presence on these social media channels.
  • All you have to do is ask: Front desk agents should encourage satisfied guests to share their opinions on the various channels mentioned above.  While bribing or forcing the customer to leave good reviews is against many sites' terms of service--not to mention a generally bad approach--it doesn't hurt to remind guests to share positive experiences with others.
  • Reward creative user-generated content: Host a contest at your hotel that seeks to reward the guest who posts the funniest/wackiest/most entertaining photos/story/experience about the hotel or the city on a social media channel of your choice.  This not only gets guests to interact with your brand, but it also encourages them to spread the word about the contest and consequently your hotel.  Better prizes can lead to better reach, but sometimes just the satisfaction of winning the competition can go a long way towards spreading the love.
  • Collect contact info: Be sure to collect info from customers who may be interested in dreaming about traveling to your hotel in the future.  Have front desk agents ask for their email address or Twitter handle so that you can plant the seeds of travel in their head and start the cycle all over again.

What does this all mean?

The typical vacation planning and travel buying cycle is pretty complex. At its most basic, a typical traveler's path to vacationland can be broken down into 5 stages. Many people often think of online marketing as simply selecting the right keywords and optimizing a website for those keywords in Google.  That is only a small piece of the pie.  And you can never have a truly effective online marketing campaign by only focusing on a single channel at a single point in a traveler's buying cycle.  To neglect targeting the user at the other stages of their buying process is to miss out on a huge opportunity to digitally greet them at every step of the way to their purchase.

In the end, properly targeting potential guests at each of these 5 stages is crucial to ensuring that they not only book at your hotel, but perpetuate that buying cycle for the next vacationer too! Ah, the circle of life...

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Would you replace your website's .COM extension with your own brand name?  Should we change from www.bluemagnetinteractive.COM to bluemagnetinteractive.BLUEMAGNET?  I know, it's likely to cause carpal tunnel syndrome simply trying to type that all in, but now we could do just that thanks to ICANN!

What exactly are generic top-level domains?

On June 19, the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)--the non-profit group responsible for approving new top-level domains (TLDs) such as the recent .TRAVEL, .MOBI, and the contriversial .XXX for "adult" sites--made the announcement that they would be approving new generic TLDs.  Even though they're called "generic" this just means that they can be just about anything: .HONDA or .CAR.  For instance, instead of going to hilton.COM/hhonors, if Hilton Worldwide chose to purchase their brand name as a TLD, they could essentially have a URL such as hhonors.HILTON.  Or a specific hotel could purchase .HOTEL and have something like hiltonchicago.HOTEL instead of hiltonchicago.com.

How's .TRAVEL working out for you?

Every so often, in what has been described as an ICANN pure money-grab by may industry experts, new-top level domains are released into the wild for the public to purchase.  Remember when the .TRAVEL TLD was announced?  When was the last time you saw marriott.travel ranking above marriott.com in the search engines?  Yet, because of this "what happens if we don't buy it" mentality, those in the travel industry quickly scrambled to scoop up the .TRAVEL TLD...and then had no idea what they were actually going to do with it.

How about .MOBI?

Similarly, when .MOBI was released, many companies jumped on the .mobile bandwagon because they were afraid of what would happen if they didn't purchase it. There was this fear that someday in the distant future if the company wanted to launch a mobile site, they would need the .MOBI TLD in order to do so.  Unfortunately, those who are not familiar with the TLD system don't understand that it's perfectly acceptable to have a mobile website hosted at www.radisson.com/mobile/ instead of purchasing www.radisson.mobi.  And chances are, consumers are already more likely to type in radisson.com than radisson.mobi anyways.

Why individual hotels should NOT purchase brand-specific TLDs

  • They are expensive!
    This isn't like purchasing a .BIZ version of your domain. Start saving those hondos, because you'll need to shell out a whopping $185,000 per TDL.  You want to purchase .HILTON and .HHONORS?  That'll be $370,000 please.  This may be fine for the big brands like Apple or Microsoft who have plans for strengthening brand awareness, but don't expect many small businesses or organizations to fill out an application just yet.  Blue Magnet will do just fine without .BLUEMAGNET; we've got better ways to invest in our company's future.
  • Consumers may get confused
    Let's face it.  People just understand .COM.  They know it and trust it.  Think of the last time you clicked on a .BIZ, .NET, .TRAVEL or .MOBI top-level domain.  You probably can't remember many times if any.  The dot-COMs are the tried and true standbys of the commercial world.  It's familiar, it's accepted, and it's what people default to.  Purchasing and using your brand name as a replacement for .COM--unless for branding purposes--really only serves to confuse your customers.  We'll be sticking with bluemagnetinteractive.com/blog instead of blog.bluemagnetinteractive, thank you!
  • No extra SEO benefit
    You may think that purchasing .HOTEL for your hotel will help you rank above your competitors for keyword searches like the ultra-competitive "New York hotels."  Not the case, says SEO expert Danny Sullivan:

"...the new names will almost certainly mean nothing special to search engines. They won’t have any super ranking powers. If you managed to get .money, that doesn’t mean you’ll rank tops for money-related terms any more than people with the existing .travel domains do well for travel — because they don’t."

  • Trademark headaches
    If you are Monster Mini Golf of Lafayette, IN, and you purchase .MONSTER to promote your website, will the Monster Cable company raise a stink about trademark infringement?  Expect some big trademark battles between major companies with similar names all grabbing for the same TLDs.  For unique brand names this may not be as much of a problem; however, consider if Paris Hilton were to purchase .HILTON as her TLD?  Who decides the winner?  After all, only one entity can own that particular TLD.  And I'm pretty sure Paris and Hilton Worldwide probably won't be too keen on sharing a single website together, unless the hotel company is looking to drastically revamp its image.  In the end, it's likely that ICANN will have the final say in awarding specific TLDs to various applicants.  Just think of how many companies in our industry would love to get their hands on .HOTEL or .SEO.

With all that in mind, there is one reason a large brand may benefit from the new generic top-level domains: branding.  If you are Hilton or Marriott or Pepsi or Nintendo, you may find benefit in the branding opportunities that come with the TLDs .hilton, .marriott, .pepsi and .nintendo.  For the rest of us though, stick by your .COMs!

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Hotels, it's time to send your OTA's a thank you note.  It turns out you may be getting more business from Expedia, Orbitz and the gang than previously thought--and better yet, it's business booked directly on your brand website.  According to a recent study by Chris Anderson, an assistant professor and PhD at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, "a hotel’s listing on Expedia increased total reservation volume by 7.5 to 26 percent depending on the hotel."  This is great news for all the hotels who begrudgingly relinquish their room inventory each month to the heavily commissioned likes of the OTAs.  The study details the true impact of the "Billboard Effect" of a hotels listing within the OTAs, and emphasizes the influence that an online advertisement has on the purchasing decision of a consumer on the hotel's official brand website.

The experiment, which analyzed consumer behavior related to 1,720 IHG hotel bookings on Expedia, determined that for each reservation made on Expedia between three and nine additional reservations were made on the official hotel brand website. This means that it's imperative that your hotel make the most of its listing on each of the major OTAs.  Load compelling photography, compose inviting copy, encourage customer reviews and work with your OTA marketing manager to determine what it takes to put your hotel listing at the top of the charts.  And most importantly, send your OTA a gift basket.

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Home Blog Authors Matt Bitzer