Industry Update
Opinion Article14 August 2019

Hotel Yearbook: Get off the Social Media Merry-Go-Round with Social Commerce

Most social media campaigns designed to engage with customers are unsuccessful failing to generate brand awareness and, in most of the cases, any financial return on the investment. How can hotels avoid this? Try “social commerce” instead.

By Hilary Murphy, Associate Dean and Full Professor of Digital Marketing at Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne and Alessandro Inversini, Associate Professor in Marketing at Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL)

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In a recent interview Seth Godin, author of several marketing bestsellers, declared:


"We have to get brands off the social media merry-go-round, which is spinning faster and faster, but it never gets anywhere [...] we must concentrate on a long and sustainable path, returning to authenticity, which necessarily passes through experiences."

In effect, customers' engagement through social media has been, in the recent years, one of the mantras of digital marketers. Trying to establish a relationship with the consumers base has always been a critical issue for developing customers' acquisition. Several businesses in the travel field tried this: in 2009, MySwitzerland launched a series of campaigns where two fictional characters "Sebi" and "Paul" were available to chat with customers; this was just the start of a journey in the social media arena for the National Tourism Board (followed by a series of regional ones) developing social media engagement campaigns.

In hospitality, it is worth mentioning the Reverse Review campaign done by Art Series Hotel Group where guests were reviewed by hotel staff and not vice versa; comments were posted online and past and future guests commented, interacting with the brand. Both these campaigns were very successful and built brand awareness stimulating engagement and exogenous electronic word of mouth. However, these are some of the most famous and effective leading examples in the field: most of the campaigns designed to engage with customers do not really end up in being successful. They do not generate brand awareness and, in most of the cases, they do not bring financial return for the business investing on social media. In this sense, we do completely agree with Seth Godin's claim above. Marketers are the ones who should be blamed for poor social media results. Nowadays, fourteen years after social media first gained popularity, we could ask more of these platforms, using them in a more strategic way.

Social Commerce in Hospitality

In fact, the concept of Social Commerce could be of help to better understand the evolution of digitally mediated social communication. Social Commerce can be understood as a subset of e-commerce; it is essentially about enhancing the online shopping experience with social media and facilitate social interaction and experience sharing. This allows collaborative value creation and drives purchasing decision intercepting and supporting consumers' decisions. Social Commerce essentially comes in two different ways:

  1. social networking sites that incorporate commercial features to allow transactions, or
  2. traditional e-commerce websites that add social tools to facilitate social interactions.

In both cases, the user generated content empowers the "social component" of the website that reinforce the intention of the consumers.

Hospitality is a field where social media do play a key role. Already i n 2014 in an article that appeared in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management written by Alessandro Inversini and Lorenzo Masiero, the rising importance of social media for selling rooms online was predicted: the research highlighted the need for the hospitality industry to maintain an effective presence on social media and Online Travel Agents in order to move towards the creation of a new form of social booking technologies to increase both visibility and reservations. This prediction was partially realized few years later by one of the main players working with user generated content in the travel industry. In fact, with 702M travel reviews, 490M average monthly visitors, is the world biggest travel community; the website was born as a pure reviews website. Today, travel companies can partner up with TripAdvisor through a series of marketing services, among which cost-per-click advertising, sponsored placements and above all instant booking. Customers are effectively trusting reviews of previous guests/travelers to support their decision making trusting the website which generate a total revenue of approximately 1.56 billion US dollars in 2017. What the industry learnt (and is constantly learning) from is the importance of online reviews and experience sharing.

The importance of online reviews

It has been noted in several researches that consumers have a higher reliance on the advice and recommendations from online friends on social media platforms; this represents a radical shift in consumers' consumption behavior: from individual-based to collaborative sharing with social shopping. In fact, consumers perceive a risk decrease in the online purchase thanks to the emotional and informational support of the community: emotional support symbolizes the affective experience of emotional concerns, for instance, caring, understanding and empathy for others within social groups, while informational support refers to the cognitive feelings which might be useful and helpful for solving informative challenges. These types of information and support do develop a sort of trust both towards the brand and/or towards the community contributing in the reduction of online buyers' perceived risks.

It is at this point that real experiences and emotional and informational empathy can play a crucial role to foster conversion in social commerce. Given for granted the experience of big travel players such as and (but also in retail which are facilitating eWord of Mouth (in the form of online reviews) to support sales of products and service, there are three main practices developed by companies in the field which can be of interest for hoteliers and travel professionals. These are:

  • Social media "buy" buttons : One of the most apparent features are the "buy now" button which you can find on the main social networks including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.
  • Shoppable posts and stories: Shoppable posts and stories tag products within posts or "stories." This type of social shopping is relatively new, but both Instagram and Snapchat are already utilizing these tools.
  • Plug-ins and apps: While some social sites are developing their own tools, third parties have also launched their own plug-ins and apps to facilitate social shopping in the meantime (e.g. Soldsie application).

In this scenario, hoteliers should try to develop an authentic storytelling on different channels (i.e. respecting channels' characteristics) stimulating exogenous eWord of Mouth and attaching call to actions as the ones above; additionally they should monitor and eventually try to stimulate social media activities from guests (endogenous eWord of Mouth), where real and authentic experiences do came up in different social media (again respecting channels' characteristics) with the aim of generating conversions.

As Seth Godin said, it is time to get off the social media merry-go-round thus entrusting social media with a form of commerce that intercepts authenticity, and connects to the lifestyle of customers.

The Hotel Yearbook 2020 - Digital Marketing aims to give practitioners an overview of changes, challenges and advances in the market, as well as show how digital marketing is being focused on the basics such as brand building and the customer journey.

Guest Edited by consultant Martin Soler, co-founder of Paris-based Soler & Associates, it presents articles contributed by more than twenty experts and practitioners in this field, including citizenM's Robin Chadha, ESSEC's Peter O'Connor, NYU's Max Starkov, and leading academics from Cornell and Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne.

Click here to download: The Hotel Yearbook Special Edition - Digital Marketing 2020



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Hilary Murphy

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Alessandro Inversini

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