InterContinental Hotels Group's Jenni Kolshak on Customer Social Networks
Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube ... these and other social media networks have proven helpful to marketers that want to keep an ear open to the customer feedback grapevine. But why limit your research and interaction to an account on a third-party social network when you can create something more special for customers? That's the conclusion InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG)—representing brands such as Holiday Inn, Staybridge, Crowne Plaza and the eponymous InterContinental—came to when brainstorming ways to better serve customers.
The success of a viral marketing campaign to members of its private customer communities convinced IHG that a public community had the potential to "drive significant incremental revenue," says Jenni Kolshak, social marketing specialist for IHG and the Priority Club Connect community manager. Developed to serve and grow the 44 million-member Priority Club Rewards loyalty program, the Priority Club Connect community went live mid-April.
IHG's public community is supported by Jive Software's Jive SBS community software solution, which optimizes content input for better search engine rankings and offers metrics on users, content and engagement, to name a few features.
"The smart marketer today is saying [marketing] has to be, instead of huge lightning strikes everywhere, a rolling thunder thing where we're listening to people, engaging with them, asking for their opinions before we go and giving them insights on what we're working on behind the scenes before-after-during, so when it's time to actually promote something, we have that relationship going and can insert this sales information in and not get hammered on it," explains Sam Lawrence, Jive's former CMO.
Kolshak leads us through the details of how IHG is building such a connection with its better customers, one post at a time.
Target Marketing: How do you promote the community to Priority Club Rewards members?
Jenni Kolshak: We sent out a stand-alone e-mail inviting select members to join, and we did that right around the launch time in April. We've included placement in some of our e-mail communications. It also will be included in a direct mail communication, the Priority Club newsletter that drops this month ... we're not going to be putting a lot of placements [in our direct mail] because we obviously want to hit people who are on the Web. So again, mostly e-mail placements, banners on our homepage and hopefully some word-of-mouth marketing, too. We have some private online communities, and those members obviously all know about the public community as well.
TM: What are the private communities?
JK: The private communities we see serving a different purpose than the public community. The private communities give customers a seat at the table, so to speak. We run very targeted research activities in those communities and ask for their feedback; those members get points for their participation.
Then the public community sort of grew out of the private communities. We saw a need to have this extra level of engagement—customers were connecting with each other in the private community, sharing travel tips and enjoying the interaction they got with some of our executives and managers. So we're still going to continue that in the public community; there is a video blog where people can ask questions of our executives, and depending on the topic, we'll get the appropriate executive to answer them in a video format.
TM: Is there a prospecting strategy attached to this initiative?
JK: I would say that in terms of going after prospects, I don't know that we'll be actively marketing it; right now, we can only e-mail market to our Priority Club Rewards customers. So we're hoping for word-of-mouth. And some of the advantages to having a public community come in the form of search marketing; a lot of the fresh content should push us up in SEO [results], and we're hoping people will find us there. We've seen in the last month that if you go in and search for certain keywords, the community does pop up on the first page [of search results] most of the time.
Our focus remains on the Priority Club Rewards members. The content is open for everyone to see; you don't have to log in to see the content. It's only when you want to participate that you need to log in and be a Priority Club Rewards member.
TM: How does the community content strategy integrate with IHG's overall branding and marketing?
JK: One of our learnings that we've taken from the private community is that our members have really valuable things to say. So what we're looking at is some sort of content syndication ... maybe it's Priority Club Rewards members' top 10 travel destinations or top places to go on a budget. We're starting to look at how we package that content and then syndicate it, push it out from our partners—not necessarily sell it, but maybe trade content with our other partners.
We're finding that also some of what our members are doing and saying in our community, we can use that in our marketing materials. One of the things that's been very successful is using our member photos in our direct mail and e-mail pieces. So we might ask them to give us a photo of their dream vacation ... or really just any photo, and they've been very open about sharing their photos. We credit the member and also give them some Priority Club Rewards points.
They not only love seeing their photo out there, but it also saves us money on having to buy a stock photo. And in our view, it's also a little more authentic. I don't know the exact rate, but I know that we've had higher success rates [to marketing efforts] when using photos from members than with the typical stock photos.
TM: How do you coordinate promotional efforts across channels?
JK: One of the things we're trying to do with the community and that will draw people there is special community-only offers. Typically, we'll put up an offer that they're not necessarily going to see somewhere else. For example, we're running a great offer right now where if you stay two nights at any of our properties you can get one night free at any of our properties. So two nights at a Holiday Inn could translate into one night free at our InterContinental property, which is a pretty good deal.
For that, we wanted to be able to push it to the community. But what we did was instead of promoting it at the same time, we gave community members a sneak peek. That's something we're working on with all of our different brands and teams. So before they launch something big, if we can put it out on the community first, it makes those members feel special—that they're getting to see this offer before it goes out in an e-mail or direct mail.
TM: How does IHG interact with member feedback?
JK: Obviously the private communities are designed for research, but there are customers in there. And if they've had a problem at one of our hotels, they're definitely going to let us know about it.
So luckily we've been able to put together some frequently asked questions that we come across a lot in the private community, and what we've seen so far in the public community is that a lot of similar things come up. So we've been able to use that document to work off of, and then obviously if a major customer service issue happens, we're going to escalate that. We've got a team that works on those things and can talk directly to the customer. We want customers to know the community is not a customer service replacement, but if there is an issue, we're going to respond. It's not going to sit there. I think that differentiates us from a third-party community, where if someone complains, they're not necessarily going to get a response from us.
TM: How does this community fit into IHG's other social marketing efforts?
JK: As far as some of the other [social media tools], like Twitter and Facebook, we're not putting a lot of our time behind those things ... because of the lack of content control and the revenue factor. And some organizations are using it where it sits within public relations, not necessarily marketing. We're still kind of working through that piece—who should own that here? But it's definitely something we're looking at.
TM: Has, or will, this public community initiative replace any other IHG marketing to this group?
JK: At this point, no. [The marketing] is really kind of targeted. Some people might still get our e-newsletters or e-statements every month, but I think [Priority Club Connect] is just very different. It doesn't necessarily replace any of those things.
Again, it's that—I feel like this is cliché—two-way conversation members aren't getting through an e-mail piece or a direct mail piece. We know this isn't for everybody, so it's finding that niche group of people who want to interact this way and want to engage with the brand this way.