Where does your tour or small ship cruise marketing fit in on the O Continuum?
No, this isn’t something out of pulp science fiction. I learned about it recently in the January–February issue of the Harvard Business Review: “What Marketers Misunderstand About Online Reviews,” by Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen.
If you’re a marketer like me, you’ll likely apply the principles to your own product or service as you peruse the article. In my case, that’s the marketing of specialty cruises and tours. It’s a quick read and I recommend it. But I’ll summarize some of the major points and add a few of my own in this blog post.
In Some Markets, the Diminishing Value of Brand
Simonson and Rosen cut right to the chase in the first paragraph: “With the growing availability of opinions from experts to users, the importance of a brand name [has] diminished.” The example cited is a laptop computer, but I think the statement is right on target for many small ship and tour companies. I’m talking about niche operators who specialize in a particular destination or type of cruising – expedition or river cruising, let’s say, or trekking tours in Patagonia.
In these niche travel segments, it is difficult for one brand name to dominate using traditional marketing approaches, and often there is little name recognition in the marketplace even for the more-established players. Top-of-mind awareness takes significant advertising dollars, and while the big cruise lines can easily budget for this due to the massive number of passengers and the resulting revenue they enjoy, small cruise and tour operators cannot.
Only a decade ago, direct mail was a great equalizer in this regard, enabling smaller companies to compete using refined database-marketing techniques. But soaring postal costs and diminishing returns have made direct mail nearly prohibitive these days.
The O Continuum and the Influence Mix
Let’s return to the article. The authors suggest that a fundamental shift is taking place in the way customers, particularly prospects, obtain and process information. In the past, consumers tended to rely more heavily on “prior preferences, beliefs and experiences” – what the authors call P – and on advertising, catalogs and other collaterals from the marketer, or M.
They continue: “Today, thanks primarily to user-generated reviews and people’s tendency to consult social media friends about purchases, buyers have other options.” Simonson and Rosen call these other options O, which leads to their theory of the O Continuum. While every marketer is aware of this trend, the authors suggest that many are neglecting it, continuing to depend too much on M to generate business.
So, what is the O Continuum? Not any sort of "Astounding Science Fiction," I assure you. Rather, it’s a spectrum, with O-Independence on one side and O-Dependence on the other. The trick for marketers is to figure out where on the spectrum their product or service lies; i.e. determining the influence mix.
Some big travel companies – Carnival Cruise Line, for example – are relatively O-Independent, relying on their longevity in the mass market, the influence of travel agents and multi-million-dollar advertising budgets to carry them through. However, even a marketing behemoth like Carnival found that it had to take drastic action on the O front last year to counter the way they dealt with some mishaps like the notorious poop cruise. Top management was shuffled and a new advertising campaign based on social media was put in place.
You’re O-Dependent: Deal with It
Established brand loyalty and a high prestige factor can also make a company’s product or service less O-Dependent, but these traits are relatively rare in the travel niches that I deal with. This is why I believe smaller cruise and tour marketers should pay attention to the way consumers gather and evaluate information about their travel programs. Nowadays, this is increasingly through expert and user reviews and social media. And this puts these travel operators closer to the O-Dependent end of the continuum.
The recent growth, market value and influence of review sites like TripAdvisor are astounding. While TripAdvisor doesn’t deal with cruises itself, it covers the industry through its subsidiary company Cruise Critic. Expert – i.e. professional travel writers – and consumer reviews both are included here; Cruise Critic boasts over 1000,000 entries. While most deal with popular mass-market and higher-end cruise ships, the small, lesser-known operators are fairly well represented, albeit with fewer critiques. There is also a forum or Q&A board where registered users – there is no cost to register – can ask questions and post comments.
Another site, CruiseMates, also offers reviews and a forum, but with far less coverage of small or offbeat ship operators. Cruise marketers should monitor these reviews and forums carefully and evaluate what’s being said. Are the comments real? Good question. Simonson and Rosen think the sites are doing an increasingly better job in weeding out fake reviews, and that consumers are developing a better sense of which sites they can trust.
In my experience, consumers opting for small ship travel have always had an independent, contrarian streak, tending to go their own way in researching destinations and the sometimes lesser-known vessels on which to explore them. It only makes sense that they would be active with the review sites and Q&A forums.
Social Media and Inbound Marketing
Six months ago, I blogged about the use of social media by expedition cruise operators. Evaluating companies that offer Antarctic cruises, for example, I found that 88% were engaged in inbound marketing using anywhere from one to nine different social platforms to maintain an ongoing dialogue with their followers. I bet it’s even higher now, and that I would find similar rates with other types of small ship and niche tour products.
I’m glad to see this. The logic behind this embrace of social media was summed up very well in a podcast with Brian Whalley of Hubspot a couple of years back. Think how applicable Brian's comment is for those marketing small ship cruises and off-the-beaten-path tours. The definition fits perfectly:
Inbound marketing is especially effective for small businesses that deal with high dollar values, long research cycles and knowledge-based products. In these areas, prospects are more likely to get informed and hire [i.e. buy from] someone who demonstrates expertise.
And how is this expertise best demonstrated? Simonson and Rosen say that companies “should focus on generating user interest in particular products and promoting an ongoing flow of authentic (and positive) content from O on Internet retail sites.” Translation: Start blogging. And if you’re already blogging, blog more.
Tweet links to good reviews to your followers. Facebook, Google+, YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram are also ideal vehicles to tell your “Thrilling Wonder Stories” and engage the prospect and customer.
But while quantity is a good thing, quality is even more important. I wrote about this in the previously mentioned blog post. To be honest, I would hope to see a bit more imagination, creativity and originality in the blogs and social media posts of small ship and tour operators. In my opinion, quite a bit of it seems to be merely going through the motions and, worse, is overly commercial and in your face. We’ll save this discussion for another blog post.
The Old Days are Gone
Looking back, I always envied the ability of resource-rich big cruise companies to hire market research firms and hone in on what the customer is really looking for through surveys and focus groups. It’s just so … so Mad Men-ish, I suppose. But the HBR authors now recommend a different tack: “Instead of measuring individual consumers’ preferences, satisfaction and loyalty, marketers should redirect resources to the systematic tracking, coding and quantifying of information from review sites, user forums and other social media.”
There are many methods and analytics available out there to evaluate the metrics of social media, establishing baselines, trends and, ultimately, value. It’s way beyond “Likes” and followers. So if you’re not doing it, start. More on this in a future blog post, too.
Share Your “Amazing Stories”
Read the article and think about its applicability to your product or service. The authors conclude by noting, “Voracious information-seeking has become deeply ingrained in many consumers, and we can envision no scenario in which they will see traditional marketing as a better provider of product information.”
I agree. The good news is that the O Continuum theory supports my own idea that social media, when managed at an active and consistent level and providing quality content, is the new “great equalizer.” It can provide exposure to a small company well beyond what it might afford using traditional marketing and PR methods.
Where are you and your marketing on the O Continuum?
Postscript: Since posting this last week, I wanted to mention the name of the new book co-authored by Simonson and Rosen that is the basis for the Harvard Business Review article referenced above: Absolute Value: What Really Influences Customers in the Age of (Nearly) Perfect Information (Harper Business, February 2014). Here's the link to Amazon Books.