There are some who argue the beast needs to be tamed, even controlled, then there are those who believe that'd be like trying to get pigs to fly. Yeoh Siew Hoon treads the fine balance between collective might and individual will.
Question of the week – is social media a corporate marketer's worst nightmare or could it be his or her sweetest dream come true?
I ask that question because by its very nature, social media is democracy at its best or worst – it enables everyone to take part on anything at anytime from anywhere – and corporate folks, well, they like to have a handle on things such as brand standards, for example, or rate parity (and let's not go there this week).
How do you control a beast as free and as accessible as social media? Should you even try?
Take the case of the ill-fated Langham Place Hong Kong video that got such an immediate backlash that I am sure the people who made it are still wondering what happened. We know the agency that made it, but who signed off on it? The hotel level or the corporate level? Perhaps both did, and so both should have culpability in the outcome.
I have met many marketers at the corporate level who are struggling with that question. Ask them, what are you doing about social media, and inevitably, they will roll their eyes. I suspect it's because they are being asked that question all the time by their teams in the field.
Thing is, they know it's out there and it can be used, but in what shape or form, they don't know. What they do know is if they let go the reins, the social media beast could run rampant and trample over brand standards and all those things they clutch to their breast at night.
One marketer told me he got a request from someone in the team who wanted to start a wedding blog. "I had to ask her what was her objective, did she have a plan for say, six months down the road. I mean, you start a blog, you have to continue. You can't just say, I feel like starting a blog today, and then tomorrow lose interest."
Yet, by its very nature, blogging like writing depends on a degree of spontaneity. If you put together a plan on what you want to blog for the next six months, that's called a, well, business plan or in journalistic speak, an editorial schedule – and gosh, don't we hate those.
By the same token, I understand where the marketer is coming from – he may have 50 hotels in his charge so imagine if 50 hotels suddenly started blogging on their own. He'd enter blogosanitarium.
So every corporate person I know is trying to come up with some form of strategy on how to approach social media.
This is where I think independent hotels have an edge – they do not have a corporate style handbook to adhere to, they can be as creative and guerilla as they want, the only thing is, they need the ideas …
In the meantime, I've been watching with interest local plays by certain hotel groups – Ibis in Thailand for example has been running a highly successful online competition to find a local Ibis Idol.
It invited anyone between 17 and 35 years "with the right look, style and personality to represent the new generation for the ibis Hotel Thailand brand" to get online and post photos or a video clip.
The prize? A year long, trendy lifestyle which includes a trip to Korea for two, a year of free accommodation at ibis hotels across Thailand, the star role in a professional photo shoot to create a personal fashion portfolio, a one month stint as a superstar VJ Rookie on Channel V and a monthly salary of 10,000 baht for a year.
It then invites everyone to vote for their favourite contestant at ibisidol-thailand.com.
In Europe, Ibis has also launched an online competition to ask folks to "show IBIS what you do in pyjamas".
One could argue the Ibis brand lends itself to such initiatives but take a look then at what Fairmont Beijing achieved with Twitter last week during its opening. It started a tweeting journey on April 30 and by July 1, had garnered more than 2,300 followers to @beijingfairmont,
"Twitter allows us to follow updates on the latest trends in the travel industry, journalism, green talks or even engage in regular dialogue with Tweeple, which recently happened on Mother's Day," said Trudy Moreno, Director of Sales and Marketing.
Okay, I am not saying this will translate into direct sales but it generated hype for a new hotel opening and as such, served its purpose. How long the hotel can sustain the tweets, that's unsure.
To sustain your social networks, you need to engage a full-time person who does nothing but that – remember, these sites are bottomless word pits. You don't update, they go stale, people lose interest, it looks bad on you.
I then caught Radisson's YouTube foray – Freddie Frees Friday – a 7.30 minute clip promoting Free Fridays at Radisson. I lost interest after 90 seconds. I think they were trying to make a movie about a kid named Freddie who was forced to spend the weekend with mum and dad in a Radisson … It all seemed a bit too convoluted and American for me.
What does all this prove? Everyone's still figuring out social media, some are doing it better than others, you do need some form of control at the corporate level but local initiative and execution should not be strangled at the altar of corporate-dom and independents, while the big groups are trying to figure out what to do, seize the day.Yeoh Siew Hoon, one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, writes a regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry for 4Hoteliers.com.
Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her other writings can be found at www.thetransitcafe.com
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www.webintravel.com - October 20-23, 2009 Suntec Convention Centre, Singapore