Social media is either overhyped, underhyped, or somewhere in the middle

Glenn Fogel’s well reported comments on social media from the No Vacancy conference highlighted the vastly divergent views in OTAs and suppliers on how much if any to invest in social media.

Piecing together expert advice from the last six months of travel conferences it is clear that social media is either overhyped, underhyped or somewhere in between.

social hype

In his opening keynote at No Vacancy, Fogel (Priceline’s EVP of corporate development) urged the hoteliers in the audience to not invest in social media.

His rationale was that even though consumers are spending a lot of time on social media, “no one views the ads and no one likes to be interrupted“.

These comments have been well reported since. They also caused a storm of internet commentary (Tnooz live blogging of the event), while Guillaume Thevenot of Hotel Blogs challenged Fogel to an open debate on the matter.

In a later session, Toga Hospitality CEO Rachel Argaman provided a live challenge to Fogel. She was extremely bullish about social media and her company’s investment in the channel. As I reported in a tweet, she said: “Social media is here to stay. Future is websites inside Facebook“.

These comments and back-channel Twitter buzz reminded me of two of my favourite moments from last November’s PhoCusWright conference – an exchange of quips between Kayak CEO Steve Hafner and former Expedia CEO Rich Barton on social media.

Their exchange was brief, but like No Vacancy provided clear and starkly contrasting views on social media.

Hafner described social media as Overhyped. Barton called it Underhyped. Like No Vacancy, these hugely disparate views on an internet force drove hours of conference and Twitter chatter.

A day after Non Vacancy closed, Australian online accommodation giant Wotif launched a social marketing campaign , perfectly timed to be a case study test of these disparate views and hopefully allow either the Fogel and Hafner camps or the Barton and Argaman camps to silence the doubting tweeters (twoubters?).

As Graham Robertson reported last week, Wotif spent time and money investing in a social media campaign promoting an 11 minute long flash sale where rooms would be sold for $11 for 11 minutes.

This was not an easy campaign for Wotif to put together. They took time and money to secure effectively free rooms from 36 properties in Australia, there were promo pages to build, room types to load, site structure to stabilize to support the traffic load and then campaign buzz to build.

As we have seen with other successful social media campaigns (like the Best Job in the World), going viral takes time and money.

The high level result: 30,000-40,000 new fans, thousands of room nights sold in minutes, thousands of mentions on Twitter and other channels and work places all across Australia disrupted as employees feared to stray far from their computers lest the sale begin.

All hallmarks of a good marketing campaign. But….the negative buzz was unprecedented. On Twitter and Facebook there were streams of abuse for Wotif.

  • Moms were outraged that the sale was 345 ish (school run time).
  • Followers were incensed at slow site speeds and constant payment failure errors.
  • Rushed consumers pressed the wrong button and were flummoxed when confronted with CC statements that said $199 instead of $11.
  • People were just generally annoyed.

Follows and likes were quickly undone and the social media stream contained an extreme contrast of views between the campaign winners and losers. The winners were screaming “woo hoo”, the losers screaming “scam”.

It left me to pose via Twitter: “How much are 40,000 followers worth? Wotif gained 40k likes on FB but generated a twitter storm of hate.”

The Wotif $11 campaign does not settle the social media investment argument. Team Underhyped can argue that without a dollar of marketing spend Wotif drove volume and loyalty. Team Overhyped can call it a PR disaster with many more unhappy than happy customers.

I am clearly a believer in social media. My general advice is that social media cannot be ignored, that suppliers, agents and all players in the travel space need to have an eye on and a plan for their presence on social media.

Social media allows us to listen into and react to the comments being made by our consumers about us.

This cannot be ignored or left open and without response.  But I do agree with Fogel that the vast majority of social media experts are charlatans, meaning that they are selling an expertise and certainty of delivery that does not exist.

That it is very easy to over invest in social media by diverting too much money and resources away from the basics of selling travel online (good supply, good product and good SEO/SEM/CRM).

As I said my post on Five tips for social media success for suppliers, the key balanced first steps in social media investing are:

As the heading of this post put it social media is neither overhyped nor underhyped, it is somewhere in the middle.

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Tim Hughes

About the Writer :: Tim Hughes

Tim Hughes is an online travel industry executive who has been blogging since June 2006 at the Business of Online Travel (the BOOT).

The BOOT covers analysis of online travel industry trends, consumer and company behaviour and broader online/web activity of interest to online travel companies (with a bias towards Tim’s home markets of Asia and Australasia and with the odd post on consuming and loving travel thrown in).

In late-2010 the BOOT clocked its 1,000th post, 200,000th visitor and 300,000th page view.In his work life he is the CEO of Getaway Lounge - a premium travel deal site based in Australia.

Tim has worked for both Orbtitz and Expedia. Prior to the travel industry Tim was a commercial lawyer and venture capitalist. Tim’s views are his alone and not necessarily the views of Getaway Lounge or any of its investors.



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  1. | I Tech Press

    […] of the issues that Australian online accommodation provide Wotif hit in March this year over another failed social media competition. While the fall out was similar, the cause was very […]

  2. Simon

    Social media does seem rather overhyped, it seems that those who are into it, like to talk about it a lot, which is sort of reflected in the actual use of it.

    Take Twitter, half the accounts are either inactive or barley active (people that look at it only every few weeks or longer).

    Same goes for the posts, sorry tweets, about 2% of users account for nearly 60% of those, and 22% account for 90% of the tweets.

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  4. Allan

    6 months ago if you’d asked me about social media for business I’d have said (indeed I am often quoted as saying) “generates lots of heat but no light…”.
    This month, I’m a convert. I can now see it as a place where you can build a list of potential customers and engage them until they become paying customers, or as a place where you can respond to the customers you’ve already got.
    However I’d like to pick up on a small point about the Wotif campaign:
    They promoted rooms for sale at $11. Risking the age-old adage that if a customer comes to you because of your cheap price, they’ll leave for someone elses.
    – Is Wotif known for selling $11 rooms?
    – Do Wotif suppliers (all those struggling hotels) really want to be associated with $11 rooms.
    I don’t think so.
    Thousands of fans illustrates my point about generating lots of heat. I can’t bank a fan, I can’t live on a fan and I have no idea what the lifetime value of a fan is.
    “Fans” does not equal “Sales”.
    …and if we’re expecting to realise sales by doing silly things on Facebook then I think our relationship with social media is going to be a short one.
    That said, if we start to apply the old fashioned techniques of talking and listening (like we used to do before the interweb came along) to our customers on social media sites, then we might start to make progress.

  5. Tom

    Hi Guillaume

    Look, human interaction has nothing to do with what I refer to in my post. Thats simply a by product of what I am suggesting. Businesses need to look, not at the functional aspects associated with social media, they need to focus on something far bigger and far more powerful.

    The new frontier is only just starting to get discovered. It’s got nothing to do with things like SEO or PPC or Social Media or Twitter or Multivariate testing or mobile applications or API Integration and in your case “a connection on LinkedIN” or any other functional marketing component – it’s something far more important and far more powerful. Those that adopt first, will be the winners in the future.

    Don’t get caught up in this ongoing never ending argument of should I or shouldn’t I or if I do how do I. Organisations need to be consumed in something far more important that will lead to all of this in a far more powerful context.

    I am not a teacher, I head up the marketing division for an organisation in Australia. I am excited about this new frontier because I can see, as clear as day is to night, that I will deliver sustainable competitive advantage for my organisation by looking at Social Media in the reverse.


  6. Guillaume

    @Tom You state a bit the obvious here. Nobody said that social media have removed the human interaction element. Quite the contrary, social networking sites have made connections between humans easier and faster.

    Yesterday, I connected with somebody on LinkedIN, this morning an email came in and tomorrow we will work on a partnership. No phone calls, no face to face meeting (we are in different continents) and we feel we know each other because he can read my blog and I have read his work experience and his tweets.

    Go back to the 20th century and tell me how I could achieved this in less than 24 hours in the same effective manner.

    By the way, I don’t see any hyperlink to your name, are you a teacher by any chance? Would be good to know you more.

  7. Tom


    Social Media, Blah Blah Blah Blah. I cannot stand listening to the same old stuff over and over and over and over again. I have listened to so many people talk about it and argue about it over the years but I still see very few companies benefiting from it. Everyone is putting the kart before the horse when it comes to social media and companies need to start looking at things in the reverse. Until they do, a ferocious circle of productivity loss will continue to eat itself through the various divisions of the marketing department and into the bottom line of the company. I see this happening almost daily!

    Companies need to step back a little bit. They need to take a look at things from a broader perspective and re-evaluate where the real value lies. The real value lies, not through pushing out communications via the various social media vehicles in the hope of getting a “like” or a “retweet” – it lies in the notion of understanding how the human brain works and in doing so creating 1 very powerful human reflection through 1 very powerful business tool. A tool that rarely get’s a mention at these industry “social media” events and “social media” talk fests (which I can’t stand by the way!)

    Please, and sorry Tim for using your blog as the vehicle here, but for those company executives reading this and for those social media experts, stop thinking about how to leverage social media in order to create a closer connection with the customer, stop thinking about social media as a platform to build brand and to drive incremental sales and stop sucking up your marketing departments time and resources by getting them to post tweets, build Facebook profiles and write blogs. You need to look at things in the reverse. Social Media is a “freedom” platform and need’s to run in its natural form. You can’t “force” it, you can’t “manipulate” it and you can’t “manage” it. Forget about these notions. By looking at things in the reverse and understanding this core human reflection I refer to above, a company can only then truly leverage the social media environment.

    The true power is aligning human instinct to human instinct. This is the most powerful connection of all and a true transformational one at that.


  8. Sheila Scarborough

    I’m compelled to point out that a big ol’ buzzy sale, pounded through social media channels, does not prove or disprove much of anything new.

    The social Web allows travel and tourism organizations to connect with past, current and future visitors in a direct, human way. That’s it. It’s simple.

    Doing it well? Not so simple. You have to shut up with the marketing babble and interact like a helpful concierge. Hotels and destinations ought to excel at this; it’s their bread and butter skill set.

    This recent tweet about content from Olivier Blanchard pretty much sums up what some doubters might need to do:

    “STOP shoving “content” through social media channels like sh*t through a goose for ten seconds and LISTEN to consumers. End the monologue.”

    Tweet URL:

  9. Guillaume

    Thanks Tim to mentioning my tweet to Glenn the other day. Would have been nice to see an hyperlink on HB though.

    To expand of what has been said recently:

    Do we see some charlatans out there promising a lot of things if you spend money on Social Media? Absolutely.

    Is Social Media for everyone, every hotel and every brand? Probably not. It depends on what you want to do with these communication tools.

    Is it a waste of time to invest in Social Media? Absolutely not. Invest in Social Media doesn’t mean spending advertising money on Facebook and so on. It’s about engaging with your loyal customers or people who talk about your brand. It could also be about delivering customer service that wasn’t available before: Twitter is a great platform for that ==> follow the Hyatt Concierge initiative.

    What’s crucial about 21st century marketing is that the game has changed with social networking tools like FB, Twitter, Tumblr, Quora, FourSquare.

    Independant hotels and hotel chains can really increase their presence online and drive direct communication with their prospective guests. But they can only do so if they have genuine nice stories to tell to consumers. They also need to be ready to respond to critics. They need to be proactive enough to catch opportunities when they come (like an unhappy guest from a competitor).

    Yes it is too early to tell whether these tools can drive hotel revenue up but the level of engagement with consumers has changed dramatically.

    Also I agree with Claude. The trend could be that we see more and more direct bookings with hotel websites because hoteliers have more platforms to reach out to consumers direct. The reach is not anymore exclusively given to big travel agencies ==> those who have enough money to spend huge amount of money in AdWords and so on.

  10. Gina Baillie

    The thing to remember in my view is that social media is fundamentally changing the way we communicate with our customers. Brands should not tackle social media as a stand alone element tacted on to their existing marketing campaigns. It needs to be integrated across communications and like Tim and Morris say, monitored. Your customers are talking about your brand and what they want so why would you not listen (and respond when appropriate)?

    Customers are not using social media as a purchasing platform but travel is the most talked about topic on the web and so there are millions of conversations going on every day that can be useful to travel brands. People like to be inspired and social media is a great way to reach out and inspire customers. They might not buy from you directly as a result of that but your brand name will be one they remember when they next want to purchase.

    Lastly, Shashank Nigam from Simpliflying did a great presentation at EyeforTravel’s Social Media Strategies for Travel conference about tying in social media strategy to specific KPIs. This is something many brands fail to think about. You can watch the video here –

    Remember – Social media’s not going to go away – it does not seem wise to ignore it

  11. Claude

    I wasn’t present at No Vacancy conference, but Glenn Fogel maybe doesn’t like social media because this ecosystem can bypass some business from Priceline and….to hotelier who do a great job in social media lanscape.

    We see also more and more hotel direct booking engine in Facebook page. Still a try and begining stage, but a trend…

  12. Jay Stansell

    Still no mention of Facebook’s Open Graph API and protocol that enables direct publishing rights, without the need for Facebook business pages? I

    I think there is too much focus on “Facebook 2010” still, with pages and “like” buttons across the advertising media, and not enough focus on the true ability to leverage off of the Opengraph protocol that opens up direct publishing rights (except for og:article for blogs, sorry Tim!), without the need to count your page followers.

    Do these social media experts ever read the API technical specifications and documentation provided by the social networks?

    Opengraph – the undervalued element of social networks, IMHO.

    • Tim

      Jay – good points. The reduction/near elimination of restrictions on what can and cannot be built on facebook will change the way companies can interact with consumers in social media

      • Jay Stansell

        My main concern Tim is the “techies” are reading the documentation and do not know how to market, and the marketeers are not reading the documentation to understand the true potential of social marketing because they see it as “techie”.

        When “social marketing experts” stop copying and pasting widgets on to web pages, and look and study deep integration, only then will businesses truly have a valuable tie-in with social media.

        My comment to social marketing experts is “Stop holding hand with social networks, it’s time to go in for the full snog!!!”


  13. Joe Buhler

    Excellent comments Tim and I also agree with Morris. The main mistake I see companies make when it comes to the social web is to immediately focus on tactical tools like Facebook and Twitter without understanding the need for looking at fundamentals first.
    Your steps are the right way to approach this and I would even add one before your first one and that is WHY? What every successful social web marketing effort has shown is that the company started with a look inward to its culture and overall business objectives. This might at fist sound too abstract for some, but is the way to start in what is not just another fad or channel but a significant shift in how people communicate and interact.

    To hire a self-appointed social media guru, without industry or basic marketing experience and just interject yourself into the customer conversation on social networks and throw some stuff at the proverbial (Facebook) wall will not succeed. I agree that people are tired of interruption marketing and taking the wrong short term tactical approach is just that, more interruption marketing in an even worse place than the traditional media. Of course, it will fail.

    By taking the time to ask the questions of WHY?, HOW? and then WHAT? will produce different results. A serious engagement with customers on the social web requires as much preparation and hard work as coming up with some TV commercial or any other marketing activity. Why should it be otherwise. There are by now enough case studies that show the success of well planned and executed social web marketing activities in a number of industries from which travel industry players can learn.

    • Tim

      @Joe – you are spot on about taking time to ask the WHY question. I speak to so many suppliers (usually hoteliers) who say things like “I have facebook page but no one is following me”. I ask them “why do they have a facebook page?” and they say either “because everyone does” or “a consultant told us to”. Crazy.

      My favourite part of the self proclaimed social media experts is how many of them use the exact phrase “self proclaimed social media experts”. I have twitter followers who have that exact phrase as their twitter profile description.

  14. Morris

    Well said Tim. It’s too extreme to dismiss an entire medium as being inappropriate for an industry because an early pioneer gets shot. At the same time, social media just isn’t for every brand.

    It’s one thing to invest in social media to monitor and improve your offerings. This is just standard best practice now, especially for hoteliers. However, it’s another thing to engage and to try to monetize. If Glenn’s point is that there are a lot charlatans that says you can easily use social media to monetize, I’d have to agree with him. The only thing I’d add is that this is also no different than the early days (and some would still say even now) of SEO and SEM.

    Whether a brand can use social media or not often comes down to that organization’s internal acceptance and readiness. I think anyone helping brands with social media should have ‘Increase my client’s competency in social media’ as a primary objective. The right and responsible thing to do is to help brand managers improve their social media use rather than build dependencies to forever rely on external agencies.

    • Tim

      @Morris – the comparison to the early days of SEO and SEM is spot on. It is inevitable that in x years time (dont know what x is) we will be spending as much time on social media as we do not search optimisation

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