How cruise lines can use customer reviews to market themselves

Chris Cowan from Clusters highlights the benefits of using analysis when marketing cruises to travellers
How cruise lines can use customer reviews to market themselves

By Guest |

For consumers, booking a holiday is undoubtedly one of the biggest purchases of the year, as well as the most indulgent. Compared to a short city break or camping trip, a cruise demands a greater degree of financial and emotional investment, with many describing it as a trip of a lifetime.

Practical considerations, such as departure times and prices, play a part in consumers’ booking decisions, but intangible forces can prove more influential. Holidays are about those ephemeral moments when travellers try a new dish, experience a new culture or simply sit by the pool soaking up the sun – and a recommendation from a someone in their own social circle is the ultimate endorsement.

Today, word-of-mouth marketing is no longer limited to immediate friends and family; instead travellers can uncover countless reviews on blogs, social media and sites like TripAdvisor. Once only the preserve of travel journalists, these online sites can now be used by anyone to share good or bad reviews and influence others with their experiences.

It’s no wonder that travel companies invest so heavily in social media marketing, with many using well-timed competitions and incentives to capture those important users. On Facebook, for example, a picture of a magnificent ship sailing across the sea could generate thousands of likes and shares, helping to get the message out to yet more potential customers.

One of the most significant changes in the travel industry has been the monumental rise of TripAdvisor, which is frequently the first port-of-call for anyone booking a cruise. Given the level of investment, people want to know that the crews were friendly, that the dining was outstanding and the facilities were of a high standard. Negative stories, such as dirty cabins or poor food, can put passengers off in an instant, so it’s paramount that cruise lines generate favourable reviews, and respond to any negative comments. But with so many reviews and endorsements out there, how can cruise providers cut through the noise and find out which groups are most likely to push someone towards purchase?

Although competitions and ‘refer a friend’ schemes are a common tactic, marketing teams need to know that these endorsements are worth the cost of prizes and other bonuses. If the majority of people dismiss posts that come from the type of person who simply shares everything they see, there is little point running a campaign like this. On TripAdvisor, users can gain ‘expert’ or ‘top contributor’ status, however this only refers to the quantity of reviews submitted rather the than quality. In some cases, recommendations that do not appear genuine or lack integrity can even damage a brand’s reputation.

Trawling through countless reviews is an impossible task, which is why marketing teams are increasingly seeing the value of behavioural segmentation – a market research method that involves looking at motivations and actions.

Unlike demographic segmentation, which makes assumptions based on the age, background or location of consumers, behavioural segmentation is derived from real evidence of what people have actually done and how they are likely to act in the future. It highlights how different groups are likely to respond to a promotional campaign, enabling cruise providers to pinpoint those all-important brand advocates. This is crucial for marketing teams looking to target the right people with relevant communications and meaningful offers.

During a recent study, Clusters looked at what motivates people to recommend products and services to others, including holidays. The outcome of the study revealed the following segments:

  • Reluctant recommenders – not interested in brands and rarely recommend, and not motivated by reward
  • Dear Abbys – most likely to recommend because they like to help others, but privacy can be a barrier because they do not like to give out people’s names 
  • Trusted experts – knowledgeable about the products they recommend and believe in value for money so they only endorse if it does not undermine their credibility on or offline
  • Social opportunists – highly motivated by rewards and are more likely to recommend if it is easy to do so (e.g. prominent branding on a social media post) 
  • Explorers – only recommend if they have discovered and believe in a product because they don’t like the commercial aspect 
  • Mercenary enthusiasts – they love the product and know a lot about it, and they expect a high reward for recommendation 
  • Investigators – research products themselves rather than recommending. Only advocate something if it is fun and easy to do so, but mainly enjoy doing it 
  • Activist supporters – like to recommend, but they only do so if the product is high quality. Reward is important, but the main motivation is helping others.

Our findings showed that the majority of people (34%) who recommend a holiday fall into the ‘Dear Abbys’ category. This is consistent with what we’d expect for the travel industry: happy holidaymakers enjoy sharing their experiences and wouldn’t want others to waste time and money on something that fell short of the mark.

Accounting for a significant proportion of the overall sample are the ‘Mercenary Enthusiasts’ and ‘Activist Supporters’ (14% each), who tend to endorse something they feel passionate about, but are also motivated by rewards for doing so.

However, identifying top recommenders only tells half the story; travel companies need to know how influential each of these groups are. Half of the people the ‘Dear Abbys’ group gave a recommendation to considered acting on it and 56% shared it with someone else. The result was similar for the ‘Mercenary Enthusiasts’ and ‘Activist Supporters’, where roughly half of people would consider the recommendation and half shared it.

At the other end of the scale are the ‘Explorers’, whose recommendations carry the most clout. Even though they only represent 6% of those who make travel endorsements, 73% of people considered their recommendations and 75% shared them. It might be surprising that some were willing to share even if they have not considered it for themselves, but it’s not uncommon for people to pass on a travel recommendation from someone they trust if a friend is planning a similar trip. It is important to note that there is likely to have been overlaps within the group, with some considering the recommendation and sharing it.

Ultimately, it’s insights like these that can help a cruise operator to assess the effectiveness of its marketing strategy and target resources to ensure the best rate of return. The ‘Explorer’ segment is the most powerful, so engaging with these people is key to a successful advocacy campaign. It also suggests that while social media competitions and other offers can be effective in some cases, the bulk of the marketing budget should not be spent in this area.

In the case of travel, high quality experiences are everything and cruise operators should strive for perfection at every customer touchpoint, from responding to queries beforehand, to delivering their dream holiday. There’s no point in running robotic competitions or ‘refer a friend’ offers if the actual holiday is not up to scratch. But with the right people onboard, encouraged by the right kind of reward, cruise companies are better placed to increase their fanbase and secure more bookings.

Chris Cowan is managing director at market research segmentation specialist Clusters


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