Monday, Oct. 26, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Social media's importance
- The growing influence of social media is unmistakable. As of April, time spent on Facebook increased seven-fold from a year ago, while time spent on Twitter is skyrocketing -- grabbing share from other Web sites and outpacing the use of e-mail, according to Nielsen Online. For the month of September, people spent an average of 5 hours and 24 minutes on Facebook, the fourth most visited site on the Web, with more than 200 million users worldwide.
Social media Web sites such as Facebook and Twitter are changing the face of customer relations at major Las Vegas hotels.
Resorts are setting up their own fan pages where executives can monitor customer suggestions on how to improve business, bask in guests’ kudos, offer immediate assistance to customers in distress — and cringe when unhappy patrons post critical remarks that ding their companies.
And for their part, customers are discovering that such Web sites are offering them an unprecedented voice, with their comments and reviews not only reaching casino managers but an untold number of other customers and potential customers over whom they can now wield influence.
Indeed, the world of carefully crafted resort marketing — where executives could control their message — has turned into a wild card. Witness the following incidents:
• A gambler ranted on South Point’s Facebook page last week, “Please folks ... do N-O-T gamble in this casino. They run some of the TIGHTEST machines in Las Vegas. I LOSE almost E-V-E-R-Y time I try playing at South Point.” South Point managers read every word — and let the comment ride. Before they could engage the man in a public debate about the competitiveness of their slot machines, another customer came to the property’s defense minutes later: “If you don’t like the South Point that much — then just don’t go there. But the rest of us LOVE the place ... better luck next time.”
• A woman posted on her Twitter page last week that she had “just touched down” in Las Vegas. Because Twitter posts can be monitored by keywords, a Wynn Las Vegas employee was able to immediately respond: “Welcome! Come on over to our resort to explore and discover. You won’t be disappointed.”
Wynn’s Twitter guru then posted on another member’s page who was “looking forward to staying @Wynn” to “Tweet us if you have questions or need recommendations.”
• Rather than falling back on old assumptions, the Luxor recently asked “fans” on its Facebook page whether they preferred a lower hotel rate or more add-ons such as coupons or discounts on spa services, shows or meals. Customers overwhelmingly wanted the lower rate, and the hotel has obliged.
• Caesars Palace is offering a Halloween discount travel package for Facebook and Twitter followers that will include “tweets” to guests during their stay of locations in the resort offering free food and drinks and other giveaways. Profile photos of the 251 customers who have so far booked the event are clustered on the property’s Facebook page, where people have uploaded vacation photos, trip stories and recommendations about what to do on the Strip.
This may seem like some sort of alternate universe for Las Vegas, where bankrolls traditionally determined the level of customer service received, or how closely casino managers paid attention. And yet, in this new world, Average Joes and Janes — whose comments can be viewed by thousands at the touch of a computer key — can become, in a sense, instant high rollers, whose views and perceptions matter to the corner office because of the sweeping influence they may have over other casino customers.
Big brands — including casinos — that don’t develop social media programs do so at their peril, said Jennifer Van Grove, an associate editor at Mashable.com, an online publication that reports on the social media industry.
“I have 8,000 people following me on Twitter. If I post something, some are going to reply and may share my (post) with the people who are following them. You could have a whole chain of comments based on one incident. These hotels have to be involved.”
Indeed, these Web sites are in part a defensive measure for hotels.
“The reality is, customers are going to talk about our brands with or without us,” said Harrah’s Entertainment Vice President of Marketing Monica Sullivan, a social-media expert who joined the company this year. “We want to be part of that dialogue. More customers are talking about the brands they love in social places on the Web rather than in e-mail.”
There is a great upside for companies that go about it the right way, Van Grove said. Social media can hold hotels more accountable to their customers, fix problems, correct misconceptions and build loyalty.
Change in culture
New technology isn’t necessarily an easy sell for the casino industry, an admittedly conservative business where managers have relied on decades-old marketing techniques, more recently borrowing ideas from other industries. Weighing against the opportunity to communicate with customers on a deeper, more personal level were many unknowns, such as the potential PR nightmare of exposing a company to unfiltered public comments that could deride the company as easily as praise it.
“The way people acquire information is no longer the passive activity it once was,” said Dave Kirvin of Kirvin Doak, a public relations and marketing firm that is building social media sites, monitoring company sites and doing social media consulting for casino companies.
“Online media ... allow consumers to be in charge of the news and information they receive. But when you engage the consumer using social media, you get the opportunity to both deliver a message and receive one. That’s very powerful.”
About two years ago, big casino companies including Harrah’s and MGM Mirage waded in with their first Facebook and Twitter sites — which have become increasingly sophisticated and which are now attracting thousands of followers.
The hotels use their Facebook and Twitter pages not just to promote themselves or drive business but to learn what people are saying about them, interact with customers and positively influence a broader audience of consumers. Given the explosive growth of social media sites, which don’t yet charge businesses or consumers, these might become more cost-effective than using traditional advertising and marketing methods.
And why not tap the new media outlets? says George Maloof, owner of the Palms. “This is part of how people live today — spending hours on Facebook.”
Although the biggest casino companies have corporate-level employees who oversee the information exchange and establish best practices, the work mostly falls to the real experts: marketing staffs of each hotel.
Taking bad with good
To maintain credibility with customers, companies don’t tend to remove negative comments or constructive criticism on their sites unless the person posting the comment uses foul language or says something offensive to others. Though that may sound surprising for an industry known for being ultra-protective of its image, companies acknowledge that consumers want to be heard and may offer valuable feedback if given the chance.
“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” Sally Gaughan, South Point’s director of Internet marketing, said about the negative slot machine comment. “We wanted to give people a place to talk about the South Point and we wanted it to be genuine.”
Companies have quickly caught on to the fact that the good will earned from fixing a problem or improving a situation can have a ripple effect online.
MGM Mirage, for example, recently got kudos from fans for how it responded to a couple of complaints. After a customer posted on Facebook that he was unhappy with his meal at one of the company’s Strip resorts, the property’s concierge contacted the customer, who was still at the hotel, and offered to fix the problem. In another instance, a customer who had won show tickets complained online that he couldn’t use the tickets because he had a conflict. MGM Mirage gave the man free tickets for another date.
Station Casinos, which launched Facebook and Twitter pages this year, is recruiting people from across the company, from entertainment directors to race and sports experts, to post factoids and recommendations. When the sites are further along, customer feedback will begin to shape business decisions at the company, which traditionally caters to older gamblers but is reaching a younger audience through Facebook and Twitter, said Samar Hatem, corporate interactive marketing manager for Station Casinos.
“We’re just scratching the surface with this,” Station spokeswoman Lori Nelson said. “It’s like how Web sites started in the 1990s. The conversation we have today about social media is going to be completely different a year from now.”