Everyone I know is getting married this year. Or at least, it seems that way. What does that mean for me? Well, factor in the bridesmaid dresses, the shoes, the updos, the bridal showers, the bachelorette parties, the gifts and the travel expenses, and you get a very empty wallet. So when I came across an article about a new hotel booking site with the cheapest deals available, I immediately checked it out. What I found was a great way to avoid being a (completely) broke bridesmaid and a social media success story that really ties into a lot of what we’ve discussing here at EVG lately.
Adorably named TravelPony, this hotel booking website belongs to a travel tech startup founded in Nashville in the fall of 2013. Their concept is simple: instead of spending big bucks on advertising, TravelPony relies on word-of-mouth marketing via social media. Each time a customer books a hotel room through TravelPony, he or she is encouraged to share a post on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn about the great deal they just received on TravelPony. The money the company saves on traditional marketing enables them to offer cheaper hotel rates. And what do cheaper hotel rates mean? More happy customers, more social media shares and more savings! It’s the circle of life. Or at least, the circle of smart marketing.
You might be thinking that there’s still no way a startup company with a tiny marketing budget will ever beat out the big guys like Priceline and Expedia. Well, you might be right. But currently, TravelPony is the fastest-growing travel site, and they’re quickly converting new customers with their forward-thinking marketing techniques, creative branding and—most importantly—cheap hotel rates. So what can other companies learn from TravelPony?
1. Take advantage of social media (and do it right)
First of all, TravelPony is doing a fantastic job with its own social media outlets. Their Facebook and Twitter accounts are interesting, visually appealing and up to date. Posting about everything from free things to do in Los Angeles to the top five luxury hotels in Honolulu, they certainly caught my attention and had me daydreaming about booking my next vacation. (Sadly, I don’t think it will be in Honolulu, but a girl can dream.)
Most notable, however, is the way TravelPony is using social media to generate user reviews and thereby avoid spending a huge amount of money on marketing. According to a recent eMarketer report, the Priceline Group will be the largest spender in U.S. digital advertising in 2014, with Expedia not far behind. In all, the U.S. travel industry spent $3.42 billion on digital advertising last year; Priceline alone spent $1.8 billion.
TravelPony is taking a different approach. Using a Facebook login (or an email address), users sign in and search for hotels in a particular destination. The search results show TravelPony prices at the top; below, users can see the prices other booking sites are offering for rooms at the same hotel. After booking a room, the user is prompted to share a post about TravelPony on social media. The user can edit the post to say whatever they like; it just needs to include the company’s Twitter handle and website link. Don’t want to share a post? You can also take the “Pony Promise” to share your TravelPony find with someone offline. A company that purposefully avoids being pushy gets bonus points in my book.
This approach is drastically different from the one taken by big travel sites like Priceline, which emphasizes direct-response advertising. In fact, Priceline CEO Darren Huston openly shared his doubt in the power of advertising via social media; instead, Priceline and similar companies fork over billions to Google AdWords. The result? If I conduct a Google search for “cheap hotel rooms in Honolulu,” Priceline will definitely pop up. But if three of my Facebook friends recently posted about finding cheap deals on TravelPony, there’s a good chance I will visit their website directly to look for the cheapest option. After all, 90% of customers say their buying decisions are influenced by online reviews.
2. Ask bloggers to review your website or product
When I was trying to find more information about TravelPony, I came across quite a few travel blogs, such as this one, reviewing the TravelPony website. These are real people using the website and blogging about its positive and negative aspects. As a potential customer, I find this incredibly smart and helpful. Other people are using it, and other people are verifying that this website truly does have the cheapest prices. More reviews equal more trust, which equals more customers.
3. Make branding a priority
Branding is something we’ve been talking about a lot here at EVG, and TravelPony seems to be a prime example of a company doing it right. From their blog to their FAQ page, the company takes every opportunity to present themselves as approachable, creative and fun. In fact, one of my biggest issues with the company when I first started researching them was the idea that auto-generated social media posts often seem spammy and obnoxious. What’s the first sentence that pops out at me on their FAQ page? “WE HATE SPAM.” They then go on to encourage users to make their posts unique, funny and definitely not spammy. More bonus points in my book.
4. Understand the importance of planting the mental seed
As with most things in life, patience is a virtue when it comes to marketing. No, one social media post does not equal one guaranteed booking. But TravelPony understands the importance of planting the seed in potential customers’ minds. If I see a few posts about TravelPony and then, shockingly, someone else gets engaged and I’m scrambling to book an affordable hotel room, guess where I’m going to look? You got it—TravelPony.
If you’re not already taking advantage of social media, saddle up and follow TravelPony’s lead. If you are already using social media to promote your company, what tips do you have to share? Let us know in the comments!
Laurel Reese – Project Manager