Using Social Media to Improve Occupancy In a Down Economy

 

image from www.flickr.com So this Free Idea Day winner really got me excited because I can actually use their services. Meyer Real Estate is (in their words):

We are a vacation rental and real estate company along the Alabama/Florida Gulf Coast. Our challenge is to participate in social media with a product that is not an everyday use or pocket-change type of product – we rent houses and condos to people for their vacations, whether two nights, two weeks or two months (or longer).

None of us is a social media expert; we are doing the best we can to learn and to keep the sites active. But we do believe that part of the issue is the type of business we are in – once someone arranges or completes their vacation, they don’t want to hear from us until time to plan the next one. How do we overcome the cyclical nature of our type of business and build up a year-round loyal subscriber base on our social sites?

photo credit:  Meyerre.com

So much opportunity here and far more than I can really cover in a single Free Idea Day post. But in an effort to fulfill and point you in a direction that should bear fruit, I’ve broken my thoughts down into a sales system you can apply.

Given the high repeat business and strong seasonality trends you face, you may want to consider approaching your marketing from an Acquire>>Engage>>Activate model. I’ll break each stage down and provide a few thoughts on efforts you can apply at each.

Acquire
With 70% or more of your business coming from repeat guests, you have both a blessing and a curse. You’re blessed in that you have a solid base of business that you can pretty much count on year in and year out. But it is also a curse in that humans are creatures of habit. So if my habit is to take the family on an annual beach trip in June, then you only get me to come with my family in June. You may be able to stimulate me to change my month or consider coming a second time or maybe even come with just the wife, but by and large, I’m just going to do what I’ve always done. Thus, it is imperative that you focus a percentage of your marketing efforts on expanding your base of first time renters. A couple of thoughts for doing this.

Sales Materials

  • Include a simple business card with your Facebook, Twitter, Website and Blog addresses. Why a business card? Because everyone has a wallet and if you make it it simple to just put that card in their wallet, they likely will. To increase your odds, print a few key phone numbers (emergency service line, popular restaurant’s reservations line, or something else) so the guest has a reason to want to have that card handy.
  • Refrigerator magnets: make sure these are in each unit you rent. Make sure they invite guests to follow you on Facebook and Twitter. Given that most, if not all, of your units will have high-speed internet, you have an opportunity to capture new friends/fans.
  • Post Cards: Give the guest a chance to tell their friends about what a great time they are having. At the bottom of each card, include your Facebook/Twitter handles so the recipient can fan/follow you themselves to get great deals, etc. 
  • You’ve already got the newsletter, which has a robust list, but it would probably be a good idea to scrub the list or apply some behavioral techniques to see how many of those folks are active readers vs lapsed and possibly purge the lapsed users. There are also some really cool segmenting things you can do with email lists, which would likely bear fruit and generate solid ROI’s.

Your Owners

  • Every property you manage has an owner with a vested interest in you renting out every available date that owner gives you to manage. Many of those owners (and likely growing) are active on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Make sure those owners have and promote your Twitter/Facebook handles. You’ll need to give folks a reason to want to follow/friend you, but we’ll cover that in the Activate section. At a minimum, make sure each owner is a Fan and Follows you on Twitter so you can begin to stimulate the viral loops that are the true power of Social Media.

Twitter

  • Use Search.Twitter.com to find folks that are actively looking to book condos on the beach, plan or take a beach vacation, wedding trip (bachelor/bachelorette) or other types of trips that you indicated folks regularly take when booking your condos. If questions are being asked about where to stay, what to do, etc., then answer them — don’t sell, help. More on this during the Engage section.

Engage
You noted in our emails that social media is still new to your team… not to fret, it’s still new to everyone. So while we probably can’t cover everything you may need to know, let’s hit a few high points that should help your efforts.

  • Twitter: as noted above, this is a great place to acquire new followers that can eventually become fans and guests. When you run your Twitter search, respond where it makes sense. If someone is asking for help, recommendations or rooms, engage them. In some cases these folks might already be on the coast and renting from a competitor, but be helpful anyways. They’ll remember you the next time but more importantly, they’ll likely engage you back. Once they do, then follow them. There is some debate about when it is ok to follow a consumer talking about your category — in your case condo rentals in the Gulf Coast. Again that is a post all its own, but safe to say — you probably have some low hanging fruit in your account right now given that you’re only following back about 10% of the folks that are following you. If you’re not following a person on Twitter you can’t see what they are tweeting. If you can’t see their tweets, it’s hard to engage with them. So I’d start there and then you’ll need to think through when it is appropriate to engage folks on Twitter that are not following you but certainly could be candidates for your services.
  • Contests: These seem to be the game everyone is playing on the social media front. I love your photo submission contest but feel you could leverage it more. Get those up on Flickr and place them under a Creative Commons license. Then apply tags and description copy that will help them get found. You might even want to dictate in the comments section the photo attribution line you prefer folks use when they use the photo. Where would folks use that photo? Travel bloggers for one. They’re always looking for great shots for their posts. Make sure if a blogger is looking for a killer beach shot that they find yours. Other than that — I’d suggest you be careful with contests. They are low engagement and create an illusion of engagement where one truly doesn’t exist. Instead, talk to folks. Be a member of the social community. Be a person. Share funny stories, answer questions that have nothing to do with condos in Alabama and in general be likable.
  • Surveys: Instead of fielding a traditional consumer insight survey, take the opportunity to ask lots of questions spread out over time. Ask folks about their vacation patterns, economic situations, vacation likes and dislikes, etc. Offer folks a discount on a future rental or better yet, a free weekend stay that can be used outright or as a discount against a weeklong rental. Surveys are great engagement tools and if you’ve built up a good reputation as a trusted (good person) you can ask for the occasional Retweet (RT) of the survey — which takes us back up to the Acquire portion of the cycle.

Activate

  • You’re sitting on a lot of unrented inventory every day. Inventory that can’t be put on a shelf to be sold tomorrow. Once the room night is gone, it’s gone. So put that unused inventory to work for you. Given that most of your traffic is close in drive traffic, steal a page out of Southwest’s playbook and create a “Ding” like product that pushes unused inventory. This is a great way to entice folks to follow you on Twitter and Friend you on Facebook — as long as you make those the only channels you push this deal out through. eMail is also great for this and if you wanted to start getting into mobile, you could use Text messaging to do it… though the text messages would likely have to push folks online to see all the offers for that week.
  • Blogger rooms – let it be known that you are blogger friendly. If a blogger happens to be planning a trip to your neck of the woods and you have some inventory that isn’t being used (and the owner is willing to play along) let the blogger have it for the variable cost only. That way your turn-over costs are covered, and if you’re lucky (which likely you will be) the blogger will blog about you, the room and the location. All of this can then become fodder for your own Facebook/Twitter postings and will likely help you in the SEO world too. Again, you’re not out anything and you get a bit of low cost marketing help. The big thing here is this: you can’t mandate they cover you. Well actually you could but then it really would call into question what they write and the best ones won’t take you up on it. Instead, you just have to trust that the blogger will find a way to repay your hospitality — and I think you’ll find most will. Certainly you should vet the bloggers to make sure they’re legit. But after you’ve qualified that they have an audience that is of value to you, and you’d willingly trade a few room nights for the possibility of some kind of coverage, then you just have to trust them and watch. It would also be good to offer some kind of blogger rate that folks have to contact you via Twitter or Facebook to qualify for… I’ve watched the Roger Smith Hotel use this quite effectively — hell I’m staying there in January because of it!
  • As you build relationships with Fans and Followers — use your dialogue to help them see other times they can use you. For instance, I came to the coast once with my family over Easter. Honestly, I had never thought of taking them to the beach in April. But, honestly, it was great. To be able to sit on the beach and read a book while not baking — heaven. Use the power of social media tools to get those kind of stories out of your guests and then share them. Those are the kinds of stories that get folks to consider changing their traditions and patterns.
  • And lastly, provide a helpful service. If you’re not getting this, find a way to get anniversary and wife’s birthday dates. Overall, guys suck at planning ahead to buy gifts for those important dates. Heck, lots of guys suck at even remembering them! So help the hubby out AND give them a gift any wife would love — a few days at the beach (with or without said hubby) 😉 at a reasonable price. This can be done with email or even Twitter (but use the DM vs @ channel).

Well that’s about it for now. As I said, I think there is a ton you can do in this space — far more than I can cover here — but this should get you started and hopefully stimulate a few more ideas from other readers via the comments section.

So what say you folks? Anyone got something I missed? I’m guessing you do… why not pay it forward and help these fine folks out.

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About Tom Martin

Tom is 20+ year veteran of the marketing and advertising industry with a penchant for stiff drinks, good debates and digital gadgets that helps digitally challenged companies create innovative and effective digital marketing strategies. He is the founder of Converse Digital , author of The Invisible Sale and a contributing writer for Advertising Age. Tom guides clients through the digital marketing maze and helps companies teach their sales force how to Painlessly Prospect their way to more sales. Connect with him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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