Scroll through the Instagram account for Hotels.com and it’s a technicolour array of amazing experiences to be enjoyed all over the world. When you learn that the photos are all taken by staff from Hotels.com - people who are passionate about travel - it starts to make sense. No cookie cutter template here, this is uncensored photography from people who live and breathe travel. They’re not paid influencers
Hotels.com has eschewed the big name travel influencers to give their own staff the opportunity to tell the brand story and experience.
At a time when trust and transparency are at an all time low, according to Edelman Trust Barometer – measured before the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica debacle – people ‘trust a person like yourself’. The idea of employee generated content starts to look more and more appealing to brands finding a way to cut through and stand out against competitors.
When I spoke to Tim McLoughlin, Head of Social Media at Hotels.com, about where the idea came from – not just to give staff the Instagram feed to run for a week but to give it over entirely to staff - what comes across is the story of a brand pushing to tell a more authentic story that will resonate with customers.
“It was an idea that was born from our desire to humanise our brand and give real people and faces and names to what we do,” says Tim.
Here’s the interview…
What was behind the idea to give over the Instagram feed to employees?
We don’t have shops at Hotels.com as we’re an ecommerce platform, so our customers don’t get to meet us. When we did a review of how people felt about the brand a couple of years ago, the feedback was it was a bit grey and dull. The platform lacked the personality you’d expect to find in travel and people felt they didn’t have interaction with us.
We spent a lot of time after that thinking about how we could humanise ourselves. We asked ourselves ‘What do we have? What are our assets? On a day to day level, how do we demonstrate who we are?’ And we realised our staff are a way to achieve that.
We knew that if our staff posted on social it would help to build a better relationship with the customer and capture the brand in a more vibrant, authentic appealing way.
In the end, we thought we could pay an agency to do this, or we could do it ourselves. And that’s what we did.
What steps did you take to set up the programme?
Still, we needed to think about how best to have our colleagues take over Instagram - so that it didn’t end up feeling too staged or naff, and that it wouldn’t become a burden to them having to do it.
At Hotels.com, we’re a group of people who love travel and a lot of staff have global connections and backgrounds. So it made sense to tap into that passion and bring it to life. We decided that celebrating their passion should be relatively easy.
We created a unique hashtag #WeWhoTravel – people can follow the hashtag independently of the hotels.com account now that you can follow hashtags on Instagram, and that’s helped drive awareness.
How do you manage the programme internally?
We have an all company meeting monthly where we have a slot to talk about the programme, that’s been the most effective way we’ve motivated staff to get on board so far. We use other methods too including company emails, and we incentivise our staff with travel vouchers, as well as having their photos featured on the brand platforms.
We pick the best photo each month and there’s an annual prize for best photo of the year where previous monthly winners are entered and the whole company votes for the one they think should win.
Not all our employees get to travel for work, but they do all receive an Expedia travel bonus they can spend on personal travel, so it means everyone is able to contribute to the programme – we see a big spike in photos over the summer and Christmas.
We do a lot of work around employee engagement anyway, we also have a Hall of Fame, and a leader board. We teamed up with HR and our recruiting team on this, and employee satisfaction has been a key part of this programme.
What sort of results are you seeing?
Over the course of the year we have had thousands of submissions with a third of staff taking part. It’s generating great engagement, and next steps are we want to build on that.
Our vision is to build up this knowledge bank – where staff go to, what they like. We want it to be a place that showcases employees’ favourite places, and establishes our own people as thought leaders in the industry, the people to turn to for ideas, tips, advice on where to go next, and what to see and do.
Why do you think there's such a shift to authenticity?
Authenticity is what people are demanding – what people expect not just from brands but anyone they are dealing with. You see it in politics with Brexit and Trump. People hate marketing that wants to lump everyone together. When you do research with people under 35, what they want is for brands to stand for something, to have a purpose and not simply be about the product.
Which other brands are doing advocacy marketing that inspires you?
We take inspiration from brands that are doing it in slightly different ways. We wanted it to be easy to have as many of our employees involved as possible
So some of the other brands that have inspired us are Reebok’s fitness platform and Sweden’s twitter account – it shows the real face behind the country. Both served as inspiration.
In B2B, Intel has quite a big content programme, people internally write for that and Dell has an established programme to respond to customers and help them solve issues.
They’re all interesting case studies, where companies encourage staff have become an important advocacy network for the business.
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