CruiseNow CEO John Keen on Successfully Engaging Customers via Social Media
Social media can make or break a brand and few industries have had to wrestle with the implications of our social era more briskly than hospitality. Customer perceptions can change in as little time as it takes to read the headline of a bad review on TripAdvisor. But the social world is a two-way street, with attentive brands successfully engaging with customers and earning new ones in the process.
For cruise industry veteran John Keen, sailing the seas are a passion that he has made a career of. Founding two successful B2C cruise distribution websites left him hungry for a new spin on online cruise reservations. In 2009, he and co-founder Jeff Nickerson set out to create an innovative, user-friendly cruise travel site that leveraged social media like no other and engaged customers in the world of cruising.
CruiseNow was born, catering to an increasingly selective and socially-savvy group of travelers who want to discover, exchange ideas and be thoroughly entertained in the process. The company’s social media team answers inquiries on their Twitter feed, posts customer photographs, asks questions of Facebook followers and provides fun and insight to cruise passengers and aspiring travelers alike.
We recently caught up with Keen who spoke to us on the phone from CruiseNow’s Charlotte, NC, headquarters. As you’ll see, driving measurable results from social media can be tricky but CruiseNow is in it for the long run. (Phone interview edited for length and clarity)
STR: John, you are a veteran in the online cruise industry, founding your first cruise broker site back in the dot com era followed by a second site which you later sold to the venerable hospitality giant Carlson Company. What was the impetus behind starting CruiseNow and its unique interactive slant?
JK: Through the years, I have noticed that cruise reservation sites are really cookie-cutter versions that are essentially the same. That’s still how a majority of our competitors operate and certainly how my previous sites were. If I was going to start a new one, it had to improve upon those previous sites that weren’t at all interactive or social. I’ve always been interested in technology trends going back to my first site, CruiseOutlet, which partnered with AOL back in those very early years of the web. With the advent of social media happening alongside the birth of CruiseNow (in 2009), it was perfect timing to try something new.
STR: Who are CruiseNow’s customers and were they the driving force behind its prolific social integration?
JK: As a site that sells cruises, our customer demographic is mostly female and skews towards the 30 and 40-something crowd with families. We’re a mid-tiered, highly specialized business and we have to broaden our customer base as much as possible and social media helps us do that. It cuts through all spectrums of people and includes early adopters who tend to be a little younger and more tech savvy. We have focused on the younger generations a bit more with CruiseNow because of that. So, we’re now targeting college students for spring break cruises and young professionals and families, as well.
STR: Weekly videos on your homepage and scattered throughout your site virtually walk guests through the in’s and out’s of cruising, showcasing the latest deals, ship footage and interviews. And, of course, you are the comedic host who clearly has fun playing the role. How did you come up with the idea to have video factor into the site?
JK: I did a bit of acting for regional TV commercials in the past and I thought it would be fun to do videos where we could show the latest promotions and have a funny spin on current cruise events in a tongue-and-cheek fashion. So we set up a studio right in our call center and we film our weekly CruiseCast and CruiseNews segments there. Those videos are up on our site in addition to our YouTube channel and our Facebook page. We have an employee who does all of our video production because it really is a job in and of itself, but it’s a lot of fun.
STR: How did your social media strategy factor into the context of your overall business plan?
JK: Using social media as aggressively as we do, it plays a major role in our marketing plan. Our decision to (focus on social media) was risky, moving a lot of funds away from traditional avenues like online ads and into social media. Typically, you might have an 80/20 split with 80% of your budget going to traditional advertising sources and 20% to social media. We turned the tables. We still do the traditional stuff, but a much smaller fraction of our budget goes there.
STR: Do you have a dedicated team of people managing your social media accounts?
JK: Yes, we have three employees who do nothing but social media- from our Facebook and Twitter accounts to the YouTube channel and other ancillary site work. Three people may not seem like a lot, but for a company of our size it’s a good team. I don’t want them doing anything other than social media. Ultimately, we are concerned with building relationships so their focus is on engaging with our customers on those accounts.
STR: And you have a great blog that updates customers on everything from shore excursions to taking great photos at sea…
JK: Our blog, EscapePlan, is staffed by our cruise guide employees. So many sites pay copy writers to do their blog content, but we don’t do that because they don’t have the knowledge our own staff does. All of our employees are veterans in the field and they bring a great deal of insight to each post. They are really prolific with their writing, too, and enjoy it. It’s not uncommon to see two or three new posts in a single day.
STR: The CruiseNow website received a recent revamp and integrated Gigya’s social CRM software which offers social sign-on, sharing and broadcasting on social networks and a live feed of the latest social media discussions right on the homepage. How do you gauge the results of these social features?
JK: We’re starting to see an up-tick in our business since the revamp with bookings, calls and social engagement. And people are recommending CruiseNow to their friends and networks which is great. But it’s still new ground and it takes time.
We just wrapped up a Facebook campaign with a Royal Caribbean cruise for two give-away. Customers who liked our Facebook page earned one entry, and they could earn more entries for following us on Twitter, sharing our blog and other things. So, by simply incentivizing people to share CruiseNow on their Facebook walls, we received thousands of new ‘Likes’ and it turned out to be very successful for us in extending our brand and reaching a broader audience.
STR: Many organizations struggle with the delicate balancing act of social media. They want to derive measurable results from their campaigns but don’t quite understand the conversation part. How do you navigate these seas (no pun intended)?
JK: We are still finding our way around the space and certainly don’t have all the answers. Nothing comes overnight. Do we want customers to purchase cruises from us at the end of the day? Absolutely, because that is the business we’re in as cruise brokers. But we try not to push sales too hard in favor of developing relationships and trust with our customers which will drive the business end of things, as we’re seeing now. If we continue to engage our customers, we add something new that you won’t find on any other cruise broker site.
STR: For the record, my young son noticed the video content on CruiseNow and was absolutely captivated, stating that we must take a family cruise!
JK: Well you see! We are reaching a younger audience! We really do hope that people find our site fun because at the end of the day, that’s what sets us apart.
STR: John, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you about how CruiseNow leverages social media to drive its interactive cruise site. Thanks.
JK: Thank you!