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Understanding Your Post-COVID-19 Customer

Martin Stoll Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Sparkloft Media

No matter where you are or who you are - you have been affected by COVID-19 in some form or another. Whether you or someone you know has been infected, lost a loved one, lost a job or suffered some sort of financial loss, or simply been stuck working from home, the impact of this crisis varies greatly on a very personal level.

Now more than ever, consumers think differently, see the world differently and have different priorities.

Marketers need to understand all these changes to ensure their messages are relevant and have impact. But as COVID-19 and the subsequent economic crisis are still unfolding, the changes keep coming and the world must continue to adjust. How do you track all of these changes impacting what consumers think -  are they ready to travel, stay in a hotel or eat in a restaurant?

One approach, which over the last four months has proven to offer great insights, is social media sentiment analysis. The majority of social media posts are visible to the public: tweets, Facebook posts, blog posts, TripAdvisor or Yelp reviews, etc. Through natural language processing and machine learning tools, hospitality marketers and social media managers are able to analyze billions of posts to identify recurring themes, upcoming trends and context related to a specific theme, topic or brand.

All of these monitoring capabilities offer real-time insights to specific questions. Once "listening queries" are established, the data is immediately available, allowing reports to be generated with the push of a button. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, social media sentiment analytics have proven to be critical as so many events unfold so quickly. For marketers and market researchers it's very challenging to measure the rapidly changing consumer mindset through tried and true tactics, such as focus groups or surveys - those tools are too expensive and too slow for the current crisis environment.  In addition, the data available through social sentiment also allows reports to be filtered to specific geographic areas - e.g. what are people thinking ABOUT New York City or what are people thinking IN New York City in regard to COVID-19 and traveling.

Since mid-January - the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak - we have used social media sentiment to specifically understand how consumers in the US are reacting to the crisis. We have identified numerous trends and insights including several specifically relevant to the hospitality industry: 

  • Conversations related to hospitality industry keywords (e.g. hotel, motel, resort, Airbnb etc.) were down 42% year over year for the time from March 1 to April 15. The conversations that were still taking place were mostly related to refunds.

  • Consumers were concerned about health and safety in hotels and felt the airline industry is doing a better job communicating what is being done to keep everybody safe.

  • Social media users quarantined in the US can be categorized in three groups: the action-oriented consumer (who wants to know everything that is being done about COVID-19), the curator (who uses the time at home to better themselves and learn new things) and the escapist (who uses social media to get a distraction from reality). Each one of these consumers is looking for very different, very specific content related to their way of dealing with the results of the Coronavirus crisis.

The insights gained from social listening are extremely helpful on the brand level, but they can also help individual hospitality properties when it comes to developing specific sales and marketing strategies. This crisis has made very clear that social media is now an even more important communications channel and there are three main reason for it:

  1. Audience size: Consumers now spend more time on social media than before.

  2. Flexibility: From a marketing perspective social media is one of the most flexible channels available.

  3. Targeting options: nothing comes close to social media if you want to market to very specific audiences at scale

In times of great uncertainty, it is prudent to use marketing tools that offer maximum flexibility, so creative and targeting can be changed within hours if needed. We do not know yet how this crisis will unfold over the next weeks or months, as continued local outbreaks and possible lock-downs cannot be ruled out - making a commitment to media plans such as monthly print publications are a high risk.

Social media offers unparalleled targeting capabilities. Numerous polls and our own sentiment analysis show that Americans are divided over COVID-19 issues, including when we should return to a "normal" life. When you start marketing your property, you can expect backlash as people who think it is too early to travel will certainly make that known on your official social accounts. Through dark posts on social media, the hospitality industry has the tools to be more targeted and reach potential travelers that are more likely ready to travel, thus reducing the risk for backlash towards the brand.

What Would This Campaign Look Like?

To illustrate how insights from social sentiment analysis can lead to highly targeted social media campaigns let's look at three sample audiences. We chose very different audiences to illustrate how different motivations are and how subsequently different messaging has to be.

We will use an Atlanta (GA) hotel as our example and make the following assumptions:

  • Travel is unrestricted in the South East of the United States

  • Local regulations allow hotels in Atlanta to welcome guests traveling from out-of-state

  • The hotel has procedures in place to comply with COVID-19 health regulations

  • Drive-markets are the lowest hanging fruit for marketing post COVID-19, for our examples we assume that we will focus only on consumers in the states of Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina and Alabama (combined 27 million Facebook users age 18-65)

Return Visitors

Our research shows that post-COVID-19 "return visitors" are more likely to revisit to a familiar destination they see as lower risk than a new destination. From a marketing perspective, return visitors are appealing as they not only have positive associations with the destination, but can also be reminded about "a time when everything was normal" through strong messaging - something most of us are longing for.

Targeting return visitors through social media is relatively easy. Besides the hotel's own social audience, it is possible to target Facebook users interested in Atlanta as a destination in general, or even interested in a set of competing or comparable properties (either in Atlanta or a different destination). The hotel could also use existing email databases and build custom audiences through key social platforms. Content for the "return visitor" audience would be created around the theme of "nostalgia," sharing traditions (maybe showing how they have been adjusted) or having staff members featured who past guests might remember from previous visits.

Republican Mothers

Our data indicates Americans who see themselves as Republicans are more likely to travel than those who consider themselves Democrats. Social platforms allow targeting by political interest - more than 5 million users are identified on Facebook as leaning Republican living in the 5 states mentioned as our target geos.

While this targeting is still too broad for a conversion campaign, we can narrow it down to females, age 25-55 who have kids in the age range from 3 years to 17 years. This target audience of more than 300,000 mothers should be ready for our message: it is time to escape from weeks of forced homeschooling and have some applied learning session where they can explore the parks of Atlanta (open spaces) and educational sights like the Georgia Aquarium, the Atlanta Botanical Garden or the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., with their family.

(Former) International Travelers

All data indicates fewer Americans will travel internationally during the summer of 2020. Those who've spent past summers in Spain, Italy or Greece, are now looking for domestic destinations they traditionally have not considered for a summer vacation. Facebook allows us to identify more than 1.6 million frequent international travelers in our 5 states (Twitter can connect us with over 200k travelers who are interested in Europe). Converting these travelers from international jet-setters to local road-trippers requires a clever content strategy, to make these travelers realize Atlanta has as much to offer as Barcelona or Amsterdam.

A multi-stage retargeting campaign can be developed, using an initial short video that inspires the target audience to consider traveling this summer. Those who engage with the initial video content by watching it to completion, are retargeted with a second video that encourages them to think about a sophisticated domestic destination in drive radius - like Atlanta with its world class culinary and cultural scene.  Those who engage with the second video get retargeted with a third piece of content that introduces them to a specific offer from the hotel. While this type of content and program is more expensive to produce, we have seen multi-stage campaign concepts like this perform very well from a conversion perspective.

While the United States will unfortunately continue to be divided about the question of when travel should be allowed again, marketers will need to find ways to identify and connect with consumers that are ready to travel and receptive to being marketed to, now. The three examples above illustrate the power of using social insights to build campaigns that use social media to target very specific audiences with highly targeted messages. Most importantly the campaigns that can be created this way will not only create awareness, but can also be optimized for conversions, thus driving short-term bookings.

Consumer sentiment will undoubtedly continue to shift over the next months as COVID-19 evolves, and the economic impact of the crisis manifests itself more. Marketers will need to react quickly to these changes to maximize opportunities, and social sentiment analysis is a key tool in this process.

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