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User-generated content is low on cost, and high on returns on engagement, but it's not always being utilized by hotel brands to its greatest advantage says a new report from consultancy firm L2. But is having a lot of UGC necessarily a good thing, or are there better ways for hotels to use them to their advantage?

User-generated content (UGC) in all of its various forms, from Instagram photos and Tweets to Facebook posts and Snapchat Stories, can be invaluable marketing tools for travel brands, especially hotels.

Luxury hotel brands that feature UGC in their Instagram posts see six times more interactions per post than brands that do not, for example, according to a new report from L2, a New York-based consultancy firm. Those that source more than half of their posts from UGC also generate 2.6 times higher engagement than brands that do not.

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And although L2 points out that UGC integration on luxury hotels’ home pages in 2016 has tripled to 14 percent and integration on property pages has more than doubled to 40 percent, compared to last year, the firm says brands could be doing much more with UGC than they are currently.

To compile its report, L2 looked at the UGC strategies of 50 or so different hotel brands that comprise its annual index of luxury hotels. Sixty percent of brands on the index do not use UGC on their branded pages or sites, 86 percent have not used UGC in their site landing pages, and 92 percent do not host UGC on a separate microsite.

Why is that? Sam Lee, associate director of retail for L2 said, “It’s a combination of factors. They don’t understand how effective UGC is in generating guest engagement. Soliciting UGC, curating it, and integrating across channels requires a not insignificant amount of investment.” He added, “Many brands are partnering with Olapic [a company that helps brands integrate UGC] to help drive the implementation.”

A Difference of Opinion on UGC

But is having UGC prominently displayed on a hotel’s website the most effective use of it for hotels? Stuart Foster, vice president of marketing for Hilton Worldwide’s luxury brands (Waldorf Astoria, Conrad, and Canopy by Hilton), said his brands actually saw a negative economic impact when they incorporated UGC onto their homepages.

“We actually tested UGC images on Waldorf Astoria and Conrad’s websites. The hypothesis was, if you see more real pics, or UGC, you may be more likely to book us because you see the real side of things versus this corporate, controlled imagery,” Foster said.

“Instead, we saw a decline in our conversion rates on our sites,” he said. “Not because the pictures were bad or poor quality; we were showing very aspirational images. My theory was that it [the UGC images] sidetracked people away from what they had gone to our website to do. It took them to Instagram and it became a rabbit hole. It was like the online version of ‘Squirrel!’ that lost touch with what their intention was.”

Foster prefers the use of hashtags to build engagement with consumers on social media channels like Instagram Facebook, and Twitter instead of placing UGC directly onto the brands’ sites.

“It’s helping us create like-minded communities out there in the social space,” he explained. “It’s making your brand part of someone’s life.”

Cultivating UGC

Suzanne Cohen, brand director of North American marketing for W Hotels, said it’s not just enough for hotels to feature UGC, but it’s crucial to also maintain a continuous dialogue with guests through social media channels.

“It all comes down to engagement,” Cohen said. “It’s important to pay attention to your channels and your followers, constantly responding, reposting and speaking directly to them on their native platform. We also think that sometimes you also have to relinquish a bit of control. Some of the best advertisements for our destinations and properties come from our guests, not a traditional photo shoot. Therefore on each hotel’s official website, you will find guest photo galleries right beside our professional shots. We see an incredible amount of click-through on these and know that potential guests are looking at these shots to book their next stay.”

So how should brands be encouraging consumers to use hashtags and share their content with brands?

L2’s report said that while most consumers are more than happy to share their travel photos on their own social media accounts, it takes extra work to get them to add a brand’s specific hashtags or to upload their content onto a brand’s site.

It pointed to Four Seasons as an example of a hotel brand that excelled in getting guests to submit content through Instagram contests and a link via the landing page that encourages guests to submit UGC.

According to L2, Four Seasons had seven times as many interactions on Instagram as the average brand on its index and had 15 percent of Instagram interactions registered by all the 51 brands on the index. Following the Four Seasons were The Ritz-Carlton (12 percent of Instagram interactions) and Hilton Hotels & Resorts (6 percent).

L2 also highlighted Marriott’s #TravelBrilliantly campaign, especially its “Your Ideas” microsite, as a novel way to crowdsource not only UGC but user-generated hotel ideas as well.

User Reviews

While it’s debatable whether having UGC images on branded websites is advisable for hotels, the presence of user-generated reviews remains invaluable, said Foster and Lee.

“User reviews are obviously the most critical as nearly 80 percent of travelers read several reviews before making a booking decision,” said Lee.

Foster said that TripAdvisor reviews and ratings are extremely important to Hilton and that TripAdvisor ratings are prominently displayed on Waldorf Astoria’s property pages.

In examining its index of luxury hotel brands, L2 found that a third of brands still do not provide user reviews on their branded sites. Those that do have user reviews, however, are offering review filter tools (43 percent compared to 35 percent last year) and the ability to sort those reviews (37 percent in 2016 compared to 24 percent in 2015). Sheraton, for example, combines both user-generated images and guest reviews into its property pages.

More than half of the brands, Waldorf Astoria included, featuring user reviews are sourcing them directly from TripAdvisor, while more than 40 percent provide their own proprietary guest reviews.

Instagram Worthiness

Second to user reviews in importance are high-quality, user-generated photos. “They are viewed by travelers as being more authentic than brand-generated images,” Lee said. “Forty percent of Millennials rely on UGC photos to inform their own travel plans,” he said, citing research from eMarketer.

Instagram and, increasingly, Snapchat, are becoming absolutely crucial for hotel brand marketing.

Examining 50 hotel brands on its luxury hotels index, L2 noted the average Instagram community size for a brand on the index was 25,192, with an average of 609.8 interactions per Instagram post. The average percentage of posts comprising UGC was 45 percent.

Of the brands on L2’s index, the Four Seasons had the most average interactions per Instagram post and an approximate 80 percent of its posts were UGC. The Ritz-Carlton had close to 90 percent of its Instagram posts coming from UGC, with an average of approximately 2,000 interactions per post. Omni Hotels & Resorts had about 95 percent of its posts comprising UGC, with an average of 500,000 interactions per post.

Hyatt social media specialist Abby Watzke said, “We find Instagram to be one of the top channels for user-generated content because it’s so naturally visual. At Hyatt, we feature guest Instagram photos on in two ways. First, when planning, guests can visit an inspirational content hub,, where they can filter aggregated guest photos in various ways, such as ‘golf,’ ‘beach,’ ‘family friendly,’ ‘weddings,’ etc. My favorite example is connecting with guests about the pets that stay with Hyatt. Exploring guests’ experiences and locations can help narrow in on a destination.”

Watzke added, “When a guest has narrowed his or her travel down to a particular Hyatt hotel, they can visit the property page guest photo gallery. Since adding these photo galleries to property websites, we have seen increased visitor engagement, page views and time on the site.”

Under the Influencers

One type of UGC gaining plenty of traction among a variety of travel brands is that of social media influencers. The most recent example? Airbnb’s gift of a free month-long stay in a New York City penthouse worth $25 million to Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.

L2’s report shows that, when used appropriately, influencers can improve social media campaign engagement significantly.

“Influencers can significantly amplify the reach and engagement of a campaign, but they must be considered relative to the cost,” Lee said. “Le Meridien partnered with photographer Gray Malin to create a global art collaboration centered around Le Meridien properties, for example. By leveraging his much larger Instagram community (5.5 times the size of @LeMeridienHotels), they were able to generate 8.8 million impressions and increase followers by 31 percent.”

He added, “Luxury hotels should seek to partner with influencers that fit with their brand, like the brand and its properties, and have large social media followings.”

Foster noted the use of influencers as “no longer an emerging concept. You have to; every brand does. It’s a way to augment your audience, reach new audiences, and to engage in that like-minded conversation.” He also said that it’s a much more inexpensive and efficient way to reach specific target audiences than via traditional media channels.

Brands, however, also have to be careful with how they and their influencers promote them. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission recently released updated guidelines regarding influencers and celebrity endorsements on social media.

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Tags: Conrad, hilton, hyatt, instagram, social media, waldorf astoria

Photo credit: Hyatt features customers' Instagram photos on a content hub that helps guests discover different properties and destinations. Hyatt Hotels & Resorts

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