TripAdvisor will start showcasing content from long-dismissed professional reviewers so it can be more of a resource to visitors who aren't ready to book. Is nothing sacrosanct anymore?
There were some fairly shocking things to emerge from TripAdvisor’s big announcement Monday about its launch in a private beta of a travel feed to provide inspiration to site visitors and enhance their trip-planning activities.
TripAdvisor CEO Steve Kaufer, who co-founded the company that now hosts 661 million user reviews, told the assembled press in Manhattan that “if I’m going to London, the last thing I want to do is read 1,000 hotel reviews. I want inspiration.”
So the site, which grew into a global brand based on the wisdom of the crowds as opposed to the professional critic, will soon offer advice and recommendations from social media influencers such as TV host and restaurateur Giada De Laurentiis, as well as travel bloggers like TravelBabbo.
Instead of relying on user “Andrea O’s” review about the Crowne Plaza Times Square Manhattan and its TripAdvisor popularity index, ranking the property 221 out of 482 hotels in New York City, the new TripAdvisor will add tips from publishers such as National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, the Travel Channel, Business Insider, and PopSugar, for example.
Reviews from newspapers and travel guidebooks were prevalent during TripAdvisor’s earliest days, but were erased when the company found that traveler-written reviews really resonated.
Back To Its Roots
So, in some ways, TripAdvisor is going full circle.
“We are going social and we are getting personal,” Kaufer said.
After all, Kaufer, who described himself as an avid scuba diver, said he wants to find content on the site from personalities and publications that he trusts. Not a one-size-fits-all for everyone, but sources that he admires and that speak to him.
In an interview with Skift after a press briefing for dozens of reporters in Manhattan Monday, Kaufer described the site changes as the “biggest, most functional benefit to our audience” in years. He said the site revamp goes way beyond previous redesigns.
“It’s the biggest, most functional benefit to our entire audience,” Kaufer said. “So when you do a redesign, it makes it easier to use, and we’re very proud of that, but it didn’t actually change what you could get out of the site. And this has seriously meaningful benefits to you, to me, to everyone when they’re actually in need of planning a great trip.”
In the past couple of years, most of the investor focus on TripAdvisor has been its struggles with becoming a transactional site, and then tilting away from that and back toward merely sending users metasearch-style to online travel agencies and hotels to complete their bookings.
A couple of years ago, TripAdvisor was facing an uphill battle in trying to change consumer behavior — in getting all those site visitors looking at restaurant and hotel reviews to view TripAdvisor as a venue to make bookings.
Now, in some ways, with booking capabilities from hotel stays to tours and restaurant reservations still being core to the site, TripAdvisor is leaning into the millions of users who visit the site looking for inspiration, or trip ideas, who may have no idea where they want to travel and are not ready to book.
“Yes, this is very up-funnel,” Kaufer said, referring to customers who may not even yet be at the stage of travel planning. “This is about how do you turn travel from the TripAdvisor library to an inspirational site. It is a lean in to that top of the funnel, which is not the part that monetizes the best. But if we can gain more traffic, if we gain more user trust, if we are a better site to inspire, we think we’ll hang onto those users through the funnel and give them a memorable experience.”
The site changes, according to officials, enable users to follow friends, influencers, and publications they value, and then to save and/or share trip ideas that immediately get mapped and turned into potential itineraries.
Officials expect thousands of influencers and publishers to partner with TripAdvisor and participate by providing content to the site. Previously, the site’s content creators were the amateurs, those travelers who stayed at a hotel and then submitted a review, but now these reviews are being supplemented with expert opinions.
The business model, when TripAdvisor accepts content partners, is free. If they provide quality content, from well-executed videos to articles with travel insights, they don’t have to pay TripAdvisor to get exposed to the site’s massive audience. Kaufer said TripAdvisor has no intention at this point to monetize this participation.
The event in Manhattan Monday was as much an informational session for the press as it was a pitch to publishers.
Kaufer said it is difficult for publishers to find an audience with travel intent in the fractured media space these days. “We have that audience in spades,” he said at the briefing.
Of course, TripAdvisor will have to compete with a variety of platforms, from Facebook to Instagram, that are entrenched providers of travel inspiration.
It was clear from the Skift interview that Kaufer views the site changes, which are expected to be officially launched globally on all devices by the end of the year, as a big deal.
However, Kaufer said, “We are not setting any financial expectations for this particular product release. But it’s pretty straightforward to draw the line between delivering a better product for consumers that’s stickier” and financial gains.
Learnings From Facebook
For more than a decade, TripAdvisor carried out several integrations with Facebook. It had a Facebook app showing a map of cities that Facebook friends had visited, and it displayed hotel reviews that Facebook friends had penned.
Kaufer said the company learned in the process that tying into Facebook wasn’t enough.
“One of the things we learned is if all we are offering is a view into the review of one friend who has been to a place before, it is just not enough critical mass and you had to go hunt” for more content, Kaufer said.
He added that getting reviews from Facebook friends was great, but “now we’ve taken a completely different approach.”
“It’s not just about those couple of Facebook friends,” Kaufer said. “Again, back then it was all or nothing. It’s about people you trust, which includes brands, influencers, very prolific authors, professionals, and you get to select it. And your Facebook friends are just one of those sources.”
Jeff Chow, TripAdvisor’s vice president of product and consumer experience, said the change from tapping into Facebook for social cues several years ago to going all-in on the TripAdvisor site with upcoming changes is in part a matter of timing. Social media has gone mainstream and no one needs to teach users these days how to follow someone or post something, he said.
“Social is now in the fabric of everything,” Chow said.
No online travel agency has ever been able to effectively provide users with loads of travel inspiration while trying to get them to quickly make bookings before being lost to competitors’ sites. In other words, no company has succeeded at being everything to everyone.
Chow pointed out that unlike most online travel agencies, TripAdvisor has millions of users who may not be ready to book, adding that the company is not trying to change that user behavior.
That is a sea change for TripAdvisor, which has invested millions of dollars in educating consumers that TripAdvisor is a place to book their travel. The company may continue that education project.
But in the meantime, Chow said, TripAdvisor wants to learn who users’ trusted and go-to sources of information are, and then to personalize the travel inspiration and trip-planning experience for them in enticing ways.
And TripAdvisor won’t mind at all if they eventually get it together to book that restaurant, tour, or hotel stay on the site.
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Photo credit: TripAdvisor co-founder and CEO Steve Kaufer showcased the site's new travel feed to the press in New York City September 17, 2018. TripAdvisor