Is TripAdvisor too 'online'? Or is it not 'online' enough?

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Some notes on our story about Kwikchex's second ASA submission regarding TripAdvisor.

There's a sense, in our comment piece of this morning, of a new-school maverick being forced to pull its socks up and play by the old rules. I'm a little uncomfortable with that, as the old ways aren't perfect. The fact is they demonstrably don't prevent amateurism, error or falsehood, and the models they were designed for and uphold denied the average consumer a voice for most of publishing history - hence the popularity of TripAdvisor in the first place.

I suspect that TripAdvisor will at worst get an affordable fine and have to make a few changes around reputation management for listed businesses, which it is in the process of doing anyway (whether those moves have been triggered by the ASA submissions is a matter for speculation). Far from seriously damaging or destroying TripAdvisor, these cases seem likely to refine it.

In truth refinement is the giant's problem - what the 'new vs traditional' reading misses is that the core TripAdvisor product itself is now rather traditional. It represents a first, heavily consumer-focused wave of UCG reviews, and a cursory glance at the online travel news pages shows that a clutch of new businesses have spotted and are attempting to address its main percieved weakness: roughly, having taken us from a position of imbalance to a position of equal and opposite imbalance, where a formerly disempowered public become disproportionately powerful.

So I don't see all this as a question of whether what TripAdvisor seeks to do is right - what it seeks to do is give consumers a voice, and that is unarguably right. For me the key question is how well TripAdvisor does it, and that's about being more of an online business, not less. Does it have the best content filters? Is it the best at flagging up when a review has been challenged, or is particularly old? Is it the best at verification? Is it the best at eliciting and displaying responses from the businesses concerned?

[On the subject of the last question, I remember reading research that indicated consumers respond positively to negative reviews with honest, professional replies posted alongside - take that with a pinch of salt until I can find and verify, but I can say anecdotally that it chimes with how I respond.]

Far from uncovering a flaw in the online world, this story uncovers potential flaws in TripAdvisor that the online world is rather cleverly and industriously addressing.

When the PR coinage 'thrillaxing' surfaced on Twitter, I was right there with the outraged counter-punners. Undeterred, iExplore's PR team called and offered me a video the following day. Okay, I said, and dutifully watched it.

Cue more sniffiness? Here's the thing: I now strongly suspect that at some point in the genesis of this campaign, somebody sat in a brainstorm and pointed out that activity can be a better cure for stress than idleness, and that as a message that has the potential to stand out.

That's actually a decent starting point. Bread-and-butter travel industry comms overwhelmingly equates relaxation with keeping very still on a beach/sun lounger/massage table, and markets accordingly. Plenty of businesses offer alternatives, but they market from a similarly literal angle - you cycle across a mountain range because you're the active type, not because you need to switch off. It's obvious. Isn't it?

So while it requires some excavation, there's an attempt here to think counter-intuitively. It's just a shame it was translated into yet another instance of light-research-and-a-ropey-pun collateral, and that the pun was... that.

The other story behind the Gap Adventures rebrand

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Gap AdventuresThis morning we ran the following:

Gap Adventures announces 'bold' rebrand

Adventure travel specialist Gap Adventures is changing its name to G Adventures this week. The Canadian company is rebranding its worldwide operations under the new name from October 1.

Founder Bruce Poon Tip described the move as a "bold step" following the operator's more than 20 years in business...

A commenter calling themselves 'Maz' pointed out there was something missing from all this, namely:

...the Federal Court order issued on 24 June 2011 ordering [Gap Adventures boss Bruce Poon Tip] to change the name of his company due to a trademark infringement on the GAP Clothing Store

This is indeed the case. Brand Geek says in a useful summing-up of the legal battle:

Based on the evidence and testimony provided in the case, the Court found G.A.P Adventures infringed on The Gap's marks and engaged in unfair competition with The Gap.  It ruled against The Gap on its trademark dilution claims, finding that G.A.P Adventure's use of "gap" neither blurred (weakened) nor tarnished (disparaged)

So hands up - we weren't aware of that. Hat-tip to Maz.

Ah - gotcha. I was struggling to articulate what niggled me about British Airway's 'To Fly, To Serve' ad, but seeing a new campaign from American Airlines flagged on eyefortravel kicked my brain into gear.

American Airlines has launched a new advertising campaign which encourages customers "to travel without putting their life on pause"

Now, I like the BA clip. It's grown-up and utterly irony-free, which in advertising is a thing to be treasured; most of all, it's well shot and makes fluid visual use of the airline's long history.

But it's precisely that baggage - pardon the pun - that was getting to me. In the TF,TS universe flying is a big, big deal. Every flight has history upon its shoulders. True as this might be, and nice as it might be to think about in another time and place, modern air travel is already far too much of a big deal.

The experience at airports isn't great - we needn't go back over how or why. In the sky even BA and its fellow full-service carriers are being forced trim some of the frills (goodbye hot towels, meals on short haul flights, etc). Basically, unless you're a denizen of the lounge-to-premium-cabin circuit, the modern passenger experience is a difficult situation to gild - and that makes the hand of history feel a little clumsy.

Here's American's ad:

'Fly without putting your life on pause' may not be as brave, and let's not get into how well it stands up as a point of differentiation. But it does appear to recognise what's really on Mr and Mrs A. Passenger's minds when they set out for the airport.

Here's what it looked like when - to all appearances - a ghostwriter on internet sales/marketing guy Mark Davidson's Twitter account went broken arrow.

Mark Davidson - 'ghostwriter meltdown'PR disaster! Only here's what happened in follower numbers...

A very well-followed but flatlining account gets a sudden shot in the arm.

I'm being a bit cynical - it could be for real. Perhaps he does (did) have four ghostwriters, retained to pump out gems such as "lol. Tiger Woods and Trigger Words... @vancefitzgerald".

Follower volumes aren't everything, no. But they're something. And how likely is it that this is going to be held against Mr Davidson for any length of time? In other words, how does the cost of a brief media kerfuffle stack up against the benefit of new follows?

And if the ghostwriting claim is for real, what does it say that a ghostwritten account has racked up 50k+ followers?

Paging Doctor Pavlov...

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I wondered, initially, why my eyes zipped straight to this Amadeus banner we're currently running.

Amadeus Extreme banner

And then I realised it contained a little block of red on a dark blue background. Ever get the feeling you've been conditioned?

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The US president's "Who goes to a travel agent these days?" gaffe comes from this speech at an agricultural company in Atkinson, Illinois.

Illinois is a key battleground in the Midwest. Politically, it has been consistently Democrat since the late 80s, but a win is far from guaranteed outside its capital. Chicago has 76% registered Democrats vs 22% registered Republicans, but in Atkinson the split is 53% vs 45%.

In other words, Atkinson is representative of the kind of Illinois voters Obama might have to sway to keep the state blue in a difficult 2012 campaign.

As for the remarks agents take issue with, that's representative of what Obama belives matters here, and he has some justification. The Midwest has borne the brunt of the recession. In 2010 unemployment in Illinois was running at 10.6%, a full percentage point above the US average of 9.6% (the most recent monthly figures, for June 2011, are marginally better at 9.7% against 9.1%).

It's a big industrial state, so talk of loss of available jobs through 'automation' is likely to strike a chord, particularly outside of services-and-professions dominated urban centres.

In fact, Obama clearly believes it has nationwide resonance. A Republican blog points out that he used similar language back in June on the Today show. The ATM/teller reference has survived intact, but back then he referred to automated vs. manual airline check-ins instead of web vs. agent bookings.

Essentially it's an attempt to put (one of) the major pan-industrial changes affecting his audience's prosperity into an everyday context. It's fair enough for the American Society of Travel Agents to jump in and make its voice heard - it's a good publicity op and they wouldn't have been doing their job if they'd missed it - but the rest of us should relax. We might even reflect that, on an wider level, it's rather good that the president sees travel as crucial and emotive enough to bring home what he clearly believes to be a vital point.

(For a less upbeat take see The Economist, which essentially says 'harsh but fair'. It points out that the number of agencies in the US stands at around 10,000, down from 32,000 in 1998.)

All media organisations - hell, all people - are guilty of inconsistency now and again, and I'm not too old to realise there's a huge market for both content and holiday product focused on enjoying yourself abroad.

But as far as competing messages go, this clash from Off Track Planet is pretty much the Superbowl.

We are never alone. We are all aspects of one great being. No matter how far apart we are, the air links us - Off Track Planet quotes Yoko Ono on Twitter

An Asian stew simmering with Taiwanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Singaporea and Thai hotties - Off Track Planet describes Malaysia on homepage

What would Yoko say about the latter, do you think?

Usability isn't always the first thing on your mind in a crisis, and nobody - least of all us - gets it absolutely right. 

So I'm not passing judgement when I point out the 'closed to new bookings' announcement posted by beleaguered retailer Gill's Cruise Centre today could be better optimized.

Here's how it appears:

Looks fine - nice and prominent. But it's a splash image delivered in a JavaScript slider, so first problem is it's invisible to anyone who has JavaScript switched off (and yes, such people exist). * Someone's just emailed saying they have JavaScript disabled and can see it. We thought use of JavaScript accounted for the message failing to show on one of our machines earlier, but the same machine shows it now. So all clear on this one.

Second problem is the 'alternative text' for the image is simply 'Announcement'. Most readers won't need this explained, but alternative text basically sits in the background and tells search engines, screen readers or anything else that's crawling around what the image is - or in this case, what it says.

In fact, a quick CTRL+F reveals that the announcement text doesn't appear anywhere in the page code. As far as the web is aware, the announcement doesn't exist at all.

Gill's has much bigger fish to fry in the next few days, of course. Just something to bear in mind if you have a crucial message to get out there...

The business case for that Club Med Groupon deal

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Club Med deal, GrouponIn our article about Club Med's controversial Groupon offer - an effort, according to the all-inclusive operator, to fill certain poor-selling resorts - Travel Designers MD Nick McKay says:

This is a deal agents don't have access to and we can't compete on it. Club Med has a group of really good agents, so why don't they work with us to push these resorts?

I can't argue with Nick's fundamental point, which is that if Med has distressed or close-to-distressed inventory, loyal agents could have helped them shift it.

But it's a general point, and in terms of this specific deal it's worth looking closer at why it wasn't available to agents. Two points matter:

  • First, Groupon deals are available for 24 hours only. (Buyers then had 36 hours to book with Club Med.)
  • Second, the deals are void unless a given number of vouchers are sold.

It's the second point - the minimum purchase threshold, examined at greater length in this Wikinomics post - that really matters.

As a supplier you can do your sums, figure out how much you'd need to sell to make a given deal pay off, factor in Groupon's cut (usually around 50% of voucher sales), and walk away without suffering a big loss if the target isn't met.

So the reason agents don't have access to the deal is that pushing it through the agency channel - as something like '£230 off for the next 24 hours' - entails greater risk. If Club Med doesn't get the volume required to make the deal commercially viable, where's the safety net?

Bear in mind too that Groupon has a big, big email database and a solid pass-along mechanism (you start to see what you're paying that 50% cut for). Can the agency channel shift this much struggling stock this fast, and do it with as little risk?

At this point you might be asking why, if Groupon is already delivering enough volume to make the offer viable, Med couldn't just throw it out to agents too. Possibly - but exclusivity clauses in the Groupon contract would make doing so very complicated (see Rakesh Agrawal's analysis of a Groupon merchant agreement on Business Insider).

To return to Nick, though, it remains absolutely fair to ask why Med wasn't going to agents with other strategic offers before running a 24-hour flash sale. The firm's agency sales manager Stuart De Bourgogne told us he'd try to "find a solution" with top-selling agencies in future.

Time will tell how big and how permanent a part of the marketing mix Groupon and its ilk will become. If it's any consolation, research by one business school found 40% of merchants said 'never again' after using Groupon. The company disputes the findings.