Tom Webster, writing and speaking

The Social Media Halo Effect

Added on by Tom Webster.

This week I am doing some client work in NYC, and decided to mix it up a bit from my usual routine. Instead of staying in one of my preferred haunts (I am Mithril level with Hilton) I took a chance on a new hotel based upon positive social media word of mouth. This particular hotel has a strong presence on Twitter, and gets a fair amount of buzz amongst the blogerati as a haven for new media types.

In a sense, social media has given this particular hotel a sort of "halo" (not the Master Chief sort of halo, but the one reserved for angels). Ironically, I am in New York doing some public media work, which has long measured this sort of halo effect for its underwriters and sponsors. Without a doubt, a visible sponsorship for public media not only provides the "reach and frequency" of brand mentions, but it also provides the other measured, verified benefits of true sponsorship--increased willingness to consider, changes in perception about the people behind a brand, and even the reverse effect--how the brand in question fits (or doesn't) with the public media brand in question.

I've done a fair amount of work in this area in the day job, and I can certainly confirm that this halo effect has a tangible brand impact, both in terms of public perception and at the cash register. And it was this halo effect that led me to be more receptive to this particular hotel. Interestingly enough (for a research guy), I hadn't actually done any research on this particular hotel. I am a frequent business traveler who often works late with clients and lives a sleep-and-quality-dinner-deprived life on the road, so over the years I have developed a little laundry list of amenities (big and small) that I look for in a hotel. Sadly, this particular hotel had almost none of them, so I won't be back.

Crime Scene Chair This isn't a rant against the hotel--it is priced in the middle of the pack for a midtown Manhattan hotel, and certainly delivers adequately on that price promise. I am not identifying the hotel because it's not about the hotel, and I'm not angling for a discount, in case they are listening. But--no onsite room service, onsite fitness facility, room darkening shades or reasonably soundproof windows pretty much crosses it off my list for future visits. In fact, as I sat in my crime-scene chair, recovering from a libido-crusher of a shower, I contemplated the truest measure of brand loyalty I know of--the amount of inconvenience a consumer is willing to put up with to continue using/purchasing a brand they love.

Apple has always been king in that regard--while OS X has matured into a stable, enjoyable working environment, previous iterations of Apple's operating systems--and hardware--have not always been so kind to their users! Yet even in Apple's worst years, the creative class stuck by their Powerbooks, Quadras, Cubes and that gawd-awful "Twentieth-Anniversary Macintosh" precisely because the halo (otherwise known as the reality distortion field) was strong in this one, Padawan.

The halo effect, however, works strongest when the halo'd brand exists as a singular voice, an alternative to the mainstream. There is no other Apple. Maybe if Google's ChromeOS and its associated hardware present a strong challenge to Apple's "upstart" role, that halo will show some wear. Similarly, public radio (for example) is a singular voice on the broadcast airwaves. Archer Daniels Midland won't be underwriting the "Hot 9 at 9" anytime soon. Because most American cities have but one NPR outlet, for example, sponsorship of the programming on that outlet is special, scarce, and has enormous benefits for the sponsoring brands.

So, back to my hotel. I am currently putting up with "inconvenience" to stay here, and there is no doubt that there was some measurable halo effect involved with my willingness to consider and actual purchase of a stay here. At the moment, this particular hotel has a strong, singular voice in social media, so the halo effect is strong. What happens, however, when active participation in social media--when joining the conversation--becomes not a differentiator but the baseline cost of doing business? When other major Manhattan hotels develop an equally strong ability to connect with customers and prospects online, then the halo effect weakens for any one of them. And all of this leads me back to one of the central topic areas of this entire blog--how does the business case for social media transcend from tactics to strategy? When the halos fade, what is Act Two for human business? Sharing my thoughts on what Act Two means--and hearing yours--will be a central theme on this blog throughout 2010.

As for my stay here, it's sparked a lot of thoughts. What is the measurable difference in word of mouth between Twitter followers I actually know, and Twitter followers I've...yet to meet? What impacts the halo effect more--the quality of brand mentions in social media, or the quantity? If I were doing some sort of qualitative sorting exercise of hotels (putting brands in an order of my choosing), just exactly how many slots did I move this particular hotel up solely due to their social media presence? And where would they fall now? I'll be thinking about these issues, and more--but first, I need to figure out the advanced climate control system in my room...AC