The thought of relinquishing control of brand messaging in the digital age is one which fills many marketers with dread. But for Cindy Tan, TripAdvisor’s senior APAC marketer, the idea isn’t revelatory—quite the opposite, in fact.
Letting go of the message, she says, has been necessarily intrinsic to the success of one of Asia-Pacific’s most popular online travel sites.
“The way we think about marketing and our brand extension is being relevant and synergistic in the brand partnerships we have,” she tells Campaign Asia-Pacific. “It’s about us showcasing the wisdom of the crowd. It’s not TripAdvisor telling you anything; it’s what our users have to share with you about their experiences.”
That trove of unique user content is at the core of TripAdvisor’s proposition and as such its marketing strategy, which is almost exclusively handled in-house in APAC. Dealing in independent user reviews of hotels, restaurants, attractions and other experiences, the brand is among the most consumer-led currently in operation.
Effective marketing, Tan explains, revolves around the best and most innovative ways of presenting the wealth of opinion and data TripAdvisor consumers produce every day, particularly in APAC where the growth of that interaction has gone exponential.
Present in 48 markets and 28 languages globally, TripAdvisor has 16 local APAC sites at present, including four Chinese-language sites. India, Japan and China are core markets, together with Australia, but Tan gets particularly excited discussing Southeast Asia.
“It is very interesting, growing very quickly, and lots of businesses haven’t realised its full potential,” she says as we sit at TripAdvisor’s APAC headquarters in Singapore. “It’s a very young market, which makes it really exciting.”
Content contribution from APAC-based TripAdvisor users is rapidly rising. Indonesia and New Zealand saw a more than 100 percent year-on-year increase in user reviews from 2014 to 2015; in Thailand it was a whopping 439 percent.
“We’re always closely connected to consumers. You come on to TripAdvisor, and you have the opportunity to share your thoughts and experiences,” she says.
With such a community-led modus operandi, trust and integrity are perhaps even more crucial than in other businesses. Stories have surfaced over time questioning the honesty of some TripAdvisor reviews, but Tan seeks to reassure that stringent protocols are in place to ensure all is above board.
“We fight fraud aggressively,” she says. “Authentic content is the lifeblood of the TripAdvisor business. So we have a very sophisticated system in place as well as a team of content specialists that look at every review. We also impose very heavy penalties to deter individuals from manipulating reviews.”
On the flipside, being community led means that TripAdvisor’s users are highly invested and are actively self-report any perceived problems. “Our community is very passionate. For them to use TripAdvisor and see some odd reviews, we do get feedback for sure, and also from the businesses.”
Part of the brand’s marketing strategy has been taking that initial connection—users writing reviews—and evolving it into a full consumer journey, so that TripAdvisor now offers far more ways to engage than simply writing a hotel review.
“What we’re trying to do is complete that experience, from research onwards—which is a core part of the TripAdvisor experience that started with hotels. So right now, in-destination, you can make restaurant reservations, book attractions and so on. We work closely with destinations to pull up more interesting content about that destination beyond the core information. So we’re about enhancing the experience, and our messaging today is not just about planning, it’s about booking.”
‘Experience’ has become the word of the moment in marketing, and Tan says this makes perfect sense for TripAdvisor, as a brand built on a digital community sharing information about experiences, to develop the brand’s experiential offering.
Thus came a flurry of acquisitions: Viator and La Fourchette in 2014; Australian restaurant reservation startup Dimmi in 2015; and an investment in Thai restaurant booking platform Eatigo earlier this year.
“We continue to look out for these such opportunities, but the Eatigo investment reflects the opportunities we’re seeing in APAC,” Tan says.
One of the most significant driving factors for TripAdvisor’s brand development, especially in APAC, has been the growth in mobile users. Tan says mobile makes up a massive 54 percent of TripAdvisor’s traffic in APAC.
The brand’s new ‘near me now’ and ‘instant booking’ features, as well as ‘travel timeline'—which creates a timeline of the places travellers have visited and the photos they have taken—have all clearly been created with mobile in mind.
“From an APAC traveller’s perspective, spontaneous travel has become a big thing, particularly with Chinese consumers. To be able to go somewhere today and book an experience. That ties in with the evolution of mobile usage, particularly the in-destination features.”
Brand partnerships are another way TripAdvisor uses its plethora of content to drive its marketing proposition across the various segments of the travel industry into which the site is plugged.
At the more basic level, Tan says, this ranges from hotels hosting syndicated TripAdvisor content both in their properties and online, or embedding TripAdvisor widgets to pull reviews onto their websites.
But the company has explored more innovative recent opportunities to extend its branding both online and offline. Tan explains TripAdvisor Singapore’s partnership with Changi Airport, which leveraged its content to give travellers interesting nuggets of Singapore information around the airport. “While you’re waiting for your luggage at the carousel, you now get reviews on screen about where to go in Singapore. That’s an extension of our brand partnership,” she says.