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How to Use Emotion and Storytelling in Digital Marketing (Travel Tuesday)

Happy family shopping on tabletPicture this: An injured football player hobbles down the tunnel, leaving the field in obvious pain. A young boy steps forward, offers him a Coke… and history is made.

If you’ve never seen this commercial, you probably weren’t alive in the late ’70’s/early ’80’s. (And if you weren’t alive then… man, I’m getting old. But I digress).

If you were alive, you undoubtedly remember this ad. It was hugely popular, not only airing originally during a game in October, but several more times during the 1979 season and during that year’s Super Bowl.

Now, here’s a question for you: Why do you remember a 60-second spot from 35 years ago featuring a player and child actor who both retired not long after the spot first aired?

And, what in the world does this have to do with marketing a hotel, resort, or any other business online?

How about we answer those in order.

“Have a Coke and a Smile”

The reason you remember the Mean Joe Green commercial ties back to one of the lessons from last week’s HSMAI conference:

“Customers remember how you made them feel, not what you said.”

Coke’s classic ad demonstrates that message perfectly, fueling warm feelings towards the actors, the commercial, and, most importantly, the brand. Hell, they didn’t even disguise the intent: The whole ad campaign was called “Have a Coke and a Smile.” Subtle.

Of course, you do the same thing every day in the hospitality industry, helping your guests have a great day, no matter the circumstances. A restaurant owner I’ve worked with talks about “nailing the rolls and coffee,” suggesting that guests will remember their first interaction at the table (a server bringing rolls), and their last experience (a cup of coffee with/as dessert), more than the rest of the meal. The message for his employees is clear: Guests may forget a small error or two during the meal, but a bad first or last experience will stick with them — and will keep them from coming back.

It’s easy to overlook the emotional aspect of the guest experience online though, given how difficult it is to drive emotional engagement in popular digital channels. Search, for example—with its limited character count and “10 blue links” appearance—kind of sucks for serious story-telling designed to elicit emotion. Happily the increased use of images in search results may change this. And other channels, such as social, work brilliantly for story-telling and enhancing an emotional connection. Social, at its core, is people. And people are emotional beings.

More to the point, pretty much every purchase decision is an emotional choice. Even the most logical shoppers won’t reach for their credit card until they’re satisfied, emotionally, they’ve made the right choice. Even business customers want to be sure they’re aligning with corporate policies and, often more importantly, making their boss happy. Fear is a powerful motivator because it’s a powerful emotion.

Speaking of fear, a number of psychological models for emotions exist. Here are some of the most common emotions marketers seek to evoke, along with some examples of where you’ve seen them before:

  • Happy. Used all over the place. Very common in travel marketing (picture a couple on a romantic getaway, blissfully relaxed, or a happy family frolicking in a pool).
  • Excited. Frequently used for adventure tourism, skiing, that sort of thing. Laughter can elicit a similar response, which is why there’s so much humor in advertising.
  • Tender. Go ahead, watch that iPhone commercial with the kid making a video for his family at Christmas and tell me you’re not touched. No, I’m fine. That’s just something in my eye. Like a twig, or a branch.
  • Calm/Serene. The bread and butter emotion for many resorts and spas. When done well, it’s brilliant. However, can easily slide into self-parody or, worse, boredom (worse, because at least people will remember the unintentionally funny one).
  • Scared. Think about how most security companies promote their alarm systems, or those images of elderly relatives who’ve fallen and can’t get up. Not usually a great travel marketing play.
  • Sad. The go-to emotion for many charities. Picture Sarah McLaughlin singing a tear-jerking song while images of hungry children or animal shelters appear on your screen. Almost always the wrong choice for marketing your hotel or resort. (Rough rule of thumb: Sadness usually doesn’t lead to immediate action).
  • Angry. I can’t think of many examples from “traditional” marketing, but fairly common in political/cause marketing campaigns. Get your target audience pissed enough at your opponent and they’ll vote/march/rally/what-have-you to change the world.

Now, what does any of this have to do with digital or e-commerce? How can you use these emotions online?

Glad you asked.

Emotions + Digital = Successful Modern Marketing

Driving an emotional response — and one that leads to a booking — takes some doing. Here are four tips to get you started:

  1. Who do you think you’re talking to? Your customer data is a hugely important, strategic asset. Even if you can’t do “Big Data” yet, you know tons about your guests. Part of what makes digital marketing and tactics like behavioral targeting and email marketing so effective is that they allow you to put the right story in front of the guest most ready to listen. Use your guest data to segment your email list (low-rated vs. high-rated business, business travelers vs. leisure travelers, repeat vs. one-time guests, longer-stay guests vs. transients, and on and on and on). Test behavioral retargeting campaigns to recapture guests who’ve visited your site without booking. Then use those channels to tell a distinct, emotional story to engage each segment and drive more bookings.
  2. Align emotions with your brand story. As Josh Johnson says, “Stories are vehicles for values.” I’ve often talked about how your brand story is all about your values and the value you offer guests. Different types of properties (or non-hotel businesses, for that matter), have different stories to tell. A hip, four-star hotel in the city center’s hottest neighborhood is going to tell a vastly different story than a luxurious beach resort removed from the nightlife and neither will tell the same story as a family-owned ski resort that’s been part of its welcoming mountain community for generations. The emotions each property’s marketing team seeks to elicit among its guests should reflect the values of the property, brand, and community to attract the right type of guests and drive greater guest satisfaction overall (to say nothing of the reviews those highly satisfied guests will share with their friends, family, fans, and followers on social networks and review sites).
  3. Craft compelling copy. How many times have you seen website copy that states “…located in beautiful downtown…” and so on? Sure, it’s inoffensive. It’s also boring. Now, isn’t this better: “…The Wentworth Mansion embraces guests with warm, intuitive service. Like the greatest family traditions, it preserves its original intrigue and ensures that each guest is not a mere witness to the magic, but integral to it.” (Full disclosure: Wentworth Mansion is a client, but we used a local copywriter to capture the true spirit of the location). “Embraces… warm… family… traditions… intrigue… witness… magic… integral.” Lively, engaging, welcoming words. And ones that tell a clear story about the type of property its guests will enjoy. And, judging by the property’s TripAdvisor ranking, its guests do enjoy it.
  4. Use bold images. By bold, I don’t mean, “bright colors.” I mean images people give a damn about. If I see one more loosely cropped beach photo with a palm tree waving lazily in a gentle breeze, I might cry. Yes, sadness is an emotion. But not one that typically drive action. You have a pretty beach. Why should your guest care? Why not show people having fun on that beach? Or relaxing? Or dancing? Or something? Use images to tell a compelling story that lets your guest picture themselves achieving their goal—serenity, excitement, fun, family bonding, you get the idea.

It’s worth noting that Coke’s “Mean Joe Greene” and Apple’s “Misunderstood” spot hit all the right notes here, too. There’s a reason Coke and Apple get such high marks for their marketing. And such loyal business from their customers.

Speaking of storytelling, you may also enjoy these slides from another recent speaking engagement “Elements of E-commerce: How Digital Storytelling Drives Revenue and Results” here:

If you’re interested in learning even more about the future of e-commerce and marketing via the social, local, mobile web, register to receive a special report I’ve produced in conjunction with hotel marketing firm Vizergy, “Digital Hotel Marketing in a Multiscreen World.” While it’s targeted specifically at hotel and resort marketers, the lessons apply to just about any business. You can get your free copy of the report here.

You might also enjoy some of our past coverage of the social, local, mobile web and what it means for your business, including:

Tim Peter is the founder and president of Tim Peter & Associates. You can learn more about our company's strategy and digital marketing consulting services here or about Tim here.

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