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A contagious virus? Marketing campaign sinks Cruise Critic

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On March - 13 - 2009

Are the Royal Champions about to be dethroned? Based on the fallout from last week’s column about Royal Caribbean’s secretive group of cybercheerleaders, you might be forgiven for thinking so.

Well-regarded travel author Edward Hasbrouck called the Royal Champions “shills” and Royal Caribbean “puppet masters” in his blog. Cruise Critic posters are furious because they feel they’ve been unknowingly duped by Royal Caribbean’s marketing scheme in addition to being censored by Cruise Critic. Marketing experts are scratching their heads in a what-were-they-thinking way.

And Royal Caribbean and its Royal Champions feel like they’ve been misunderstood — and want to set the record straight.

Royal clarity
Royal Caribbean contacted me to clarify some of the points it made in my story. I spoke to Bill Hayden, associate vice president of marketing for Royal Caribbean International, who told me the comments in my article referenced from the Customer Insight Group marketing blog by a Royal Caribbean executive were “unfortunate” and he felt things were not properly explained.

Hayden confirmed that the idea for the Royal Champions came at a brainstorming session for the launch of Liberty of the Seas in 2007. He said the intent was to expand the outreach to a small group of travelers who were particularly passionate about and prolific in sharing information about cruising.

Hayden stated that Royal Caribbean hired Nielsen Buzz Metrics to go out and find individuals that used online forums who were being passionate about cruising. The criteria also looked for experienced Royal Caribbean cruisers who were helpful in sharing their cruise insights and experiences. Nielsen Buzz Metrics came back to Royal Caribbean with a list. The list included posters on Cruise Critic, TripAdvisor and Usenet boards.

Hayden said Royal Caribbean then contacted the various communities about the posters discovered by Nielsen Buzz Metrics. “In respect for peoples’ privacy we asked each community if we could contact the identified posters,” he says.

It’s not surprising that Cruise Critic was chosen as it is the largest cruise site of its kind, reaching over five million unique visitors each year. It is published by Independent Traveler, a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, the largest travel community in the world and an operating company of Expedia, Inc.

Kathleen Tucker, president of Independent Traveler, concurs with Hayden. “Royal Caribbean asked us to forward some information on their behalf to some Cruise Critic members, who had been chosen by this marketing firm, as they had no way of contacting them directly. We agreed to do so. That’s really our only involvement with this program.”

Hayden says the group now numbers between 50 to 75 individuals. “It’s really a focus group,” he says. “We run information and ideas by them and ask for feedback.”

When it comes to what a Royal Champion posts they are on their own. Hayden says Royal Caribbean does not dictate what they write. “We listen to both positive and negative posts,” he says. “When we make changes to our product we read these posts to see how it’s being received.”

When asked if Royal Champions should be transparent and identify themselves in posts, Hayden says that Royal Caribbean did not address that, adding, “We left that up to the Royal Champions and individual board owners.”

When it comes to perks, Hayden says a number of Royal Champions were invited on the Liberty of the Seas pre-inaugural cruises in Miami and New York in 2007. Some were also invited to a June 2008 Oasis of the Seas event in New York where Royal Caribbean showcased new on-board areas. Hayden is quick to point out that when travel is involved, Royal Champions pay their own costs for transportation and hotel.

Paul Nock was the only Royal Champion to contact me and be upfront about his involvement in the program. The Weeki Wachee, Fla., native is quick to state his posts have always been fair.

“If anyone takes the time to look at my posts over the years, they’ll see I have been as critical of Royal Caribbean as well as positive. My posts are mostly defending the cruise industry as a whole, not just one cruise line,” he told me.

He adds when it comes to the perks of being a Royal Champion he does pay for the privilege, literally. “If my wife and I go to many more free events that they invite us to we might have to file bankruptcy,” he says.

As for the future of the Royal Champion program it’s clear it is here to stay. “We are 100 percent committed to continuing the program because we believe in it,” said Hayden.

Marketing experts speak
Marketing experts I spoke with were mixed on Royal Caribbean’s program.

“Royal Caribbean is an example of a smart company jumping on the social media bandwagon early and often,” says Cole Imperi, owner Doth Brands.

Imperi notes that social media can make someone feel pressure, and Royal Caribbean has been developing a ‘club’ that pressures people — whether they realize it or not — to want to join. “They’ve also developed a feeling of exclusivity, which is another thing people want to be a part of,” says Imperi.

“The huge growth of social networks and user powered content has sparked big brands and advertising agencies to enlist users to promote their messages online. To a large degree this has been a very positive development. When the users’ voice is included with the voice of the brand, a higher level of engagement is almost always the result,” said Jennifer Cooper, chief executive of Mixercast, Inc.

“People are looking to people online to validate a purchase,” says Blake Cahill, senior vice president of marketing at Visible Technologies, whose clients include Microsoft and Panasonic. Cahill cites a recent Forrester Research report that states three in four U.S. online adults now participate in or consume social content at least once a month. This means more companies will be using social media as a tool to spread their message.

However, Cahill says there are some rules of the road.

“Brands get in trouble when they aren’t transparent,” said Cahill, who is also a member of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) Ethics Advisory Board. Cahill stated WOMMA is all about disclosure.

“The two hallmarks of social media are authenticity and transparency. It would appear that Royal Caribbean had a breakdown on both of these fronts,” says Jonathan Heit, senior vice president of digital media for Allison & Partners, which has implemented digital strategies for brands ranging from Philosophy to the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas.

“What’s curious is why Royal Caribbean would even walk this line,” says Scott McAndrew, director of strategy at Terralever. McAndrew says Royal Caribbean has a good brand reputation and a loyal and vocal fan before starting the program.

“In trying to shortcut the natural progress from brand exposure, to brand adoption and finally advocacy, Royal Caribbean now faces a far worse problem,” he adds. “All the wholehearted, genuine reviews of their brand and service that are positive run the risk of being eyed with a jaded view. Is this a real review, or is this one they bought?”

“Royal Caribbean isn’t the first company to make this mistake. A number of Fortune 500 companies have done the same thing,” says Jenn Lowther, director of social media at 6S Marketing, one of North America’s largest Internet marketing firms. She points to Wal-Mart’s failed blog campaign called “Wal-Marting Across America” that utilized two paid bloggers to write fake detailed shopping experiences at the company.

“They were busted because social media users are smart people,” she says. “It’s a matter of integrity. Don’t try to control the message be honest.”

Cruise Critic mutiny
After my story appeared Friday, the activity on Cruise Critic’s Royal Caribbean forum was like watching a reality-based TV train wreck. Interestingly, forums happen to be self-policing and that’s how I was informed that Cruise Critic was locking and deleting threads with any reference to the Royal Champion program. These actions infuriated the die-hard posters and members.

“In my view, the Royal Champions have turned the Royal Caribbean board into an online police state,” says Cruise Critic poster Walt Bailey.

Pennie Wessels started accessing the posts about the Royal Champions and found they had disappeared in the middle of reading them. “I wrote the moderators and told them I was appalled that they had participated in this shilling and even more appalled that they were evidently banning the discussions as soon as they made the board,” she says.

Stephen Ferry, a loyal customer of Royal Caribbean is a regular poster on Cruise Critic and doesn’t see too much of a problem with the program. “I sail Royal Caribbean because of their ships. I think all the drama over the Royal Champions is way overblown for a program with so few tangible benefits,” he says.

Eventually, after enormous outcry from members, Cruise Critic opted to have a ‘sticky’ thread related to the Royal Champions.

Why the censorship? Board moderators say they don’t allow message board policies to be discussed on the forums. Basically, members can only e-mail criticism — they can’t post it.

16 Responses to “A contagious virus? Marketing campaign sinks Cruise Critic”

  1. Jake says:

    Royal Caribbean and other big brands fail to realize that programs like this can be successful when they are transparent. When you have a base of passionate followers, it is not too difficult to turn that into an active community.

    And as a brand, you have to take the good with the bad. Royal has been criticized in the past for not accepting harsh commentary from frequent cruisers.

    Instead, they were secretive about this program. And I’m curious about whether Royal is coming clean about all of the details about their program.

  2. Kuki says:

    RCI and their marketing firm didn’t fully disclose to their “Champions” what the goal of the program would be, then turned around to discuss it later publicly, and in fact “brag” about its effectiveness.

    Those invited to participate simply felt they were invited to join what might be viewed as a “special club”, to share their views on the RCI product, and perhaps get an invite to a new ship preview. Not such a terrible thing really.

    Once you published your initial story, the reaction by CC to delete any further mention of it, gave credence to the notion that there was “something” going on, and they didn’t want any light shone on it…. which of course only serves to raise suspicions.

    Then as you say, under pressure they created the “sticky” for disscussion.

    Then “champions” themselves reacted very defensively to every post as though each was a personal attack on their integrity, rather than understand that most of the reaction wassimply to the news of the goals of the program, which to that point even they didn’t seem to be aware of… not having had the goals of the program explained to them when they joined.

    I don’t believe anyone would question these people sharing their excitement with their favorite cruise line, and touting it. That happens regularly on the message boards with every cruise line, on it’s own, without the cruise lines actively instigating it.

    What would be more of a concern is if they attack anyone posting negative commentary about said line, partially affected by their designation as “champions”.

    As to where this all went wrong…

    Naming them “Royal Champions” was perhaps the biggest plunder, because it pretty clearly implies advocacy.

    And of course the quote of CC’s Community Manager
    ““It’s the new trend on the Web, and it will be here to stay. It’s the reason our site is so popular. ” pretty much states they understood the goal of the program, while the “champions” themselves did not.

  3. DanB says:

    Actually, the biggest surprise to me was learning the true ownership of Cruise Critic. I can’t say that I’m now entirely comfortable participating on a site which seems to make some effort at masking its true ownership. People (and companies) often hide things like that for a reason.

  4. Radio Controlled Boats says:

    Do you really think social media users are smart people? Maybe, maybe not!

  5. ck says:

    It is published by Independent Traveler, a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, the largest travel community in the world and an operating company of Expedia, Inc.WELL I SEE THAT Cruise Critic IS NOT REALLY A Cruise Reviews and NEWS SITE BUT A TRAVEL AGENT WHOS JOB IS TO SELL WHAT THEY GET KICK BACKS FOR

  6. Jamedur says:

    On the occasion of my parent´s 45th wedding anniversary,fourteen members of my family,planned and organized during several months a Ship Cruise.But the whole trip ended up being a real disaster.
    We were expeled from the “Enchantment of the Seas” of Royal Caribbean in Aruba on March 25th of 2009.
    Only few hours after starting our cruise,one of my relatives,whith whom we shared our cabin,decided to consult the Cruise Medical Doctor because she had an estomach upset and indigestion.Without much investigation and to her great surprise ,she was immediately diagnosed with a virus called Norovirus and ordered her to keep quarantine,return to her cabin and stay isolated there with the other persons with whom she shared the cabin even though they had not presented any symptoms of illnesss.
    Unfortunately the Medical team of the Ship did not notify personally at the rest of the occupants of the cabin the strict isolation measures and the serious consequences of not complying with them.
    When,unaware of the terrible implications of not staying isolated in our room,we entered the Restaurant of the ship for dinner,we found that several members of the crew were waiting for us and disregarding the astonished look of the other guests of the restaurant,they virtually threw us away from the Dining Room
    Then,without giving us the time or chance of presenting our own version and explanations we were summoned to trial by a comitee of Authorities of the Cruise (Captain Goran, Peterson,) (Luis Acosta, Director of the Hotel) and (María Forero, Director of the Medical Center) They resembled more a Jury of the Inquisition than members of the crew of a recreational cruise.
    Finally,after a long and tense day waiting for a reply we were forced to leave the ship in the most humiliating way.We had to pay our hotel in Aruba,all our expenses of transportation,etc and buy our own return tickets to Colombia.We returned to our homes dissapointed and sad leaving our parents,brothers and the rest of our family in the Ship.
    Thinking now with a cold mind,I ask my self the following questions:
    Is it possible to diagnose that a patient suffers a viral illness(norovirus)without having the appropiate test equipment in the Ship?
    Why the Medical staff of Royal Caribbean did not make a follow up of the state oh health of the person who was sick?
    Why they expelled from the ship a person without being certain of her Health Condition.?
    And left this person abandoned in a foreign land away from home,without knowing if she had enough means to cope with the situation?
    Why the members of the crew did not notify the other occupants of the cabin personally of the quarantine instead of giving the sick pasenger a piece of paper without stressing its importance.?

    CERTAINLY THIS IS THE MOST UNFORGETABLE HOLIDAY THAT WE HAVE EVER HAD

  7. Dermalogica says:

    I agree with Cahill on the fact that if a brand has the slightest secret and it gets found out it can crush a companies reputation.

  8. Pinnacle says:

    Wow, quite an article, never really was a fan of cruises, for this very reason!

  9. Nice article, very interesting read.

  10. Exortek says:

    Royal Caribbean and other big brands fail to realize that programs like this can be successful when they are transparent. When you have a base of passionate followers, it is not too difficult to turn that into an active community.

  11. Cappadocia says:

    I can’t say that I’m now entirely comfortable participating on a site which seems to make some effort at masking its true ownership thank you nice work.

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  1. […] where fans of the cruise line only posted positive reviews on Cruise Critic and Trip Advisor. The fallout was […]

  2. […] overcome the stigma of  being exposed for being a paid cruise line cheerleader and shilling for Royal Caribbean on its reviews and message boards.  Whenever the cruise industry needs some good […]


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