Paid cheerleaders: Does Royal Caribbean’s viral campaign cross the line?

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On March - 6 - 2009

Talk about a royal mess.

In early 2007, Royal Caribbean developed a marketing strategy that used online bulletin boards to spread the cruise line’s gospel, so to speak. The company created a program, dubbed “Royal Champions,” that enlisted rabid Royal Caribbean fans who happened to be frequent posters on Internet cruise bulletin boards like Cruise Critic.

Did its program cross the line?

I spoke to Harrison Liu, manager brand communications for Royal Caribbean International, about the Royal Champion program. “Royal Champions are enthusiastic online supporters of Royal Caribbean who remain independent and share their opinions as they see fit,” said Harrison. He is quick to point out that the Royal Champion program is separate from the Crown & Anchor Society program – the line’s loyalty program for customers.

Harrison said that the selection criteria, responsibilities and benefits of Royal Champions are confidential in order to ensure the maximum level of objectivity among the group. He added that invitation to become a Royal Champion does not take into account of how many cruises one has taken, nor with which ship they sailed.

Paid cheerleaders

But a recent blog post on marketing site Customer Insight Group revealed more insight into the program than Royal Caribbean disclosed in the interview.

The post cites how the cruise line worked with Nielsen Buzz Metrics to “identify enthusiastic online supporters of Royal Caribbean.” By utilizing a “complex formula of data mining” the cruise line identified fifty posters a Royal Champions gig. The article details how the fifty individuals were chosen for the “quality and quantity” of their posts with a number having over 10,000 message board posts about Royal Caribbean. The majority of posts were found on Cruise Critic. After individuals were chosen for the program, their posts were “carefully monitored during events and on a regular basis to ensure that posts remain positive and frequent.”

The post also states that Royal Champions were rewarded with all-expense paid pre-inaugural sailings along with invites to events and cocktail parties hosted by Royal Caribbean executives.

Friend or faux?

The Customer Insight Group blog post made its way to the Cruise Critic boards where it has irked many of the line’s most loyal customers.

For the uninitiated, message boards feature comments posted by individuals using made-up online names used to preserve their anonymity. Since Royal Champions are not identified when they post many feel the lack of transparency and the fact that free cruises are given as an incentive to post is wrong.

“Very clever program with nice perks,” writes poster CanTex. “We need to be cautious about the objectivity of postings by the Champions.”

“The Royal Champion program has influenced me, it has made me start to look at other cruise lines,” says poster alexkrn46.

“Cruise Critic has so many travel agents, Royal Champions, and cheerleaders it’s hard to get a really neutral opinion or review of cruising. When people express their feelings and it isn’t all warm and fuzzy to Royal Caribbean they get attacked as jealous or whiny or worse,” writes cruisePRN.

On the other hand, the majority of posters on the Royal Caribbean board say they don’t mind the Royal Champion program. A number of Royal Champions have come out in the open like Cruiserccl, who at the ripe age of 14, professes that program hasn’t changed his posting habits.

I contacted Laura Sterling, Cruise Critic’s community manager about the Royal Champion program. She did not reply to my e-mails. However, she did write a general post to all board readers regarding the Royal Champion program where she says the program is for “influencing others who are not customers to sail on Royal Caribbean.” She adds, “It’s the new trend on the Web, and it will be here to stay. It’s the reason our site is so popular. The consumer voice sells product.”

To be sure, there are some shades of gray in between what consumer voice is heard. In the Customer Insight Group blog post a Royal Caribbean executive says that posts from Royal Champions are “carefully monitored during events and on a regular basis to ensure that posts remain positive and frequent.” The executive noted that due to the “ample word of mouth and exert sufficient influence” the investment in the Royal Champion program has been “worthwhile.”

That leaves a number of questions. Can you believe what is posted? Is the poster a genuine fan or someone who is being coerced to post only plentiful positive news? Lastly, does a forum cease becoming neutral territory for users when it allows an outside corporation to use members for marketing purposes?

Viral can get vicious

Sadly, exuberance of a cruise line can come at a moral price when a mob of fans disagrees with a reader’s post. This brings us to the infamous case of Brenda Moran, the passenger that was banned from Royal Caribbean for life due to abundant negative cruise reviews about her voyages on Cruise Critic.

I spoke to Moran about the Royal Champion program and she says several members from the group have been her harshest critics over the years. A few even sent nasty e-mails, and she believes some even went further with phone calls to her home, though she doesn’t have proof of that. She firmly believes it was the Royal Champion group that fought so hard to get her banned from the cruise line.

After writing Moran’s story last May, I, too, was not immune to hundreds of negative blog comments and e-mails about my reporting of her story. The sheer number of negative commentary on this story made me wonder if it was indeed coordinated. There were a number of posts that were similar in content and style to e-mails that I received. Upon checking IP addresses (a number that is assigned to a computer by an Internet service provider to be its permanent address on the Internet) I was able to match a number of nasty blog posts on ExpertCruiser to e-mails sent to me by two members that identified themselves as Royal Champions.

I was unaware of the Royal Champion program until another Cruise Critic poster, critical of the program, e-mailed me. I contacted Royal Caribbean about it last summer – it had no comment. I have to wonder why Royal Caribbean is taking such a big risk using online forums. After all, it has some of the most beautiful, innovative cruise ships in the industry and has an amazing fan base that posts good things, regardless.

Like them or not, online cruise message boards are now part of the pool of intelligence gathering and rumor swapping used (and manipulated) by travel agents, cruise line employees, rabid cruise fans, investors, media and the curious to track the performance of a cruise line.

You’ve been warned.

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