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.