One of the more interesting parts of moving from a small specialist search agency into a search team within a major global media agency has been the opportunity to work together with some of our other teams and focus on marketing and brand management beyond the SERPs. When I was working in a specialist agency we did a good job of integrating with internal marketing teams and external agencies alike but there is something unique about working directly with the folks who manage display, paid search, television and more for really big companies.
As part of my role we have been working really hard on better integrating these efforts and making sure that natural search has a seat at the table when broader digital meetings take place, but increasingly we are getting involved with some of the offline efforts for our clients as well.
Having put some feelers out on Twitter I realise this is an area that people would like to learn a bit more about so this will be the first in a series of posts about integrating natural search marketing (SEO) and other marketing efforts.
For the first post we will take a look at a very successful case of an offline brand building an online presence from its very inception and throw-up some of the warning signs of a potential negative reputation issue when dealing with large crowds. Please note that the below brand is not a client of ours and I have no connection to them other than the fact that I once benefitted from their marketing efforts.
How To Build an Online Presence for a (mostly) Offline Brand
Case: The Hoxton Hotel
As some of you may well be familiar, the Hoxton Hotel is a successful hotel and restaurant near Old Street. As such, despite taking reservations online, I think it is fairly safe to say that they are not a traditional ecommerce website and are a physical store requiring offline marketing efforts.
In a stroke of PR genius the hotel decided to launch (four years ago) with a sale in which they gave away a certain number of their rooms for £1 and another allocation of their rooms for around £30 per night. About four years ago, despite the fact that this was an online sale most of the buzz was generated through mainstream press in newspapers and no doubt will have created a few high-value links to the site very early on.
The sale has continued every 3-4 months and has ensured that the buzz around the hotel continues. Although it may have been a costly effort and may have (despite its creativity) required a lot of PR in the first instance, the reputation of the Hoxton and their sale has grown on a magnificent scale – and the Hoxton have been clever enough to continue the sale as a “thank you” to its visitors.
The Sale in 2011
This past week saw what was arguably the most furious and competitive version of the sale yet and has brought about a series of side effects from which the hotel will undoubtedly need to learn.
The impact on Twitter has been uncanny – long before the sale went on at 12pm last Thursday the Twitter community was buzzing (and so were the Hoxton’s servers). The hotel became a trending topic for a number of hours in the UK and sold out of the 500 rooms for £1 in under ten minutes (given the tweets coming from their team about server loads) and give the loading issues I was seeing as a potential consumer I can almost guarantee the rooms would have gone quicker had they been able to handle the volume. They reported over 500,000 people vying for the 500 rooms in their last such sale and it seems likely that the sale generated even more volume this go around.
We will return to some of the negative impacts of the sale on Twitter below, however, given that there is a vetting process to promote trends, tweets or accounts at the moment the ingenuity of this sale has led to a significant savings in advertising – even if there is a loss associated with giving the rooms away for £1.
Given my understanding of Twitter promotion (for which my source will remain nameless) you are not currently able to use geo-targeting for promotion of trending topics and the cost of these tweets is also prohibitive – it gets to a point where it would not be a good use of funds for a business of this size with one location to pay for a promoted trend. However, the fact that they were able to raise enough interest in the relevant location to get their brand name trending without paying further implies the value of their efforts elsewhere.
Looking at their link profile, there seems to be some definitive spikes in links generated every few months or so – which would be consistent with the impact of these efforts in building natural links to the site. It is also interesting to note that the second and fourth most linked-to pages on the site refer to the £1 sale. Now, whether or not there should be two pages talking about this sale is not for me to say, but there is no question that the desired impact of increasing brand awareness has worked. And this impact has clearly been translated to new and natural links.
On a similar note, it doesn’t appear that the Hoxton has been working on building a great deal of links manually and it would seem as though this has been an incredibly valuable link bait campaign – and could likely be even more valuable were they making a conscious effort to build links around the event.
Unexpected Negative Side Effects
Building an online presence is only valuable if you are willing to deal with the consequences and are prepared to proactively deal with issues and complaints online. One side effect of the scale that the sale has now reached is the fact that there will undoubtedly be some frustrated people if they do not make it through to book a room. In some respects the sale is as much a lottery/giveaway as anything and the brand could probably do a bit more to ensure that people are well aware of this fact beforehand.
It is important to anticipate and take control of the very serious potential for this to become an online reputation management issue very quickly. For a while there were some efforts by some disgruntled users to try to get “hoaxton hotel” trending and they believed that there were not any real winners.
For the most part, I thought the hotel handled these efforts very well – first, by not addressing the term directly (ie not doing anything to draw attention to this catchy-term that could have started trending itself quite quickly), and secondly by reassuring the unsuccessful guests that they had done everything within their power to keep the site up with all the volume. In fact, the developer managing the site even tweeted out a number where he would be personally available for questions, concerns and anger about the site requiring many multiple refreshes to load during the sale.
Obviously the hotel and the developers benefited from their experience handling these loads in the past and I personally think they handled the complaints well. They shared a few tweets from people that were successful, but also apologised and promised to do better for those who were not and made themselves available for discussions.
It seems rather obvious that thinking about your online presence when launching a company (even a hotel or other predominantly offline brand) is invaluable. The Hoxton has become known for their sale and they can count on some free press every 3-4 months. Although there are ways in which The Hoxton could improve considerably on these efforts (offer discounted rates to get the lucky few who get a £1 room to return, leverage the event to gain more followers on Twitter, follow-up with people writing about the story to ensure a link is provided with mentions, request reviews on Google Places, etc.) there is no doubt that they have launched a successful online brand whilst offering a predominantly offline product and though the model cannot be duplicated perfectly it is certain a clear example of a brand doing it right.
Special offers are clearly the way to get some benefit for a local business online and anything that can be done to engage these users on the internet to then come and visit your location is essential. From an SEO standpoint this creates an opportunity to have loads of people tweet about you, potential for local reviews and ultimately a good number of links.
The additional 500,000 visitors in the course of a few minutes is never bad either. Oh, and naming your business after the area in which it is situated probably isn’t a bad idea either – the brand appears to be doing very well in local searches both around “Hoxton” and “Old Street”.
Next time we will take a look at some other cases and some more general advice on tying together online marketing efforts and offline brands. Thanks for reading and please feel free to leave comments below!