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More Lessons from The Hoxton Hotel’s £1 Sale – April 2011

26 June 2012 BY

As you may remember from January of last year, we took an in depth look at how to integrate online and offline marketing efforts and to do so we used the Hoxton Hotel as a case study. In this case we saw a number of things that the hotel was doing well, and a number of areas in which they could improve. I tried to focus on the benefits of their efforts and the amazing success they have had in taking a (mainly) offline brand and making it work online.

When I heard that there was going to be yet another £1 Room Sale taking place I thought that I would get my snipping tool ready to take some screen shots and see if they have taken to heart any of the lessons from the last sale. The last story was largely upbeat, however I have decided to take a more scrutinizing look at the areas of opportunity on which they are still missing out, as well as some of the failures in the current sale as I found this sale to be more frustrating as a particpant/customer.

Before I get started, I thought it would be worth pointing out that this afternoon I will be posting an in-depth and “behind the code” look at all of the things that have been changed to improve the process. I put on my journalist’s hat and spent nearly an hour chatting with the developers responsible for the main Hotel Website and want to share with you some of the amazing technological problem solving their team did and how they have quickly learned from some of their mistakes three months ago.

This is incredibly important because it is quite clear that the hotel (and the agency responsible for their website) has taken a number of steps to improve how the sale works technically. Many folks would not have seen this. And I suspect our audience is just as curious as I was about how to deal with the results of tacitly inviting a denial of service attack on your website!

What Went Wrong in January

I don’t really see the value in posting an update unless we first recap quickly some of the unintended consequences (negative side effects) we discussed after the January sale. I will run through the previous mistakes quickly to focus more attention on problems with the most recent sale and the untapped opportunities.

  • Concern over whether anyone actually booked a room
  • Servers fell over almost instantly
  • Potential negative press and online reputation concerns

There were other negative effects in that particular sale, but these were the three I mentioned and three to be addressed directly in this post.

What Went Wrong this Time – A Customer’s View

Have Servers Improved?

Despite largely defending the hotel the last go around – and I stand by the fact that it is a brilliant PR effort, and a very hard task to manage the number of visitors they receive in a short window – I cannot help but admit that I found the process to be more frustrating this time for a number of reasons. I do not think that I am the “average” website user and I do appreciate the toll that the servers would take from thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) hitting refresh repeatedly at the same time.

However, as anyone who phones in to radio competitions knows: a busy signal is preferred to being asked a load of questions only to be told “we’ve given away our last prize”).

Although I found the countdown site effective and the look and feel of the site to be very similar to last time, I did not enjoy my experience once onto the booking pages. After many multiple refreshes across three browsers with multiple tabs I finally got to (what looked like) my opportunity to book.

Along the way to the booking page that I finally did reach (interestingly in HTML) I was served (on a handful of occasions) one of the following images:

A Blank Screen (Flash #fail)

or

“CONNECTION STATUS: Unable to load settings” (Flash Fail #2)

Ok, so obviously there were some issues here. It looks like I’ve worked my way in to the booking engine, but, what it looks like is happening is that the Flash (sigh) elements are not loading properly. This is a bit annoying, but hopefully if I hit refresh enough I’ll get through!

Finally!

Once I truly was in to the booking engine and had filled out the first form page, picked a date, I thought I was in there!

So I select my room and click go. And what do I find? Right back where I started from.

With a handful of refreshes I was finally able to get to step 5 where you enter the credit card details to secure the room.

I wasn’t particularly happy about trying to refresh/re-enter my card details but I figured each of the previous forms had to be filled out and resubmitted a couple of times and this was a £1 room after all! Why not?

Needless to say, when, rather than the above (extremely familiar) “Thank you for your interest” message, I saw the following after payment submission, I was not very happy:

However, even that was slightly better than the message I finally got (after 20 minutes “within” the booking engine).

Now if that’s not enough  to drive someone into tweeting something angry about your brand, I don’t know what is. I totally appreciate that it is a hard process to manage, however, in my view and from a usability perspective I cannot really understand what the thinking is and why there aren’t stop-gaps in place to ensure that a room that is not available doesn’t allow you to get so far in the booking process so as to “click to confirm” situation if there is not any of that product left.

A perfect example of someone who controls for this well is Ticketmaster. When you book tickets for a busy event, once you have selected any available tickets those are yours and a clock starts ticking (you don’t need to read any behavioural economics books to know that this ticking clock must boost sales/reduce cart abandonment loads). However, when those tickets are in your cart and you are within the timeline those are your tickets. If the Hoxton wishes to continue using this sort of method, they should definitely look to a booking engine with this level of sophistication.

An alternative method for dealing with this would be to run the system more like a lottery (Olympic style) to ease the strain put on the servers for such a short-lived surge. More on the benefits to this later.

Conclusion:

The booking process has not improved such that users will notice an improvement on the servers ability to handle these loads. There were a number of angry Tweets about this afterwards and thus they do not seem to have learned from this process last time around.

We will see that steps were certainly taken to improve this, but not nearly enough was done to the booking side of things and not much was communicated to the users to help them understand (I’m hoping this will do a bit of their work for them).

Does Anyone Actually Get a Room?

After the sale in January there was a great deal of concern as to whether or not anyone had actually secured a room. Understandably, the Hoxton will have been quite keen to assuage these fears a bit. However, when you are under a lot of scrutiny in general (which is always hard to understand if I put on my marketing hat and you are effectively giving something away for free) it is best to be extremely cautious in how far you go to address these concerns.

The Hoxton Tweeted an image of the proof from their side of the booking engine that a number of rooms had been booked.

I’m not going to link to the actual photo or post the screen cap in case they do remove it, but let’s just say that they were so keen to post this proof that they did not take the time to blur out the names of the “lucky” winners along with the dates in which they would be staying at the hotel.

Conclusion

The problem was addressed and people will now be more confident that there are “real” people that win these rooms. However, this will not have helped in the case of our next and final fallout from the January sale.

Online Reputation Management

A favourite topic of mine. This is a bit of a difficult one to judge. In many respects, the Hoxton did a very good job this year with addressing concerns from users and any accidents that happened. Obviously the marketing efforts were not flawless today (as seen below in the fallout from the photo faux pas), but it seemed like the community manager was doing the best they could to keep people informed during a serious time crunch and I think most mistakes were understandable under the stress of the situation.

The below highlights their response to an individual that was concerned as they had accidentally booked a full-price room thinking they were booking in the sale (how they managed this I’m not quite sure), and also their engagement with their followers to help make some positive marketing gains with Twitter followers – nice!

In spite of these efforts however, there were still plenty of people complaining and in many respects with good reason to do so. For me, the biggest mistakes made throughout the day were including personal information (names and dates of visits) in the image posted but at the deeper route the biggest potential cause of reputation issues lies with the server side issues on the booking engine.

Conclusion

Posting the photo with the “lucky” winners names and dates of staying was undoubtedly a mistake (if anyone from the hotel is reading I would strongly encourage you to take down the photo). However, I think on the whole the Hotel did about as much as could be expected to manage the reputation short of overhauling the entire booking engine.

Solutions, Suggestions and Areas of Opportunity

As highlighted above, there were a number of things that went wrong with the sale and a number of things that went right. It looks as though the Hotel has been working on improving the way in which the sale works (more on that in the “behind the code” post) and I think it is worth highlighting (yet again) how incredible the Hotel’s marketing efforts are.

However, to make this useful for other marketers and in light of the above lessons/opportunities it is important to look at not only what went wrong (this post), what went right (last post) and what they’re doing to improve (next post), but also what are the areas on which they can improve?

Capturing Data

There is no doubt in my mind that this exercise is and should be used to increase visibility of the brand but it should also be used as an opportunity to get information about the users. Giving the rooms away for £1 is great and the PR is no doubt a benefit, but what else can the Hotel be doing to get more information about potential clients and how can they reach them where they are?

Idea 1 – How to Get More Twitter Followers out of the Sale

I really like what the Hotel is doing with their Twitter account by encouraging people to follow as “an additional 5 followers” will be selected for the £1 rooms. That’s a great idea!

However, I think that tweeting about this long before the sale would potentially lead to more sharing and to a bigger uplift. The fact of the matter is that anyone who has just been through the sale and NOT gotten a room is very unlikely to share or Retweet the fact that there are more rooms up for grabs. In fact, it is unlikely anyone who hasn’t won would do so – and they’ll already be shouting to their friends about their win.

Solution: Tweet this message before the sale goes live. In addition, the hotel could easily offer out an additional prize for the person that gets the most retweets or visibility, etc. This is a great  way to encourage people to mention the brand, to share it and also to reward them.

Idea 2 – How to Get More Contact Details / Newsletter Subscribers

As with the above, why limit the number of new followers, engaged customers and contact details you are gathering from people? At the moment it seems the only people who are registering/handing over their information to those that actually get a room?

I happily subscribe to The Hoxton’s newsletter(s) just to hear about the sale. But I only do this because I got a room in the past.

Solution: There are a bunch of ways to do this. The first would be to engage people whilst they are waiting around on the countdown page. Tell them that 5 lucky newsletter subscribers will also get a room for £1 (as with Twitter). Or better still, listen to your users and run this whole sale lottery system style.

The Olympics tickets are being given away in this manner and that way, the Hoxton will probably get just as many people to visit the site, they will capture a load more contact details and get a lot more engaged users that can be targeted with later promotional offers (ones that actually make The Hoxton money!).

This would significantly reduce the server loads and could share the weight over the course of hours/days rather than minutes. I’m sure the hotel might not get quite as much free press out of it, but they’d probably have fewer upset potential customers.

Idea 3 – How to Keep the “Losers” Happy

Here is another great opportunity – the very nature of the sale (competitive, short, frustrating, etc.) means that a very small percentage of “lucky winners” will be enthralled and a very vocal majority will be disappointed and vent their frustrations online. The first way to cope with this is by improving processes, but there is another way as well – make the users feel like they’ve won a secondary prize rather than lost something they never actually possessed.

Solution: If the booking engine went the way of Ticketmaster booking (i.e. the first 500 to select a date are in and guaranteed a room) it would be dead-simple to serve up an offer for people who did not act fast enough this time.

At this point you could serve them with a “Sorry” message with the above opportunities to “still win” but also offer them a free drink at the bar or a 10% voucher off their next meal or stay as a consolation prize. If this were executed properly everyone would feel as though they won something and there would be a lot less to clean up from a Reputation Management perspective.

This would be a great time to offer people a “consolation” discounted booking rate as well. The people are already on the site and looking to stay in the hotel, this is a great chance to convert users.

Closing Thoughts

The Hoxton Hotel continues to offer one of the most captivating and engaging sales and is one of the few instances in which I’ve seen people acquire links so easily and frequently from big sources without even trying. However, the annual sale that drives most of this PR has been running for a while now.

At some point the novelty of the sale will wear off and the negative murmurs could lead to serious reputation issues. Before the next sale it would be wise for the hotel to continue evolving the sale and their community engagement to make sure that the majority of people are saying nice things about the sale, rather than negative things about the brand in the aftermath.

The key is to ensure that all participants feel as though they’ve won something – and to provide a smooth process to allow them to either be successful (or unsuccessful) in trying to book a room in the shortest amount of time possible.

Edit: Please have a look through our “behind the code” look at the £1 room sale later and check out some of the advances the hotel has made!

AUTHORED BY:
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Sam Crocker is SEO Associate Director at OMD UK. Sam focuses on increasing traffic and conversions for websites whilst always keeping his eye on a company’s bottom line.