What a Social Media “Like” Should Really Mean

Originally posted in Mediapost’s Search Insider on October 3, 2013

Italy’s Agriturismo program has been a success by any measure you might want to use. Since the initial legislation was passed in 1985, thousands of small farms through Italy, teetering on the edge of extinction, have been thrown a financial lifeline by letting operators supplement their income  welcoming tourists to “stay on the farm.” The program includes one-time renovation grants and an ongoing marketing program. Today, there are almost 3,500 agriturismos throughout Italy. Many of these have sprung up just in the past decade. The program brings the market directly to the farm, allowing onsite sales of products to guests and showcasing the homegrown produce in the agriturismo’s restaurant.

The program’s success, however, has superheated the competition for tourism among the operators. In Tuscany, where I stayed at one such farm, there are 1,000 agriturismos, almost one third of the total number in Italy. You literally can’t throw a Tuscan stone without hitting some type of tourist-targeted operation. This competitive environment is made even more fervent when you consider that almost every restaurant in Italy is also an independent operation. There are no big chains. All these businesses are literally mom and pop (sorry, Momma and Poppa) operations. They run on a shoestring. There is little to no money for advertising. If ever there was a test bed for guerilla marketing, this is it.

Here, online ratings are the currency of choice. A top spot in an online directory is the difference between life and death for these businesses. In this almost perfect but unflinchingly brutal adaptive environment, if you’re terrible, you die quickly. If you’re mediocre, you die slowly. If you’re good, you stumble along. And for a very few exceptions, if you’re excellent, you may do OK and even prosper, relatively speaking. I would put Fausto and Susanna in this last category. They run a small agriturismo just outside San Gimignano.

When it comes to the directories that matter, one towers above the rest. TripAdvisor wields the same power in this market that Google wields in our world of search. It is the ultimate arbitrator of life and death. And the smartest of the operators have taken this to heart. They “get” social media at a level that is humbling to this particular North American online marketing “expert.” It’s not just asking for a “like” or a good review. They know that the best way to get a glowing review is to utterly, undeniably, completely deserve it.  There’s no faint praise here; you have to blow your customer’s socks off.

It’s this intimate, person-to-person exchange that makes this the most efficient market possible. No money or marketing efforts are wasted on inefficient channels.  There are no middlemen. It all takes place directly between the host and the guest. It’s completely genuine. How many marketing campaigns can you say that about? They give you the experience of a lifetime, and you say a heartfelt thank you. TripAdvisor (and Facebook, and Yelp, etc.) is just there to make sure the world hears about it.

If Fausto and Susanna have understood the power of social media, Marina Pasquino is teaching a master’s class in it. In all my years of staying in hotels and consulting to businesses, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better-run business than Signora Pasquino’s small hotel on the Adriatic coast. My jaw dropped during check-in, and didn’t manage to snap back into place until we left seven awestruck days later.

The Hotel Belvedere, a tiny hotel in Riccione with less than 50 rooms, has blown TripAdvisor’s review algorithm to smithereens. It doesn’t just top the ratings for hotels in its area – it’s TripAdvisor’s number-one hotel in all of Italy, and one of the top 25 hotels in the world! Of the over 800 reviews it’s collected, 97% of them are effusive over-the-top odes to the hotel, its staff and the complete Belvedere experience.  The feedback is so overwhelming positive, posts sometimes get flagged for manual review to ensure they’re not fraudulent. They’re not, by the way. I mean, how many hotel staff actually hug you when you check in? Seriously.

Business is almost completely generated by word of mouth (both traditionally and digitally). Guests come back every single year. And they bring their friends. During our week, several groups (many from Canada, where I’m from) were at the hotel. And all this is fueled by a warm contact through social media after you leave. With the Belvedere, when you talk about friending and liking, you don’t have to put quotes around the words. In this case, those labels match your intention.

I’ve talked before about how rugged adaptive environments drive the evolution of new breeds of marketers. I can’t think of any environment more rugged than the tourism industry in today’s Italy. And here, the Faustos, the Susannas and the Marinas are showing that if you work your ass off to be amazing, we’ll return the favor by letting people know. I’m not sure what you would call this particular species, but I hope it prospers. We could certainly use more of them in the world.

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