Priceline’s Twitter audience skyrockets with promotion

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Priceline.com is experimenting with Twitter as a marketing channel, and has attracted a surge of Twitter users by running an unusual promotion.

Priceline began sending Twitter messages in mid-February under the name TheNegotiator, with a thumbnail photo of celebrity spokesman William Shatner (below photo).

Priceline NegotiatorThe online travel agency was attracting followers with "tweets" containing deals and humorous promotional messages ("Who wants half-off their hotel stay? You can save up to half-off EVERYDAY! Don’t be a mama’s boy!").

Then, TheNegotiator on April 23 tweeted that it would give a $50 hotel coupon to all followers if Priceline reached 3,000 followers by May 1.

Before the promotion started, TheNegotiator had around 1,470 followers and was adding about 134 followers per week. By April 28, when Priceline ended the coupon promotion, TheNegotiator’s legion of followers had climbed more than 400%, to around 7,400, said Priceline spokesman Brian Ek.

To put it in context, JetBlue, a Twitter heavyweight in the travel industry, has been participating on Twitter since May 2007 and grows its following at around 1% per week. JetBlue has about 437,000 followers on Twitter.

A lot of travel companies offer promotion codes via Twitter, but Priceline's stands out because it tied the coupon to signing up followers.

With no contact information for followers other than their Twitter names, Priceline is transmitting coupons via direct message on Twitter, manually sending about 1,000 per day. Ek said the process would take several days because Twitter limits the number of direct messages a user can send per day.

The promotion was the brainchild of Josh Francia, who handles Priceline's email and other electronic marketing efforts. (TheNegotiator may be busy "pummeling hotel prices," but Shatner doesn’t do any of the tweeting.)

Return on investment unknown 

So, what did Priceline gain by the promotion? How much is a follower on Twitter worth to Priceline?

"Twitter is such a new medium. We really don't know," said Ek.

Ek said Priceline's goal was to gain followers so the company could establish long-term relationships with Twitter users. Will these followers turn out to be qualified leads and actually use the bonus cash?

"We really don't know at this point," said Ek. "We'll see."

With 7,400 followers qualifying for the coupon, it might appear that the promotion cost Priceline $370,000. Well, it doesn't work that way.

"We’d love to have 100% of the people use the coupon, but that usually doesn't happen with a promo coupon," Ek said.

Also, Priceline chose to make its coupon offer apply to its opaque hotel business only. This channel has higher margins than Priceline's retail hotel business, and thus lowered Priceline's costs for the promotion.

Susan Black, a principal in social media and travel strategy firm Susan Black Associates, called Priceline’s initiative "a fabulous move." She added that hotel websites and online travel agencies are attracting a lot of traffic from Twitter.

Black said gaining these followers gives Priceline "the tools to communicate and establish relationships with a new set of customers."

"The next step for Priceline is to do a lot of talking and listening on Twitter and to see what its followers are saying," Black said.

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