TripAdvisor foray into social media fraught with obstacles

What a TripAdvisor social media page will look like.
What a TripAdvisor social media page will look like.

TripAdvisor's announcement last week that it will introduce a social media-like component to its website positions the company at the beginning of an uphill battle to win consumers away from Facebook and other platforms, analysts cautioned. 

But president and CEO Stephen Kaufer maintained that TripAdvisor will build the social component from its hundreds of millions of monthly users; it will not try to lure them away from other social media sites.

"Then the question is, 'Well Steve, it sounds like you're building social functionality. Why is someone going to take time out of their day while they're on Facebook, Instagram, whatever, and go over to TripAdvisor to create this new network?'" Kaufer said. "My answer is 'They're not.'"

The CEO contends that TripAdvisor's current users will organically visit the site and start engaging with social content. The site has 450 million monthly visitors, he said, "some percentage of which are going to like this new social assistant."

They will naturally start to follow users posting content they like, Kaufer said.

He likened it to Twitter: While Kaufer himself doesn't tweet a lot, he often uses the social media site to follow others, slowly building the number of people he follows.

"It's completely painless, easy, frictionless," he said. "I follow two more people, I don't get 100 more pieces of email spam. Nothing happens other than my feed is usually enriched."

Kaufer said the same will apply to TripAdvisor users. The number of existing visitors is key, though, he said: "If we didn't have that, yeah, God help us or anyone else trying to build up a brand new social network from scratch."

Maggie Rauch, senior director of research at Phocuswright, said TripAdvisor's planned overhaul is "ambitious," and she cautioned that it's a space a number of startups entered several years ago, creating a social media site for travelers. 

In those early attempts, she said, they faced issues with "stickiness and monetization." TripAdvisor, she said, does have an advantage in that it has a large existing community.

"Still, do travelers want another social destination for sharing trip photos and video?" Rauch asked. "If not, will the publisher content that TripAdvisor brings in fill that gap?"

Industry analyst Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group, credited TripAdvisor for helping to create the modern social media landscape.

"It was one of the first websites that invited consumers to share their own ratings and reviews of hotels, restaurants and other travel businesses and, in a way, deserves credit as a pioneer in travel social media," he said. "We can't overlook that."

Even so, he continued, "The challenge that TripAdvisor faces in creating this new type of platform with a look and feel that seems very similar to Facebook is that we already have Facebook, and TripAdvisor is launching this now 10 or so years into the Facebook revolution."

It's not an impossible task, he said, but "I have to objectively say it would be very difficult for them to compete and encourage a change in consumer behavior."

Along with announcing its new social media component, TripAdvisor said it is working with some 500 brands, influencers and publishers in beta testing to add content to the platform. They don't pay to participate nor are they paid for their content, Kaufer said; instead, they benefit from brand exposure.

That's what attracted the Travel Channel to the platform, said Vikki Neil, executive vice president and general manager of Discovery's Lifestyle Studios, which includes the Travel Channel's digital content operations. She called TripAdvisor's online following "massive."

"For us, it is a great way to experiment with a new platform and continue to get our content out there to unique and relevant audiences," Neil said. "We are no stranger to trying out emerging spaces like this, and we are eager to see how it helps enhance Travel Channel's brand awareness among TripAdvisor's audience."

Dan Wasiolek, senior equity analyst at Morningstar, said TripAdvisor's move to introduce a social feed is part of a string of recent initiatives to monetize its content, something the company has struggled with historically.

Wasiolek specifically pointed to recent user experience improvements and a multiyear TV ad campaign announced last summer aimed at educating consumers that TripAdvisor is a booking site not just limited to reviews and ratings.

Harteveldt said time will tell if TripAdvisor's initiative will pan out.

"I'm not sure how long it will take to determine whether this is a success," he said, "whether we'll be able to tell in six months or less or a year or less, or whether it's going to be what they call a slow burn and potentially take a couple of years to hit its stride."

Time will also tell if TripAdvisor will be the only site to feature its own social media component. 

Wasiolek said he believes it's likely that, at some point, Booking Holdings and Expedia Group will introduce similar platforms. 

"Really, what these companies are trying to produce is a one-stop shop for travelers to research and book everything that they possibly would want, and anything that can enhance that goal I think is likely to be pursued," he said.

Harteveldt, too, said that is a possibility in the future, but he questioned if the money required to create such a platform would lead to a great enough return on investment. 

And, if TripAdvisor's fellow online giants were to introduce their own social media platforms, Harteveldt said, "I'm not sure if there is room for more than one to survive and be prosperous long term."

TripAdvisor has a long road ahead of it after introducing what is essentially "version 1.0" of its social platform, Harteveldt said. Winning consumers will be "very hard," and "there are no guarantees here," especially considering that the influencers and brands that will be contributing content typically have large presences on other social media sites.

But he did see room for agents to use the site to their advantage when it is officially launched later this year.

"For some travel agents, it may be a better environment in which they can share their own expertise with the traveling public," Harteveldt said. "You never know, maybe some travel agents will be lucky enough to win some new clients as a result. I see lots of potential and opportunity here."


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