What Can Hotels Learn From Clickbait?

If you’ve been annoyed by clickbait lately—indeed, if you’ve been wondering what the world has come to—you’re not alone. Companies like Upworthy and Buzzfeed only appeared a few short years ago, offering ridiculous headlines and images to generate clicks. The content was mostly worthless, an affront to human intelligence. It was all about the bait, the click - advertising money. A few people got rich, while the rest of us suffered were sidetracked and annoyed.

As we all know, this is still going strong. A biting criticism of clickbait appeared in The Atlantic in 2014, but if you scroll down to the bottom of the article, you’ll find real live clickbait. And it’s not even presented in the spirit of irony.

Thankfully, the backlash has flowed into major channels. Facebook recently introduced algorithms to block clickbait from appearing in its users’ feeds, while market research has begun to show that very few people actually read these stories after they click. As a result, the clickbait model has lost steam. But it’s unlikely to go away completely. Publications such as the Weekly World News, which told us for decades that Saturn was a giant UFO and that Elvis was still alive stopped printing papers in 2007, but it’s still available online. If people are still interested in reading about the latest Bigfoot sighting, or are into conspiracy theories, clickbait definitely has some kind of future.

So what can hoteliers learn from the rise and fall—or at least the rise and tapering off—of clickbait?

Substance and authenticity matter.

People and organizations have taken steps against clickbait because it plays on emotions to generate a response, yet delivers nothing of substance (a bit like my football team this year). And when you research the most common complaints lodged against hotels, false advertising is a regular fixture.

It’s important to realize that hotel managers and hotel guests may have different definitions of false advertising. You can’t help it, for instance, if a guest is greeted by cloudy weather despite the blue skies on your web site but there are other things that can be helped. Outdated photos of rooms and amenities are a big one. Hotels should put more time and energy into matching the experience of the hotel to the online depiction.

Dashed expectations, even in matters that seem small, can wreak havoc on a guest’s perception of your brand. With so many options to choose from, hotels that come across as conniving and dishonest—even if it’s just negligence—are likely to experience backlash. Even special offers and hotel rewards programs can fall into the psychological category of clickbait if they fail to deliver what guests actually want.

There is power in eliciting visceral, emotional responses.

You’ve no doubt heard about customer engagement and why hotels want it. According to recent research by Gallup, hotel guests who are “engaged” with a brand are willing to spend significantly more than those who aren’t engaged. And surely that is a good thing.

So what does “being engaged” mean? It means that the guest is actually interested and emotionally invested in your hotel or group. It means that rational considerations - such as price, location and amenities—aren’t the only things that matter. Clickbait does this in a negative way by setting people up for disappointment. Successful hotels do it in a positive way by creating a sense of belonging, following through on promises made, and delivering value that is both consistent and stylistically distinct. Easier said than done, but a worthy and vital pursuit.

Delivering on Hidden Content

Clickbait, like a bad hotel experience, fails to give people what they need or expect. It pulls them in with the promise of something exciting, and leaves them disappointed. When your business is only accountable for the number of clicks generated, it’s possible to get away with this. But when your hotel is accountable to a global network of travelers, you need a whole lot more. The bait must be enticing, yes—but the story behind it must be real. The hidden content is ultimately more important than the headline, and if you promise Bigfoot, you’d better deliver.

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