Let’s get personal: The power of recommendation from ‘friends we have never met’ has more influence than ever


Published by The Drum Network

In the olden days you used to go to an actual travel agent, sit down on a plastic padded chair and chat to a total stranger in a branded polyester uniform for maybe an hour.

Together you’d look at some generic catalogue photos and then you’d hand over a chunk of cash for a holiday you really knew very little about. These days you might not meet a single human during the whole booking/arrival process, but travel planning feels more intimate and informed than ever before.

Last weekend my friend Sarah was whisked away to Copenhagen by her husband, to a Danishly stylish Airbnb apartment to boot. Bar the cat and, presumably, passports, the owners had left all of their worldly possessions in situ, under the care of Airbnb guests they had only met online. Of course my friend is charming and honest to a fault and only opened the cutlery drawer as instructed. But more than that, she had such a fantastic trip, living the high-life of an authentic Copenhagian, that she not only left the place spotless, but left a little thank you note and some lovely cacti to add to the family’s collection in evidence around the apartment. But the thing is, Sarah already knew it was going to be a great place to stay. Not only had she got ‘good vibes’ from the host, she’d eagerly read all 17 reviews on the Airbnb profile, and picked up some restaurant and sightseeing recommendations from families with young kids like hers along the way. When she got there, there were no nasty surprises (like the view of a brick wall/gas station that used to horrify complainers of old on Watchdog). She got what she expected, loved it, and has been Instagramming the hell out of the Danish stylishness ever since.

So now all her friends want some too. Word of mouth has long been held as the marketers most powerful tool; today this translates as people sharing their great personal experiences with the web at large and leaving gifts of cacti in your proverbial front room for all to see. The opinions of ‘friends we have never met’ are particularly influential in the travel sector: hotel, B&B, café and restaurant reviews are the most commonly read by consumers. Every establishment is compulsively judged and filtered through personal recommendation on Trip Advisor, Google reviews or the like. We make snap judgements based on star rating (58% say this is the most important) and then subjectively lean towards reviews from people that we feel we might like. That might like the same things as us.

One of our clients, Exodus Travels, is lucky enough to have a hugely enthusiastic customer base, nearly all of whom would (and do) recommend their experience to anyone who will listen. These Exodus evangelists have a shared passion for adventure; whether that takes the shape of a three week trek hiking the high passes of the Everest region or hunting out rare, hand made mozzarella in remote shacks on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. These fans are quick to turn the head of any real or digital world friend who shares their interests and whose ears will prick up at that evocative word: adventure. But Exodus wanted to reach further, beyond digital clones of its current customers, to those for whom adventure is not at the top of the holiday shopping list. People for whom adventure can sound like hard work, when holidays are meant to be relaxing; for whom adventure sounds great for others, but a bit scary.

We needed to go beyond customer advocacy to make this new audience feel inclined to give adventure a go. This got us asking what is the best way of making people feel welcome and relaxed in a foreign land? A personal connection. Even a friend’s ex flat mate will do. And this is where Exodus has an ace up its sleeve. Exodus holiday makers might be advocates, but even more passionate are its staff: the expert expedition leaders that customers so happily rave about. So rather than selling a holiday, we got the brilliant, passionate Exodus leaders to invite people to come and experience the place they love so much, that they call home. By sharing their authentic and personal views on somewhere exotic to us, they make it feel more familiar and welcoming. I watch the film about Iceland and I’ve all but got my crampons on. I want to walk that glacier with Kristjan. Take me there.

In the mean time, I’m off for dinner. Luckily it’s a 4.5* on Trip Advisor. Urjit, who seems like a nice guy, recommends the chicken ruby, while Clare ‘Would defiantly [sic] go again’. I’ll be sure to let you know what I think.

Kath Hipwell, Head of Content Strategy