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Starwood Blog Misses the Point

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Starwood Hotels & Resorts is the first major hotel company to make the leap into the blogosphere, says the Wall Street Journal, with a blog called TheLobby.com.

But its initial approach to the genre has as much in common with advertising as it does with the wide-open world of blogging.

The Journal’s view is just a starting point. There is so much not right with this blog that it’s hard to pick somewhere to begin.

It looks nice and clearly a lot of thought has gone into its construction. It uses Movable Type and offers RSS feeds. So from a platform point of view, it is a blog.

But that’s about as far as it gets. From almost every other point of view, it misses the mark by a wide margin. This is really a marketing brochuresite dressed up as something else.

The most glaring negative is the way in which visitors are invited to participate in the site, ie, to comment. The only way you can is via a “contact the editors” link in the sidebar which gives you a popup that thanks you for your feedback, says that due to the volume of emails that the site receives each day it may not be possible to personally respond to your email, mentions terms and conditions and gives you a choice of three generic email addresses to write to.

Such hurdles to engagement hardly inspire warming friendliness let alone an encouragement to comment and create a visible and open dialog. What I found especially interesting is that I could not find a single comment to any post going back to the first one on 21 February. Maybe no one has tried to jump the hurdles, or perhaps Starwood didn’t like any of the comments. Who knows.

Starwood’s view quoted in the Journal:

[] Starwood says it is planning to make it more interactive but wasn’t specific about plans. It may allow limited reader input, but only in the form of comments that have been reviewed by the company. It also may offer moderated chat rooms and Q&A sessions with hotel designers and other industry figures.

But Starwood’s effort will never be a free-form Internet site, says Robin Korman, Vice President of Loyalty Marketing for Starwood. “We don’t make a secret of the fact that it’s a corporate-sponsored blog,” she says.

Well, there’s nothing wrong at all with a corporate-sponsored blog. I don’t know what a “free-form internet site” is, though. And “limited reader input”? If what you really want to do is have a place on the web as a carefully-controlled information channel – and this blog certainly looks like one of those – that’s fine. Chat rooms, Q&A, all fine. While I might argue that such an approach isn’t the most effective one from a two-way communication point of view, it’s still fine if you want to go ahead anyway with such a place. Plenty of companies do.

So let’s look at the purpose of TheLobby.com as stated in its About text:

To help keep Starwood Preferred Guests on top of the latest travel trends, Starwood and ElectricArtists have assembled a team of travel writers to contribute to this site. Every weekday this site will be covering the latest and greatest in worldwide travel.

ElectricArtists is the marketing services company who produced the site. Looking through their website and reading about some of the social media projects they have been involved with (eg, podcasts for Fortune magazine), they seem to understand a little of the ‘social’ in social media.

That understanding clearly hasn’t made its way into this project for Starwood if they call it a blog.

And that’s a pity. This blog could be a great opportunity for Starwood to really engage with its most important (and influential) customer segment, those “preferred guests.”

Starwood could take a tip from The Red Room Chronicles, a fan blog about Marriott Hotels (not an official Marriott blog) written since last July by Rob Safuto of PodcastNYC, which illustrates how a blog focused on hotels approaches engagement where the blogger is someone with a passion about his topics.

And unlike any of the writing at TheLobby.com, the posts at The Red Room Chronicles exude that passion and a genuine feeling for what the blogger is writing about. Imagine that kind of focus in an official blog aimed at the members of a hotel company’s loyalty programme.

If I were Starwood, I’d ditch TheLobby.com in its current form and revert to their traditional one-way marketing channels. If what they want to do is just tell loyalty programme members about travel trends (as per the About text), even email would do.

Or, if engagement is their goal, then do it whole heartedly. Make TheLobby.com into a real blog. Invite some of those preferred guests to be bloggers on the site. Let them write what they feel and think, the good and the bad, about their experiences as Starwood guests, about “the latest and greatest in worldwide travel” (from their distinct viewpoints) and as loyalty programme members.

Let those bloggers become the voices of authority to other loyalty programme members “to help keep Starwood Preferred Guests on top of the latest travel trends.” Open up commenting. It can be moderated, but open it up. Take a look at GM’s FastLane Blog to see what can happen when you do that.

Go on, Starwood. Take a risk. I bet you’ll find it will be worth it.

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Neville Hobson is the author of the popular NevilleHobson.com blog which focuses on business communication and technology.

Neville is currentlly the VP of New Marketing at Crayon. Visit Neville Hobson’s blog: NevilleHobson.com.

Starwood Blog Misses the Point
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