Meet the “Royal Caribbean Champions,” a group of fifty prolific posters to popular online communities that Royal Caribbean rewards with special access and free cruises in exchange for their frequent and positive commentary. The Champions were outed by their creators, the Customer Insight Group, which boasted on their company blog that the potent group is “regularly leveraged for ongoing marketing initiates. Members of the popular reviewing site Cruise Critic, one of the main targets of the program, are understandably pissed.
The Customer Insight Group provides an excellent summary of the pernicious program’s goals:
Identifying Brand Advocates: Royal Caribbean worked with Nielsen Buzz Metrics to identify enthusiastic online supporters of Royal Caribbean. Using a combination of automated and manual techniques, they identified online communities that discuss Royal Caribbean Cruises. Relying on data mining software and human expertise in word-of-mouth analysis, they measured awareness, identifying emergent qualitative themes of discussion on blogs, travel forums, usernets to gain a better understanding of how consumers discuss Royal Caribbean cruises. Fifty Royal Caribbean Champions were chosen for both quality and quantity of posts with many having over 10,000 message board posts on various Royal Caribbean topics. While Champions were primarily found on Cruise Critic, they also posted on travel communities, usenet groups, travel blogs and personal journals.
Influencing Brand Advocates: In May 2007, the Royal Champions community of online enthusiasts was invited to their first big event, the pre-inaugural sailings of our newest ship Liberty of the Seas in New York and Miami. This was the first time in the company’s history that invitees to pre-inaugural sailings were “ordinary people” i.e. not VIP’s, corporate executives, or top producing travel agent. Royal Caribbean hosted ship and stateroom tours and cocktail parties with executives. President Adam Goldstein hosted the New York party and CEO Richard Fain hosted the Miami party. The events generated abundant positive word-of-mouth on various sites and created a cohesive community of Royal Caribbean online enthusiasts that are regularly leveraged for ongoing marketing initiatives.
Measuring Success: While difficult to measure precisely, based on observation and anecdotal evidence we are confident that the Royal Champions produce ample word of mouth and exert sufficient influence to make the investment worthwhile. Posts from Royal Champions are carefully monitored during events and on a regular basis to ensure that posts remain positive and frequent.
The program’s existence by itself isn’t objectionable. Every industry is a carrier for public relations parasites, but most so-called public relations professionals adhere to a code of conduct that includes a clear disclosure of their affiliation. As the Customer Insight Group acknowledges, “the key to success in viral marketing is to subtly influence the influencers without them overtly realizing they are being influenced.”
Since their posts are “carefully monitored,” Royal Caribbean Champions should be required to clearly disclose their role as Royal Caribbean mouthpieces so other readers can fairly and fully evaluate their comments.