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Sep 22, 2011
Case Study

Product Launches: How HotelTonight's mobile app became the most downloaded app in its category in just one month

SUMMARY: Launching a product from scratch (in this case, a brand and company, as well) in a crowded marketplace with well-funded competition can be one of the most challenging marketing endeavors.

Find out how one travel industry startup launched its mobile app through a combination of high-touch customer support, social media outreach and traditional public relations, to make it to an app store's top spot in the competitive online travel industry category.
by David Kirkpatrick, Reporter

CHALLENGE

Sometimes the product, the brand and the company are all one in the same. When this is the case, a product launch is also technically the company launch.

With an entirely new brand and corporate name to market, the effort needs to reach, and resonate with, the target audience. Especially when the new product launch enters a business filled with deep-pocketed competitors, such as the travel industry.

HotelTonight faced this very challenge. The company was formed last September, officially launched the beta of its free mobile app for last-minute hotel deals in December, and began officially marketing the app in January.

Find out how it combined traditional media outreach tactics with social media marketing and extensive customer service efforts, to reach the top Apple App Store position in the travel category ... more than once.


CAMPAIGN

Sam Shank, CEO, HotelTonight, said the company is his third startup in the online travel space. He stated that with HotelTonight he saw an opportunity, despite travel being a crowded market. He saw that no company was focusing on the last-minute hotel booking window, and no one had built a mobile-only online travel agency.

"We saw the opportunity on the marketing and branding side," he explained. "The challenges were just getting awareness within a market with a lot of other brands out there that have multi-hundred million dollar budgets."


Step #1. Encourage your customer to spread the word

Shank described the "key pillar" of HotelTonight's marketing strategy as providing a quality product and customer support, to create word-of-mouth buzz from satisfied customers.

"The strategy is to make sure everybody has an incredible experience using the application," he stated.

In order to create that "incredible experience" and quality product, HotelTonight sought to differentiate itself in several ways:

o The deals offered
o The user experience and aesthetics of the product
o The speed of booking compared to competition

Another way the company works to make sure its users have a good experience is by offering 24/7 customer support to solve issues when something goes wrong, or when a customer has a problem like booking the right room or even just finding the hotel.

"We make sure that everybody has a great experience so that they will tell people after their stay that this is something new and unique, and it was a great experience," said Shank.

- Give your customers an incentive to share their experience

Provide your customer with a positive experience and they might share that with friends. Give your customer a reason to share that experience in the form of an incentive and the likelihood goes up.

"We see people really wanting to tell other people [about their HotelTonight experiences], but we wanted to give them an incentive to do so, to really encourage them, to accelerate it, and to provide a catalyst for this viral marketing."

The result was a "tell a friend" marketing program where users can invite friends right from the app site by email, or through a Facebook or Twitter post, and receive $25 every time a new friend joins HotelTonight. The friend also receives $25 when they book their first room through the app.

HotelTonight users can invite an unlimited number of friends through the program.


Step #2. Utilize social media marketing

Because mobile computing and social media are such natural fits, it makes sense that HotelTonight expends a lot of marketing effort in social channels. This effort also ties directly into step #1 above, on encouraging customer feedback, interaction and sharing.

The company's main focus is on Facebook and Twitter, and Facebook in particular has become an important way for HotelTonight to connect with its customers.

"One of the challenges is that this is an app," explained T.J. DeGroat, Social Media Marketer, HotelTonight, "Everything is locked up in the app, so that led to [users] checking the app every single day and they still might miss out on some of the new, exciting content."

Facebook provided HotelTonight with the platform to share its content, such as videos or announcement of new hotels added to the app. Both Facebook and Twitter are used to announce specials or extra deals.

And Twitter and Facebook provide the company with an opportunity to respond to user needs, questions and concerns, as well.

DeGroat offered an example of a customer asking a question on Facebook, to which HotelTonight was able to provide an answer. But, along with the company's response, another HotelTonight user also shared a story about a similar situation they faced, and how HotelTonight solved that issue as well.

The customer gets a response to the issue at hand, and by creating an atmosphere where app users are satisfied and willing to share their experiences, HotelTonight received a positive affirmation of its customer support from another user.

DeGroat added just monitoring social media channels helps the company keep an eye out for potential problems.

"A lot of times we are able to reach out without [the user] actually directly asking for help," he said. "And that has proven to be very effective in how they view us."

- Use social media to target new market areas

The company started one Facebook effort that spilled over into Twitter, as well. Instead of targeting its main audience of early tech adopters, the campaign reached out to mothers encouraging them to take a "break-cation" and to share stories about why they deserve that break in the form of a night off in a hotel.

These stories began collecting anywhere from 15 to 100 comments on each post, and many "likes." Eventually everyone adding stories and comments to the campaign started sharing these posts with friends and family on Facebook and Twitter, introducing an entire new group of people to the HotelTonight app.

- Move outside the box with social media

Facebook and Twitter command the most attention, but HotelTonight does continue to identify social networks that offer a cross-section of its main target audience, the tech early-adopter community, such as Tumblr, Instagram, Foursquare and Turntable.fm.

Of these additional channels, Turntable.fm is most "outside" of HotelTonight's brand. Turntable is a way to connect people in listening to music, and the idea from HotelTonight's perspective is to, as DeGroat put it, "share a part of our brand with the music that we think exemplifies our brand."

"Turntable.fm is a non-obvious place that a hotel website would be," explained Shank.

He added it makes sense because its core target audience is using the channel, and, "It's just great visibility, and shows that we are not only giving in terms of great deals, we are also giving in terms of
being a community participant."


Step #3. Don't forget about traditional media outreach

Because the product is a mobile app and social media is such a main piece of the marketing pie, it could have been easy for HotelTonight to overlook traditional media outreach in the form of public relations and seeking organic media exposure. Overlooking this marketing area would have been a mistake.

HotelTonight hired an outside firm to handle public relations, and coupled that firmsí experience with Shank's online travel community contacts developed during previous business ventures.

One aspect of this effort that helped make it successful was what might be considered luck -- or maybe just taking advantage of an opportunity.

HotelTonight launched during a time where it could exploit the intersection of several trends that were grabbing media attention:

o Mobile computing in general

o Mobile applications

o The "deal" space (Groupon, etc.)

o The "instant commerce" trend (i.e., "I don't know what I'm interested in until right now")

Because HotelTonight combined all of these areas with a new product in a crowded travel industry market, it was able to get stories in major outlets such as: USA Today, CBS News, Forbes, TechCrunch and Time.

One way it grabbed that organic media exposure was by carefully crafting story angles for each media outlet's audience that offered a story beyond just the HotelTonight mobile app.

For example, the TechCrunch piece was a video story that involved walking around San Francisco for an hour and a half and booking three hotel rooms from the app interspersed with commentary about mobile and hotel industry trends.

"It worked out really well for both of us," said Shank. "It was really compelling visuals and a really compelling story for them. And of course for us it was really nice and immersive."



RESULTS


The most interesting result of the product launch effort is in a very crowded travel app space, HotelTonight has reached number one in the App Store category twice. Both occurred around media pushes that included organic publicity in major media outlets.

The app has ranked as the #1 download in the travel category on Apple's App Store, maintains a steady top 25 position in the App Store travel category, and even reached number 35 overall.

Other notable metrics include:

o HotelTonight's cost-per-download is $0.20

o 60% of customers come in through word-of-mouth or social media; 40% from mobile

o From 0 to 70,071 Facebook fans in around nine months

o One initiative in June to increase Facebook activity boosted average daily active users by 51%

o From 0 to 6,791 Twitter followers in around nine months

At launch, HotelTonight set a goal of $2.00 for loyal user acquisition, defined as someone who has taken action beyond downloading the app that can be directly tied to ROI, such as user registration or an in-app purchase. HotelTonight is achieving loyal user acquisition "well below" its targeted value of $2.00.

Shank said customer expectations are higher with mobile marketing or launching a mobile product compared to website commerce, and that customers are empowered to have a voice and share feedback, positive or negative, through social media or reviews at the App Store.

An important result of this effort for him was being ready to address this feedback, and preventing negative responses by providing what he described as, "a stellar experience."


Useful links related to this article

CREATIVE SAMPLES:
1. Example of HotelTonight deals
2. Customer interaction on Facebook
3. Twitter deal

HotelTonight

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See Also:

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