Recently I had the pleasure to take my second cruise with the fantastic folks over at Carnival. While laying back on my lounge chair, sipping Bahama Mamas and BBC cocktails it dawned on me that Carnival has not just mastered "digital" social media, but in fact the entire cruise was essentially a giant exercise in social commerce. This was evident from the moment sent in my final payment all the way down to the waiters walking around with drinks.
That isn't to say that it was bad - frankly I LOVE the fact that cruises on Carnival are so incredibly cheap and that they still somehow manage to delivery an extraordinary experience for that price. That being said, it doesn't take a genius to realize that with a ticket price (per person) of under $300 for a five day cruise that they are hoping to make up extra revenue somewhere.
So, the trick is - how do you make the social commerce experience fun, engaging, and effective - without completely turning off your customer?
Create Fun "Educational" Events!
From "art auctions" to "alcohol tastings" and "blackjack classes" there was always an opportunity to try something new - and while fun, it often ended up in learning how to buy something. One key example was that before arriving in each port there was a "Shopping Seminar" to help eager shoppers learn about the "best deals" and "special products to look for". Typically, this centered around making sure you used the shopping map provided by the shopping expert and "make sure you give the shop owner your VIP shopping pass". At each session, there was a questions and answers period as well as prizes to help get the crowd excited about what wonderful treasures awaited them in the next port ... don't miss the Tanzanite!!!
Another similar example was the "Past Guest Appreciation Party" where free drinks were used to draw people into the room and then conversation topics were flashed on the screen while guests chatted about their past cruise experiences and guests asked each other questions about other destinations and ships in the Carnival fleet. The Cruise Director then played a video - encouraging people to cheer when ships they had sailed on were shown - followed by "don't forget to book your future cruise while on-board and get up to $200 in on-board credit!"
Lesson Learned: You can drive retail sales by gathering a group of people together and empowering them with information that they want to share, while making it entertaining and also exclusive. Also, because time is limited these events drove strong urgancy demand.
How to Replicate on Social Media: Google+ Hangouts and Twitter parties can help gather people together where the marketer can educate the crowd about new products, how to find the best deals etc, and then offer prizes, incentives, exclusive coupons to generate excitement, engagement, and maintain the crowd's attention till the end.
Knowing and Engaging with Your Customers is Key!
Essentially drinks are a commodity with a fixed price - they come from the same bar and cost the same price, regardless of where you are on the ship or who carries them. While not every member of the crew is outgoing and extraordinary, we did notice (personal and observation of others) that crew members who were fun and had a shtick tended to be carrying more drinks and I was more likely to buy from a guy that I knew ... even if I didn't really need another drink. For example, one particular waiter referred to me jokingly as "Mr Heather" - because I typically grabbed my wife's "Sail & Sign" card. He also wore a very distinct pair of white sun glasses. I bought drinks from him - just because he was fun and engaging.
Lesson Learned: You can drive retail sales by hiring superior talent willing to engage with customers. Additionally, from a corporate perspective, having a strong brand that makes customers comfortable to buy from you vs your competitor, will attract customers to buy from YOU - even if that means driving by your competitor.
Additionally, by being engaging, the successful waiters developed a relationship with customers. The less successful ones simply walked by holding their tray and either waited for someone to flag them down or said non-personalized pitches that almost never resonated - unless I truly did need something.
How to Replicate on Social Media: While "social media" tends to be focused on digital media, it is equally important to ensure that the store experience matches that experience you are trying to create online. From a purely digital perspective though, imagine your tweets and Facebook posts as the waiter. Each one needs to have an objective and make the customer excited and comfortable buying from YOU and not the "other guys".
Create a Superior Product and Empower Customers to Share!
Cruises aren't for everyone, and for everyone who loves Carnival, there are people who love Royal Caribbean and Norwegian. However, it is critical that you have a superior product and that marketing efforts match expectations. Carnival's brand is very clear - they are The Fun Ships. They are also the best VALUE and that is abundantly clear with large rooms, fewer "upcharges" for dining/room service, a leniant alcohol policy (bottle of wine per person may be brought on board and liquor bottles may be purchased for those who prefer to mix their own drinks or make them stronger.).
Across the entire cruise experience Carnival and its crew worked hard to ensure that the experience was fabulous and worked to make sure that customers were in a position to share that experience with others.
This sharing was encouraged from little things like free postcards of the ship that you could send, all the way to perks like if you reserved a cruise on-board you could get (up to) $200 in on-board credit AND that same deal for three other friends. Back on land of course, Carnival also has an extremely adept social media team that has integrated sharing into the website effectively as well as a Facebook and twitter community of customers and future customers that they continuously engage with. (I wish though that they would enable complimentary access to twitter and Facebook via the onboard internet - but 3,000 people uploading vacation photos would probably kill the network's bandwidth too quickly.)
Even during the cruise, every night you have dinner together. Unless you are in a large group, you will typically sit at an eight-person table and people will share their experiences that day, what they are looking forward to doing tomorrow (sell those shore excursions!), and what ships / destinations you are looking forward to trying next.
Lesson Learned: If you give people a great experience, they will tend to be repeat customers. When you give them an opportunity to share the experience they will tend to do so and they know their social circles FAR better than your marketing department EVER will.
How to Replicate on Social Media: The first part is obvious and frankly "good brands" have the advantage here, but even brands with problems still have an opportunity but they will need to listen to the customers and not just "marketing experts". The second part is that via social tactics such as viral coupons and "bring a friend" offers, brands can reach new customers by leveraging existing customer's social graphs. Thirdly, it is essentially to gather these customers together - both to encourage them to buy again, but also to share their experiences with their friends.