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Since the rise of Facebook and Twitter, leveraging the PR potential of social networking sites has become the next big thing in marketing. A number of brands are doing impressive work with establishing customer relationships, while keeping their ears on the ground about what the public thinks of them. This approach is especially valid in China, arguably more than anywhere else, where there is a sweeping trend for online users to engage in social networking activities.

The tourism industry is no less actively involved, energetically engaging in social network promotion and advertising. While some of this activity, due to sheer volume if nothing else, undoubtedly hits the mark, valid questions arise about the depth of impact of much of these efforts. There is solid ground to predict that social networking is not just a trend but will become an even bigger industry in the future, especially when more and more successful models appear, but there are much stronger forces on the Internet working in tandem with SNS (social networking sites) to influence consumer behavior.

All too often, content published by online PR efforts are in stark contrast to what Chinese netizens find when they look for supporting information about a destination. Taking a real example to illustrate, one destination has a beautiful website and adequate online social network exposure, but gets hammered by a Baidu search when a top query result describes visa procedures as a nightmare. Not only does sentiment differ between the two spheres (official and informal sources of information), but so does exposure. In the case cited above, over a given time span, the official website and SNS are viewed by over 10,000 users, but this one negative blog alone was read by over 300,000 people.

The chart below gives the latest statistics showing how surfers retrieve information online.

As the trend watchers from Frog Design put it, “We are leaving the Information Age and entering the Recommendation Age.” Similarly, Chris Anderson, author of the highly acclaimed book The Long Tail, writes about “the power of collective intelligence,” in which tastemakers (ordinary people who are actually not thinking of themselves as giving recommendations) influence the opinions of millions by the way they create or spread messages.

In cyberspace, as in real life, when people talk about you they influence your reputation. What’s more, online there is plenty of chatter, not only about every destination, but also about airlines, hotel chains and other brands involved in the tourism industry. Whether you like it or not, your brand’s reputation is in the hands of others. So what can be done?

Many brands, even whole countries, have started madly posting as much positive information about themselves as possible. It is evident, upon reflection, that this approach is vulnerable to one or both of the following pitfalls: a. if cyberspace PR is not done professionally, the few hundred posts will vanish in the ocean of online content and b. if it is written like content by China’s so-called “water army” (masses of low paid writers that are generating thousands of posts, all positive but without substance, a day about their clients), the public easily detects the real sources, content is seen as mere propaganda, and PR efforts will backfire.

The only way to skillfully and effectively control your reputation is to do professional online reputation management. A professional approach allows you to connect with the online world and engage in the communications that are continually happening about you, even at this moment. This starts with permanently monitoring all new news and posts, and then becoming part of the conversation. When done professionally online reputation management works wonders. Our team at Astronaut continually monitors our clients’ reputations and identifies strategic points where we become involved. Rather than generating a mass of inflated commentary, we skillfully engage the online public, provide them authoritative information that they are looking for on a daily basis, and change opinions.

Evidence shows the significant and measurable results of online PR that is done right. The success of Astronaut’s online reputation management (ORM) program, for one, is clear by examining the following parameters:
a. Online attention. For a recent client, initially extremely low attention levels on the Chinese Internet began an immediate steady rise from the day that we launched our ORM campaign (the dot on the graph).
b. Top query results. Content originating from us showed up at the top of search engine query results (shown highlighted), one of the most influential forces shaping your reputation.
c. Replication. Conversations sparked by us (original content shown in top box) were picked up and reposted by other users, proving that, when done right, quality PR spreads freely and carries good sentiment with it.

Astronaut is the first company to offer online reputation management for the tourism industry on the Chinese Internet. If you would like to find out more, we invite you to get in touch with us.

isabella@astronaut-travel.com

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Michael Kaltenhauser

Founder and director of Astronaut, a marketing agency based in Beijing which is specialized on promoting destinations to Chinese outbound tourists

Laura Hine

Online Communications Assistant at Astronaut