When is Brand Evangelism a Crime? Exploring the Royal Caribbean Promotional Marketing Strategy

My husband Brian, who knows firsthand how much I eat, drink, and sleep social media, pointed me to an interesting critique by ExpertCruiser on a 2007 social media marketing campaign by Royal Caribbean.  That year, the cruise line launched a brand ambassador program.  Using market intelligence, Royal Caribbean identified supporters of the cruise line via social networking sites and took the opportunity to give fifty of the most ardent supporters, called Royal Champions, special privileges, including free paid cruises and invitations to special events with company executives.

In my upcoming book, The New Community Rules: Marketing on the Social Web (Amazon link), which is slated to be released in late Spring, I talk about the importance of brand evangelism as part of an effective community management strategy. Individuals who are passionate and who have never been previously incentivized to promote your product are already talking positively about you on the web. If they’re already raving about your awesome product and promoting your service for free, why not show them that you appreciate all they are doing and offer them additional perks? Why not encourage the spread of goodwill?

This is exactly the process of the Royal Caribbean marketing team, a move that in 2007 was seen as virtually unheard of. Only recently, however, this story has become widely critiqued, with bloggers calling the practice a “vicious … royal mess” that “crossed the line.” In fact, ExpertCruiser made a scathing comment at the end of the article that suggests that this is a filthy manipulative practice:

Like them or not, online cruise message boards are now part of the pool of intelligence gathering and rumor swapping used (and manipulated) by travel agents, cruise line employees, rabid cruise fans, investors, media and the curious to track the performance of a cruise line.

Perhaps this is a “take heed” call to community participants who engage on the social web, but while ExpertCruiser warns its readers that this is a scummy practice, in reality, scouring social sites for mentions of your product, service, and even your competitors is nothing new. The effective practice of social media marketing requires monitoring all channels, from online cruise message boards to social networking sites like Facebook or LinkedIn. If you are not tapping into the online message boards for your own industry or niche, you’re not doing a thorough job at monitoring the successes or failures of your product.  You are missing out on tremendous opportunity for growth and performance of competitive analysis.  If a forum exists for your industry, you should very well be active: you should participate and follow the discussion closely to know exactly what is being said and what kind of feedback you can take back to your executive and development team to enhance your product and to make it better than your competition.

Touching upon the original concern as expressed by the ExperCruiser bloggers, the sheer existence of brand evangelism and the utilization of related programs do not cross the line.  In Royal Caribbean’s case, they simply  tapped into the minds of individuals who already loved the cruise line and expressed themselves as supporters on social networking forums.  Using the same individuals who were already respected in these communities to speak of how much they enjoyed their cruise experience and subsequently by following up with free rewards is not a deceptive practice.  Loyalty programs such as the Royal Champions encourage people to maintain a positive outlook about the company and may further influence them to talk more positively about the same company in the future.  These individuals didn’t have to be paid to do it before, after all, but the nice unexpected perks are certainly not unappreciated.

Because this critical post of Royal Caribbean disappointed me, I polled my Twitter followers for feedback.  I asked to see if anyone disagreed with this promotional tactic, and if not, what kind of incentives they’d offer to their constituents if they chose to engage in a brand ambassador program.  Responses from participants were unanimously in favor of brand evangelism and encouraged offering small perks such as free customer service and a nice dinner to large rewards such as in the case of Royal Caribbean’s free cruise.

@dudester (Mark Patterson) says:
@tamar Brand evangelism is a good thing, as long as the brand is worth evangelizing. You need to live up to the brand.

@zaifmand (Dror Zaifman) says:
@tamar In my opinion brand evangelism is not a bad thing at all. If anything it makes your brand sound different and stand out.

@AdamBroitman (Adam Broitman) says:
@tamar why would brand evangelism be a bad thing? Bribery=bad; but there is a fine line

@skinner (skinner) says:
@tamar Maybe you’d offer a brand ambassador free customer service, free promotion in return, things like that.

@TimMoore (Tim Moore) says:
@tamar dinner certificate? For top advocates, 3 day cruises?

@amabaie (David Leonhardt) says:
@tamar Any type of evangelism is a bad thing if it’s too pushy; it’s a good thing if it is “helpful”…just like a salesperson. :-)

@vangogh (Steven Bradley) says:
@tamar Ideally nothing more than a good brand experience

@deirdrereid (Deirdre Reid) says:
@tamar Brand evang is a great thing. Incentives depend on brand type – how can u satisfy evang’s wants/needs, stroke their ego, incr recog?

@chiropractic (Planet Chiropractic) says:
@tamar I think it’s a good thing. Offer pre-release access to new products/services. Send free stuff. Say thank you a lot.

@dmasocialmedia (Social Media Smarts) says:
@tamar Sometimes all people want or need is recognition & acknowledgment to be good brand ambassadors

@ronhekier (Ron Hekier) says:
@tamar While others disagree I would support brand evangelists financially were I the vendor. But they usually will do it for schwag :)

The right kind of brand ambassador program does not necessarily demand forum participation thereafter, though they encourage it with a full disclosure of the participation.  However, chances are in many cases that you were already saying such nice things about that company and you’re likely to continue.  Because of your past participation, the company wanted to give a token of thanks to show their gratitude for your support.  A brand evangelism program encourages the commentary to be kept positive in the future.  Any company employing such an incentive program is certainly not participating in anything that is manipulative, questionable, or immoral in nature.

Do you think that Royal Caribbean crossed the line?  Or were they just smart enough to start something brilliant that aroused jealousy among those who were not picked for the program?  I’m compelled to suggest that Royal Caribbean has been on the right track throughout this entire ordeal in their innovative marketing tactic that they launched two years ago.  In fact, I recommend that other companies follow suit to encourage positive discourse and interactions.  They, too, should consider instituting a loyalty program that positively reinforces really good feedback about their own products and services.  What do you say, and how would you execute the program?

Tamar Weinberg is a hustler and juggler. She is the VP of Marketing at Ruxly Creative, a creative marketing agency. She's the Director of Sales at Internet Marketing Ninjas, a 100+ employee search engine marketing agency located in upstate New York. She also rocks global sales at financial media publication Wall St. Cheat Sheet. Finally, she is the Chief Strategy Officer of Small Business Trends. Oh wait, and she's also the community manager at Namecheap. Yeah, like a boss.

39 Comments

  • March 12, 2009

    Anna Green

    Brand evang i love it you can identify a true supporter who isn’t necessary expected any reward for there efforts. If i was giving away free perks id definitely want them to go to some one who wasn’t out to get something for nothing. It also demonstrates some very cleaver technology – a good side to whole big brother is watching you thing. It is also an excellent source of market research which people don’t have to fill out forms to supply.

  • March 12, 2009

    BarbaraKB

    Good analysis, Tamar. I have seen these programs work but I sometimes wonder if it’s worth all the effort considering the possible fall-out, as seen in your example. For me, social media is the loooong haul and not a brief campaign. Thankfully, more companies are realizing the need for this “slow burn.” Perhaps we will see better “strategy” and less “campaign” in the future? I hope so. Peace!

  • March 12, 2009

    arpit

    I think what Royal Caribbean did was perfectly normal. Had it been something weird like paid positive blog posts like a few companies had started doing, it would be a different story. The onus is on the people who were on the receiving end of the perks for full disclosure.

  • March 12, 2009

    Tamar Weinberg

    Barbara, it’s a good point, but I’m not sure it’s considered “fall out.” A lot of people get suspicious of marketing tactics that seem to invade their own territory, but what ExpertCruiser didn’t realize is that this isn’t a new practice. It definitely seems new to many, but it’s not.

    Sure, there will be skeptics of *any* marketing program, but I’m compelled to think in this case that the pros outweigh the cons. In this case, I’d imagine that there has been a tremendous amount of support and positive sentiment expressed toward the Royal Caribbean brand, and while there are some people who were upset that they didn’t get chosen (perhaps), the campaign seemed to have been an overwhelming success. Of course, I don’t have figures available, but I’ll definitely vouch for this being positive toward the cruise line’s brand.

    And to Royal Caribbean: I’ve never been on a cruise before in my entire life. ;)

  • March 12, 2009

    BarbaraKB

    Absolutely but one cannot help but notice that “premium” or “special” or “royal” does make **some** folks feel left out. Like country clubs of old? No brand should *ever* make folks (esp. if new to the experience of your brand) feel left out. Thus, perhaps lower the bar for entry? Again, you can have a loyalty program but be careful it does not become an exclusive program.

  • March 12, 2009

    Tamar Weinberg

    Oh, sure it does. It also should encourage them to be positive about the brand so that they, too, can be entitled to perks ;)

    I’m not sure how rigorous the selection process was, but others probably didn’t express the sentiment required by the company to be chosen. Sure, though, when you open a program like this, you have no choice but to exclude others — but that can always change as time goes on (and I’d hope it does)!

  • March 12, 2009

    Richard B.

    Very interesting topic! I am new to social media, but an old hand at marketing. In my opinion, this concept if applied correctly is a reasonable and positive marketing tactic. The main drawbacks would be (as noted by BarbaraKB) 1. that exclusion for some advocates is not taken as a negative, i.e., it changes their positive blog to a negative or neutral (they stop promoting) and 2. that those that are participating in the tactic do not diminish their online credibility, thus negating the positive effects of their brand promotion.

  • March 12, 2009

    RNB

    The actions of the cruise company are perfectly justifiable, if they consider the benefits of encouraging brand evangelists to outweigh possible negative media reaction, then great. That is original innovative marketing, making use of new social media. Splendid.

    But.

    Those people who accept the offers need to be wary. The full disclosure obligation is obvious. Yet a more subtle point, those who accept any gift or special treatment must accept that the brand’s acknowledgement (however small) changes their behaviour. And their opinions on the brand immediately carry diminished respect from the outside world as a result of their acceptance of the favour.

  • March 12, 2009

    John

    I cruise with Royal Caribbean and i’m a member of Cruisecritic. My own view on this is – CC members who are Royal Champions should disclose membership of this program so that impartiality and transparency is seen on the CC discussion forums.

  • March 12, 2009

    michala

    “Those people who accept the offers need to be wary. The full disclosure obligation is obvious. Yet a more subtle point, those who accept any gift or special treatment must accept that the brand’s acknowledgement (however small) changes their behaviour. And their opinions on the brand immediately carry diminished respect from the outside world as a result of their acceptance of the favour.”

    well said

    “It also should encourage them to be positive about the brand so that they, too, can be entitled to perks”

    And that is the rest of the story, and the credibility of the board, EVEN if it requires disclosure (which cruise critic has not, even taking steps to stop the spread of information about RC’s by deleting threads)goes right down the toilet! In the long run, did the viral marketing campaign result in more positives, or negatives? I’d say the latter once the cat got out of the bag.

  • March 12, 2009

    Tamar Weinberg

    Michala – I’m not saying you should be a sycophant and kiss up to be entitled to perks, so I apologize for the confusion there. But if you’re already positive about the brand, my impression is that you should NOT be negative simply because you thought you were being excluded. Of course, if you consistently show that you love the brand, you may be acknowledged as a brand advocate in the future, which is exactly what brand evangelism programs should try to promote.

    I feel that perhaps the big issue here is that 50 people were chosen. I’d hope that additional users and loyalists would be chosen in the future.

    Did the viral marketing campaign result in negatives? You reference Cruise Critic, where a lot of this post’s visitors have come from today. Clearly, the sentiment there is negative as I gathered when I figured out where you all came from ;) My thoughts is that there’s mostly a “why didn’t I get picked?” mentality there. If these Royal Champion folks were bloggers and focused their posts outside the cruise community and to possible prospects, the sentiment wouldn’t have been that of “I didn’t get chosen” but rather “this looks cool,” perhaps. While it was a GREAT idea to tap into the intelligence of individuals on a cruise message board, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of loyal Royal Caribbean customers who likely felt slighted, which I think you’ve been reading on these cruise-related websites.

    Again, this process of choosing brand evangelists is nothing new in the marketing space. People will always feel excluded if there’s a “selection process.” But I don’t think Royal Caribbean screwed up. I just think that the *active* cruise community is definitely a bit disappointed.

  • March 12, 2009

    Alysson

    There’s a fine line between offering someone an incentive for being a brand evangelist and bribing someone to inflate or manufacture an experience with the intent to defraud potential customers.

    Leveraging the power of social media to locate people already discussing a great experience with your brand and then showing appreciation for their taking the time to be a brand evangelist by giving an incentive – be it schwag, discounts, free upgrades, etc. – is a good thing. Paying or bribing someone outright to inaccurately portray an experience or make up a positive experience altogether, that clearly crosses the line.

  • March 12, 2009

    Tamar Weinberg

    Well said, Aly. I think we all agree on that point!

  • March 13, 2009

    michala

    “if you consistently show that you love the brand, you may be acknowledged as a brand advocate in the future, which is exactly what brand evangelism programs should try to promote.” – and you think this would not promote sychophant behavior?

    50 people were chosen on the first round, aprx 25 on the second. Well, I only saw a couple, one good sized, post that vanished, and have only monitored the “sticky,” but my impression is very different than yours. I did however spend a little time looking at the locked thread, the one mentioned in the Potter article, which started this all, and I do understand why, without looking farther, one might feel there is a jealousy. That thread was started by a diamond member who felt that perks should go to those who had showed loyalty with their dollars — a reasonable position to take, so I don’t even think that shows jealousy. I happen to think that tax breaks ought to go to us who pay taxes, but then the sought after result, be it in viral marketing or economic stimulus, is not about rewarding loyal behavior, it’s about generating ADDITIONAL economic activity.

    I think the sticky at cruise critic displays some incredibly interesting dynamics. You have the Champions who are not being attacked on that thread, playing victims. They feel they are being accused of being bought, that a free short cruise or dinner doesn’t amount to compensation, especially since they paid for their transportation to get to the “event” and that even though RCCL stated that the company monitors their posts after an event for “positiveness” and “frequency”, that no one should assume that they are anything less than objective. Other posters are agreeing that the Champions ARE victims, unwitting victims of RCCL’s viral marketing ploy, since virtually none of them were told what the whole thing was about (until yesterday’s email from RCCL)and only came to learn it when the locked thread’s OP cited the marketing conference where RCCL spoke of “subtly influencing the influencers.” You have those that recognize that the crux of the issue really has nothing to do with the Royal Champions per se, but involves what they call “transparency”, adhering to the ethical code of the word of mouth marketing association, if not the FTC guidelines. And those who see that the big loser is the message board’s credibility, and by extention, other board’s credibility, also.

    Jealousy claims, as I see them, become the abused “victim’s” dismissive cry giving them emotional cover for what they can’t intellectually address — they have been played. RCCL’s own words at that conference tells the tale: Hannock noted, “The key to success in viral marketing is to subtly influence the influencers without them overtly realizing they are being influenced.” That’s the definition of “played”,imo,and we are back to RNB’s excellent comment.

  • March 13, 2009

    Tamar Weinberg

    “and you think this would not promote sychophant behavior?”

    Will it? Did Royal Caribbean, when they first chose their 50 Champions, encourage sycophantic behavior? Nope — those brand evangelists were ALREADY present.

    But you’re right — with your last comment, I was unaware of the lack of transparency handled with this issue. That was probably the biggest misstep of all in this case. If you’re going to have a program like this, transparency is absolutely critical.

    Thanks for your thoughts and feedback.

  • March 13, 2009

    michala

    “Will it? Did Royal Caribbean, when they first chose their 50 Champions, encourage sycophantic behavior? Nope — those brand evangelists were ALREADY present.”

    No argument, but I understood your point to be that OTHERS who wanted to become “evangelists” and get the perks — “… (w)should encourage them to be positive about the brand so that they, too, can be entitled to perks.” I would also submit that without an analysis, we really do not know if the original champions became more evangelisitic (sychophantic?) as a result of being chosen. Certainly RCCL says it felt the results were worth their efforts, so it can be assumed, I believe, there had to be
    gain in evangelism, whether by the champions or others, which goes back to my/your point.

    We agree on the biggest misstep.

    Now that my interest has been piqued on the issue, I will look for your book. It’s a brave (???) new world, and while I was a bit aware of this sort of thing because of its use in the last presidential campaign (a first for those of us who have been active in the political world), I guess I wasn’t aware how wide spread or accepted the practice is in commerce — that an associtation has been around to try to bring an ethical code to it since 2005. Thanks for helping to further my education in it.

  • March 13, 2009

    Debra Creighton

    Having worked for a major air carrier, I know from experience that the loudest complainers, about the most insignificant thing, were rewarded with a free trip. So, it makes me very happy to see the best customers, calm, happy people, showered with perks. Isn’t that what every business wants–great “word of mouth” advertising. Doubt the whiners will change their tune, though. My one and only cruise was free, I won it. Though, I travel a lot, cruising is not my usual style of vacation. However, it was it was a great cruise to Alaska, superb in every way. Free did not make me give a great report.

    Every travel writer knows the creditability risk one takes when recommending a resort or cruise that one stays at for free.

    Leveraging the power of social medium can be a very good thing. But, as always, let the buyer beware.

  • [...] [...]

  • March 14, 2009

    john

    LATEST from Cruisecritic in this saga

    I would like to address the issue of transparency and responsibility
    for disclosure that has come up a number of times in this thread.

    Some have requested that Cruise Critic have a formal policy requiring
    RC’s to identify themselves as such. While we can encourage members
    to disclose their affiliations, it’s impossible for us to require
    it. We are operating an anonymous online community and there’s no
    way for us to verify that anyone is who they say they are or aren’t.

    Many of those who identify themselves as Royal Champions, have been
    doing so since they were first called that, in their signatures on
    the Cruise Critic message boards. To my knowledge they never tried
    to hide it, and in fact were pretty open about it.

    Was it the RC’s responsibility to disclose that they were part of a
    viral marketing program? Based on what I have read on the Cruise
    Critic boards, I don’t think the RC’s knew they were part of a viral
    marketing program until the recent articles in question came out. I
    also don’t think they were told to do anything specifically on Cruise
    Critic. Nor do I think Royal Caribbean had or has any control over
    what they say here.

    Was it Cruise Critic’s responsibility to disclose what Royal
    Caribbean was doing with its Royal Champion’s program? Royal
    Caribbean isn’t in the habit of sharing all of the details of its
    marketing programs with Cruise Critic. When Bill Hayden first
    contacted us two years ago, it was in regards to forwarding an
    invitation to some Cruise Critic members they wanted to invite on the
    Liberty of the Seas pre-inaugural sailing. There was no mention of a
    Royal Champions viral marketing program at that time. Most of what
    we know about the program, we have learned here on the Cruise Critic
    boards.

    Contrary to what some of you may believe, we have never tried to
    censor discussions about Royal Champions on the Cruise Critic message
    boards. If you search the boards you will find thousands of threads
    with that term in them. When this recent debate started there were
    multiple threads containing personal attacks and copyrighted material
    in them and our staff was overwhelmed. We also believe most people
    come here to discuss cruise advice, not Royal Caribbean’s marketing
    programs, hence the sticky.

    Overall, it is my personal opinion that the Cruise Critic members who
    identify themselves as Royal Champions love to share their cruise
    experiences and are some of the most helpful and candid members of
    Cruise Critic. I think they give great advice and will tell you
    candidly what they like as well as what they don’t like. They did so
    before they were chosen to be a Royal Champion. And they continued
    to do so after they were chosen. I want to thank them for their
    contributions over the years to the Cruise Critic community and I am
    deeply saddened by some of the things that have been said here about
    them.

    Some of us would like to go back to talking about cruises. While I
    would like to think this discussion has run its course, I know that
    some of you will want to continue to debate it. We are going to
    rename this thread shortly and unsticky it. Just wanted to let you
    know ahead of time so you don’t think it’s been censored!

    Kathleen Tucker
    Publisher
    Cruise Critic

  • March 15, 2009

    michala

    I certainly would agree that it is impossible for websites to police affiliations, but it is also disingenous to imply that CC ever encouraged transparency from the Champions. Some Champions did self disclose, but not to present tranparency, as they did not know they were involved in a viral marketing campaign, but because they were honored and proud to be chosen — others did not. Those who did self disclose did it on their signature lines, which quite routinely are blocked by those who wish to use the boards with greater ease. Some signature lines can be nearly a half page long. CC does encourage disclosing affiliations when TA’s sign up for the site, however, and let’s them know that no solicitating will be allowed.

    This bruhaha does present some interesting questions for the ethical code of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association since CC claims the Champions were clueless as to how they were being used, and that CC was clueless as well. What we are being told,is the nefarious “subtle” “influencing of the influencers” without them being overtly aware that they were being used in a viral marketing campaign was known ONLY to Royal Caribbean.

    Kathleen says at the time of the first free cruise, there was no mention of a viral marketing campaign. However, there was later, as CC’s manager spoke at a conference about it, virtually parroting Hannock’s words about “influencing the influencers.” I could not say what the timing was without researching the dates of the conference. The ethical question then, becomes, what is the transparency obligation when a site DOES learn that it and its members are being used for viral marketing?

    Who should known what, when; who are all the parties who have an obligation to be transparent; how can transparency be effectuated on the internet; should sites prominently post that they adhere to the WOMMA ethical guidelines, and let the association do the policing (even the professions have not always done a good job at policing their own), or is there a need for legislation, particularly when children are being used, as was the case, evidently, in this instance.

  • March 16, 2009

    Paul

    I think the very resulting negative feedback Royal Caribbean Line is getting on the travel forums is an example of the risk these programs have. People feel cheated and mis-used. Those negatives will take a long time to turn around in a marketplace with plenty of other brand offerings to take Royal caribbean’s place.

  • March 16, 2009

    MLDina

    Hey Tamar- Great seeing you this weekend and congrats! You’ll have to keep us updated. ;P

    I love what Royal Caribbean did, and don’t see why rewards fans would be so controversial. Unless the program was limited, there’s no reason why other customers who became fans couldn’t enjoy the same incentives. It’s a great non-traditional way to reach out to your loyal followers and fans and thank them for their business.

  • March 16, 2009

    john

    Kathleen Tucker
    What is a Royal Champion?

    Over the past week there has been heated debate, conjecture, misinformation, and misinterpretation about the Royal Caribbean marketing program called Royal Champions, as a result of how it was portrayed recently on some blogs.

    Here is an official statement from Royal Caribbean about the program:

    Royal Champions are a small group of passionate travel enthusiasts and prolific individuals, who were identified by an independent third party on behalf of Royal Caribbean International, as frequently engaging in online discussions and sharing information about cruising on the internet. With the proliferation of online social networks, blogs and discussion boards on the internet – many of which serve as forums where vacationers visit consistently in search for travel information and advice – Royal Caribbean decided to engage these enthusiasts knowing that they would be a valuable source of information for our current and prospective customers. Thus in early 2007, in keeping with our legacy of innovation, we initiated a program in which the Royal Champions were invited to learn more about our brand, our ships and our amenities.

    We have provided the Royal Champions with the opportunity to experience our product during pre-inaugural sailings so that they can provide their independent opinions in the online spaces they are participating in. On a few occasions, they also have served as focus groups providing us with valuable feedback on a number of topics. Royal Champions have been invited – along with traditional media, top travel partners, and loyal Crown & Anchor Society members – to preview new ships and programs and share their opinions if, when and how they see fit. They are responsible for their own travel arrangements and expenses, which are not paid by Royal Caribbean. Royal Champions do not receive any compensation for their participation nor do we influence what they share, where they share it, or how they participate in their online discussions.

    We are gratified by the enthusiasm these Royal Champions have for cruising and our goal is to continue to incorporate their insights to continually improve the Royal Caribbean vacation experience for all of our guests.

    Here is an official statement from Cruise Critic:

    Royal Caribbean contacted Cruise Critic and asked us to obtain permission from a group of members they gave us, so that they could extend an invitation to Liberty of the Seas pre-inaugural sailings in May, 2007. We agreed to forward the information on to this group of members, and asked for their permission to share their contact information with Royal Caribbean. This is Cruise Critic’s sole involvement in this program. We did not help develop the program, nor did we help choose the participants. At the time of the request there was no formal name associated with this group or program; we were merely asked to forward an invitation to an event on behalf of Royal Caribbean. We received a second, similar request, in October, 2008.

    We have absolutely no reason to believe that any Royal Champion has done anything other than express his or her own candid opinion about Royal Caribbean’s products. They share both positive and negative opinions and give helpful advice and information. They did this before they became a Royal Champion and they continued to do so after. As a result, Cruise Critic welcomes them along with any other member who wants to share his or her opinions about Royal Caribbean in this forum.

    Some have requested that Cruise Critic have a formal policy requiring Royal Champions to identify themselves as such. While we can suggest that members disclose their affiliations, it’s unrealistic for us to require it and impossible to enforce. We are operating an anonymous online community and there’s no way for us to verify that anyone is or isn’t who they say they are. As a result it will continue to be a policy that we will not require Royal Champions or any member of any other group to identify themselves.

    At this time, we have decided that it is not in Cruise Critic’s best interest going forward to contact members on behalf of Royal Caribbean or any other cruise line.

    For more information about the Royal Champions program, see Cruise Critic’s Q&A with Bill Hayden, Royal Caribbean’s Associate Vice President of Marketing:

    http://boards.cruisecritic.com/showp…&postcount=287

    Kathleen Tucker
    Publisher, Cruise Critic

  • [...] and design any social media strategy. The community is the ultimate driver and authority. Even if you compel creators, if the community doesn’t buy into it you have no tangible return on investment. And thus, [...]

  • March 17, 2009

    john

    From Travelmole – The Biggest Travel and Tourism Industry Website

    Royal Caribbean accused of manipulating online user content

    Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines has been accused of manipulating online user content on websites such as Cruise Critic.

    According to reports that first broke in the US, Royal Caribbean has been giving free cruises and other perks to a small group of fans who post praise about its cruises on sites such as Cruise Critic.

    Reports say the group, called the Royal Champions, has been active since 2007.

    A Travelmole source, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “It is clear that RCCL’s Royal Champions initiative has created an uneven playing field, not only on the Cruise Critic bulletin boards, but, quite possibly, in regard to user reviews in their main content area.

    “What makes this particularly egregious is Cruise Critic’s responsibility for facilitating the programme.

    “Cruise Critic provided RCCL, a Cruise Critic advertiser and marketing partner, with the contact information of Cruise Critic “members” to be invited to join the programme and receive such inducements as free cruises.

    “By giving such an advantage to RCCL, Cruise Critic has displayed a callous disregard for its users.

    “Does this clandestine programme, facilitated and with the full knowledge of Cruise Critic’s management, violate the policies and ethical standards of Trip Advisor, which relies on the integrity of its user generated content?”

    In response, a spokesman for Cruise Critic said: “Royal Caribbean contacted Cruise Critic and asked us to obtain permission from a group of members they gave us, so that they could extend an invitation to Liberty of the Seas pre-inaugural sailings in May, 2007.

    “We agreed to forward the information on to this group of members, and asked for their permission to share their contact information with Royal Caribbean.

    “This is Cruise Critic’s sole involvement in this programme. We did not help develop the programme, nor did we help choose the participants.

    “At the time of the request there was no formal name associated with this group or programme; we were merely asked to forward an invitation to an event on behalf of Royal Caribbean. We received a second, similar request, in October, 2008.

    “We have absolutely no reason to believe that any Royal Champion has done anything other than express his or her own candid opinion about Royal Caribbean’s products.

    “They share both positive and negative opinions and give helpful advice and information. They did this before they became a Royal Champion and they continued to do so after. As a result, Cruise Critic welcomes them along with any other member who wants to share his or her opinions about Royal Caribbean in this forum.

    “Some have requested that Cruise Critic have a formal policy requiring Royal Champions to identify themselves as such. While we can suggest that members disclose their affiliations, it’s unrealistic for us to require it and impossible to enforce.

    “We are operating an anonymous online community and there’s no way for us to verify that anyone is or isn’t who they say they are. As a result it will continue to be a policy that we will not require Royal Champions or any member of any other group to identify themselves.

    “At this time, we have decided that it is not in Cruise Critic’s best interest going forward to contact members on behalf of Royal Caribbean or any other cruise line.”

    In a statement, Royal Caribbean said: “Royal Champions are a small group of passionate travel enthusiasts and prolific individuals, who were identified by an independent third party on behalf of Royal Caribbean International, as frequently engaging in online discussions and sharing information about cruising on the internet.

    “With the proliferation of online social networks, blogospheres and discussion boards on the internet – many of which serve as forums where vacationers visit consistently in search for travel information and advice – Royal Caribbean decided to engage these enthusiasts knowing that they would be a valuable source of information for our current and prospective guests.

    “Thus in early 2007, in keeping with our legacy of innovation, we initiated a programme in which the Royal Champions were invited to learn more about our brand, our ships and our amenities.

    “We have provided the Royal Champions with the opportunity to experience our product during inaugural sailings so that they can provide their opinions and reviews in the online spaces they are participating in.

    “On a few occasions, they also have served as focus groups providing us with valuable feedback on a number of topics including new programming that is being tested onboard our ships, new ship amenities, or special news events.

    “Royal Champions have been invited – along with traditional media, top travel partners, and loyal Crown & Anchor Society members – to preview new ships and programmes and share their opinions if, when and how they see fit.

    “They are responsible for their own travel arrangements and expenses which are not paid by Royal Caribbean. Royal Champions do not receive any compensation for their participation nor do we influence what they share or how they participate in their online discussions.

    “We are gratified by the enthusiasm these Royal Champions have for cruising and our goal is to continue to incorporate their insights to continually improve the Royal Caribbean vacation experience for all of our guests.”

    By Bev Fearis

  • March 17, 2009

    john

    Cruise Critic have now banned any Discussion on the matter.

    A sad state of affairs

  • March 17, 2009

    Stuart Falk

    IS RCCL Manipulating CruiseCritic.com (owned by Trip Advisor)?

    Jaunted.com

    No surprise here: Royal Caribbean Cruise Line has a viral infection. For once, however, it’s not the Norovirus but that new-fangled byproduct of Web 2.0, the viral marketing infiltration. According to Consumerist, a group of fifty “Royal Champions” was outed by their own creator, the Customer Insight Group, as being a successful project whereby frequent positive cruise commenting on sites such as CruiseCritic was rewarded with free cruises and other perks.
    So what’s the big deal? Well, it seems that the “Royal Champions” weren’t always up front about their status as compensated reviewers, effectively misleading readers of CruiseCritic forums with their positive comments. Add to this the fact that CruiseCritic admins assisted Royal Caribbean in choosing the fifty, with one of the stipulations being quantity of posts, “with many having over 10,000 message board posts on various Royal Caribbean topics.” From here, the hole just gets deeper.
    Now that many RC fans feel slighted at not having made the ranks and most everyone else is disgusted at the covert trade of cruising for happy juicing, the trustworthiness of such forums is under fire.
    Due to CruiseCritic’s ownership by TripAdvisor, which is in turn under the Expedia blanket of travel sites, a viral marketing stunt gone awry could possibly continue to negatively ripple. Does news like this affect your ability to trust good reviews on travel sites, or do you already consider yourself an excellent shill-spotter enough to weed out the solicited from the unsolicited? While this whole ordeal is mired in serious muckety-muck, let’s hope it serves as a lesson for future viral marketers and as an argument for transparency.

  • March 21, 2009

    JustinSMV

    Brand evangelism can be an interesting thing, I myself experienced on the other end of the stick and I actually appreciated the company even more and started promoting them like crazy tenfold! You know the biggest history on this is between Nike and Adidas….

  • March 24, 2009

    elevator

    You has a good husband,congratulate!

  • April 1, 2009

    Stuart Falk

    Two additional points:

    1. Regarding US law:

    Here’s some of the pertinent language from the FTC for those not familiar with it: “When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product which might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement (i.e., the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience) such connection must be fully disclosed….

    The FTC is planning to strengthen the endorsement guidelines to specifically address blogs and viral marketing, so hopefully these types of bogus endorsement programs will be a thing of the past. http://www2.ftc.gov/opa/2008/11/endorsements.shtm

    2. Both Conde Nast Traveler and Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine contain prominent and unambiguous statements to the effect that their editors, writers or other employess never accept free travel as to do so would compromise the integrity of their reviews and reporting. Do Cruise Critic employees accept free or substantially reduced rate cruises? If so, do you think that the very desire to maintain that perk would influence them to write favorable reviews?

  • April 18, 2009

    Sean

    First, I believe that Royal Caribbean is being disingenuous when it states that it didn’t believe that free cruises and other perks would influence (i.e. bias) the Royal Champions. I’m virtually certain that Royal Caribbean, like the vast majority of large companies, has rules in place that prohibit its employees from accepting material gifts from suppliers because companies like Royal Caribbean recognize that gifts and perks can purchase influence. If free gifts can bias its employees, then free gifts can bias its customers. If Royal Caribbean does prohibit its employees from taking gifts from suppliers, it clearly understood this potential.

    Second, I think the whole Royal Champion program was a bad move on Royal Caribbean’s part and on Cruise Critic’s part. I also believe that there’s a good chance that this will fester for some time to come, particularly if a major news outlet takes notice. Discussion boards like Cruise Critic have great value to their members because they are viewed as an unbiased source of information. Any violation of this consumer trust destroys the value of these boards to consumers, which is why Cruise Critic has damaged its brand by participating in this endeavor, however indirectly. Similarly, posters on Cruise Critic who are aware of this intrusion into their boards will forever look skeptically upon favorable reviews of Royal Caribbean’s products. Even unbiased positive reviews will now be discounted.

    Let this be a lesson to marketers; don’t do anything that could be construed as biasing the opinions of customers on online forums. Companies should focus on delivering outstanding products, and the reviews will take care of themselves. I’m shocked that a company with a name like Customer Insight Group was not insightful enough about consumers to understand that they were playing with fire when they did somthing that violated consumer trust. Consumers don’t take kindly to having their trust violated.

  • April 18, 2009

    Stuart Falk

    I think Sean’s post is insightful and sums it up beautifully.

    While not confirmed, I understand the FTC is looking into Cruise Critic’s involvement.

  • May 22, 2009

    Anna Green

    Brand evang i love it you can identify a true supporter who isn’t necessary expected any reward for there efforts. If i was giving away free perks id definitely want them to go to some one who wasn’t out to get something for nothing. It also demonstrates some very cleaver technology. And you all though big brother was all bad

  • It makes one wonder whether anyone is truly being authentic. When I come across a social campaign anymore, the little voice goes off in my head forcing me to question their intentions. Sad, actually.

    Good thoughts. It keeps me paranoid.

  • [...] When is Brand Evangelism a Crime? Exploring the Royal Caribbean Promotional Marketing Strategy (techipedia.com) [...]

  • July 25, 2009

    Promotional Products

    Brand evangelism and development should be a mandatory strategy for all businesses. You need to keep things fresh to entice new customers.

  • [...] brand evangelism work? In 2007, Royal Caribbean ran a campaign called Royal Champions, inviting 50 of its most vocal ardent supporters on cruises and to [...]

  • February 9, 2010

    Gail Gardner

    I find it disappointing that a brand would be criticized for recognizing sincere appreciation. Surely consumers can learn to tell the difference between honest evaluations and biased reporting.

  • February 9, 2010

    Stuart Falk

    The guilty party in this affair is not RCL, as some would point out, but the management of Cruise Critic, which by collaberating with RCL, an advertiser, supplied the information necessary for this scheme to operate and not only published the incentive tainted reviews on its allegedly objective bulletin boards and main site, but whose executives then celebrated with those so incentivized. Cruise Critic, owned by the TripAdvisor division of Expedia, relies for its credibility on the objectivity of its user reviews, which the reader is led to believe are objective.

    So, I agree that RCl’s initiative to promote viralk marketing was not only lkegitimate but creative. However, when Kathleen Tucker, President of Cruise Critic, and her executive team undermine the integrity of their company, poisoning the user reviews which go to the core of their brand, that’s not only dumb, but, both in terms of the site’s business model and its moral compass, just plain wrong.