Can you trust what you read about Royal Caribbean at online message boards?
That’s the question some vacationers are asking this week in the wake of stories suggesting the cruise operator has been manipulating online discussions for more than a year.
Veteran industry watcher Anita Dunham-Potter of ExpertCruiser.com first broke the story last week, reporting that Royal Caribbean has been rewarding a small group of fans who post positive comments about the line at sites such as Cruise Critic with free cruises and other perks.
Dunham-Potter’s story, which since has been followed by several blogs and news outlets including The Consumerist, notes that the group — called the Royal Champions — has been active since 2007.
Dunham-Potter cites a talk by a Royal Caribbean executive at a recent marketing conference in which the executive touted the subversive nature of the effort.
“The key to success in viral marketing is to subtly influence the influencers without them overtly realizing they are being influenced,” Royal Caribbean’s manager for loyalty marketing, Rachel Hannock, told the audience, according to a blog on loyalty marketing written by the Customer Insight Group.
The Customer Insight Group blog quotes Hannock as saying the Royal Champions “are regularly leveraged for ongoing marketing initiatives” and “produce ample word of mouth and exert sufficient influence to make the investment worthwhile.”
The blog also quotes Hannock as saying online posts from Royal Champions “are carefully monitored during events and on a regular basis to ensure that posts remain positive and frequent.”
In an interview with USA TODAY this week, Royal Caribbean associate vice president Bill Hayden acknowledged that the Royal Champions exist and have been getting perks from the line including invitations to free, two-night preview cruises. But he strongly denies that Royal Caribbean has asked them to talk up the line at online sites in return.
In short, he says, there’s no quid pro quo. Hannock’s comments at the conference were “a poor choice of words . . . we have never in any way indicated what they should write.”
While Hayden says it’s true Royal Caribbean has kept an eye on what the Royal Champions are posting at online sites, it’s only so that the line can get feedback on how it’s doing. In that sense, he says, the Royal Champions are like a focus group.
Hayden says the Royal Champions, of which there currently are about 75, were chosen because they were highly active posters at Cruise Critic and a few other sites and passionate about cruising. So far they have been invited on two short free cruises, and clearly the line expected that they would post about the experiences at Cruise Critic and elsewhere. But Hayden stresses they were free to write whatever they felt about the ships, good or bad. No Royal Champion has been asked to leave the program because he or she was too negative in posts, he adds.
Hayden also says the line never meant the program to be secretive. Indeed, Cruise Critic was aware of the program, he says, as Royal Caribbean had gotten the site’s help early on to track down Cruise Critic members that the line wanted to invite into the group.
USA TODAY has asked Cruise Critic to clarify what it has known about the Royal Champions program over the past year. In an initial email to USA TODAY, Cruise Critic publisher Kathleen Tucker said the site wasn’t involved in helping Royal Caribbean develop the program.
“In 2007, Royal Caribbean contacted Cruise Critic and told us they wanted to invite some Cruise Critic members on a pre-inaugural sailing of Liberty of the Seas and had no way of contacting them and asked if we could forward that message on to the members on their behalf,” Tucker writes. “We were not involved in choosing the members or in developing the program.”
Paul Motter, the editor of CruiseMates.com, which has the most active cruise-focused message boards after Cruise Critic, says Royal Caribbean never contacted his site seeking to reach members and if the line had he wouldn’t have allowed it.