Web Exclusive: “Conference Call” with Digitas, InterContinental Hotels Group and Communispace

Digital agency Digitas recently enlisted Communispace, a company which creates private online communities to connect businesses and customers, to help optimize InterContinental Hotels Group’s loyalty program through the power of consumer feedback. The responses have led to specific changes at IHG, including in their customer materials.

DMNews discussed this ongoing research strategy with Ken Bott, director of global consumer marketing at IHG; Leslie Forde, VP of strategic alliances at Communispace; and Geoffrey Underwood, VP of marketing at Digitas Inc.

How was the idea to use Communispace born and how it got off the ground?

Ken Bott: I don’t look at this as a campaign – I look at it as part of our ongoing strategy of customer experience marketing. This is something we started in April of 2007, and we have no plans to get rid of it. I think it’s here to stay in terms of the way we’re interacting with our customers.

Leslie Forde: The community experience, where we find the real value, is when brand opens up an ongoing conversation and builds a relationship with the customer, and IHG has done exactly that.

Digitas is the agency of record for IHG?

Geoffrey Underwood: There is Priority Club Rewards, which is the hotel loyalty program that spans a number of hotel brands – Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Hotel Indigo, Crowne Plaza, so we’re one of the agency partners that works not only on the communications for members for Priority Club Rewards — but also for some of the individual brand efforts. Communispace is a wonderful resource because we’re always trying to find opportunities to use customer insight to make sure the marketing is relevant. The nice thing about the community is we can use this to validate campaign ideas. It helps us write better creative briefs because we’re able to tap expertise of community members for insight about a promotion, or review of concepts…it’s a very active and ongoing resource that we can build into the creative process.

Who is the research audience made up of – how do you recruit?

Leslie Forde: We worked closely with IHG and Digitas in the beginning to think through who would be the best audience from the IHG customer base to participate and how we could engage them in dialogue. In this case we recruited from IHG’s customer database and recruited to fairly specific behavioral and demographic specs.

Ken Bott: We wanted to have a representative sample across not only the elite levels but also some of the CRM-related initiatives we have so that we had a good representation of people that patronize all of the seven brands we have within the Priority Club Rewards family. [We wanted a] representative sample of our total sample base, which is approaching 40 million members, to get kind of a microcosm of society to help shape opinions and figure out what we could do to make their lives better and empower them.

Can you talk about the triple points program and the concept of advocacy?

Ken Bott: The hypothesis was these members who are engaged in our program at a higher level than the average customer are the influencers within the overall travel community. For example they’re the neighbor you ask about travel recommendations. The thought was, let’s give these members an offer and call to action they can take advantage of themselves and we asked them to tell as many friends as they wanted. We gave [an offer to] 150 members of the community and observed to see how many people they ended up touching. [Each ended up touching] on average more than 10 people, so we now have 1600 people now engaged in this promotion just based on pass-alongs from the original 150.

What were the incentives for participation?

Leslie Forde: The accelerants and rewards for their behavior within the IHG brand, the advocacy and enthusiasm for the brand and relationship they’ve built, that’s an organic byproduct of listening and cultivating a relationship with them.

What were some challenges, as well as benefits, of working with other entities rather than the traditional client/agency relationship?

Geoffrey Underwood: It really was a great three-way partnership because we had all talked with each other individually about we get better customer insight. Digitas and Communispace have a shared relationship and we work across different clients. Ken and his team had already been reaching out to Communispace individually, so we all came together and brought different perspectives to the table. From the agency standpoint, it was immediately helpful to have the community for our ongoing creative briefs, creative process and promotion ideas.

Leslie Forde: We all had a clear set of rules and responsibilities going into the process. From our standpoint, we’ve had an incredibly collaborative relationship with Digitas and from the start, Ken and his team at IHG really set forth the right vision and asked the right questions and really set the path for us in terms of what the community would mean within the organization. They wanted to understand before we started how it could not only address the business needs but be leveraged across a diverse group of stakeholders within the organization. Being clear about the purpose and who does what served us well.

We have a complementary set of skills. [Communispace] understands the social science behind community, while Digitas’ area of expertise is great products and service and IHG’s is team expertise.

Aside from expanding internationally, what are some future plans?

Ken Bott: Every day there are dozens of things we can do. For instance, Holiday Inn Express has a campaign called the Smart Show. One of our ideas is to provide unique prizes as a fuel and attraction to get business travelers to come back to the site and campaign. We were able to use Communispace to brainstorm what would be some of the interesting and unique prizes we should include in the campaign – things like Bose headphones or GPS units, and the Wii system bubbled up to the top. So we were getting direct feedback for one campaign, and that’s what we do all the time.

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