Social Media: Lessons to be Learned from Cruise Critic

In 2005 my wife, kids and I reluctantly went on our first cruise…the inside passage of Alaska. We were reticent since my wife’s favorite cousin, husband and girls *love* cruising and have been all over the world doing so — at this point over 20 cruises have been experienced by them — but we’re not keen on being captive when we travel nor doing anything with huge throngs of people (especially dining with people clamoring for the free food). These family members were pretty certain that if they could convince us to do one cruise and we had a great time, we’d be ongoing cruise buddies and be on all sorts of adventures with them.

They know ships; cruise lines; have connected with many other cruisers; and have this whole network of contacts from cruising that ensure they get the best accomodations, the newest ships, the best crews, the atypical entertainment offered on specific cruises and more.

How did they get so adept?

Just going on these cruises they learned, but the real empowerment and knowledge acceleration came from hanging out at Cruise Critic and being fully immersed in this affinity network.

Five million visitors strong, Cruise Critic is a critically acclaimed interactive community comprised of avid and first-time cruisers who enjoy the fun of planning, researching and sharing their passion for cruising. No other single resource covers the world of cruising as thoroughly as Cruise Critic’s world-renowned editorial staff offers objective cruise reviews, features, ports of call profiles and destination stories. The Cruise Critic message boards are the most active in the world.

So how did Cruise Critic become such a cruising magnet for those with an affinity for cruising?

The Cruise Critic site is amazing and is one of the best examples of user generated content I’ve ever seen: People flock to it to do homework before booking with a cruise line or on a specific cruise (people talk about past cruises and also about future ones); they upload photos and link to videos about cruises and offshore excursions; guide others and answer questions; and it’s a dynamic and robust site with message boards, deals, ports and planning for excursions and cruises, and much more.

This is no overnight success though. The parent company The Independent Traveler debuted on America Online in 1990 and “…quickly established its credentials as an authoritative Internet resource for objective travel information.” They also state that, “Over the past 15 years, The Independent Traveler has developed a loyal following and a devoted online community as it has expanded to include extensive worldwide travel bargains, travel advice and recommendations for your next trip; and the opportunity to tell the world about your travels by posting your experiences and photos in the Travel Journals.

Independent Traveler built up such a strong network of affilated travel sites like Cruise Critic that they were acquired by TripAdvisor in 2004, TripAdvisor gobbled up by Interactive Corp (IAC) and all were spun out of IAC under Expedia in 2005.

Expedia revenues are consolidated and I don’t have the time to dig through and roughly determine their singular success with this cruise property, but there isn’t much infrastructure required (IMHO) to drive the 5 million registrants on the message boards or deliver the pages for this site nor would this require a huge staff. I’d bet revenues are pretty healthy.

What makes Cruise Critic work is the hyperfocus on cruising and offering newbie or seasoned cruisers with exactly what they require.

So have my wife, kids and I become avid cruisers?

Nope. I ended up with salmonella poisoning (probably from eggs at the teppan-yaki restaurant that last evening) and, thank God, there’s a 12 hour incubation period so we’d flown home and I was in my house when it bombarded my body and I ended up in the hospital with acute inflammation, on morphine, heart atrial fibrillation, and in serious condition, so I wasn’t too eager to go on another cruise again.

That horrible ending notwithstanding, it was a fabulous cruise and we’re really glad we did it. If we cruise again which is likely, it will be an upscale cruise with far fewer people, much larger cabins and less “eating at the trough” that comes with the bigger cruise lines and their ships packed with thousands.

Cruise Critic’s boards also enabled me to ask if others had been sickened on that exact cruise (you can look at cruises by date) and I got several affirmative responses…but unfortunately none to take any action on. I must admit that I found it intriguing that even after the cruise the message boards for that exact time were quite active (people showing off their photos, talking about the most fun shore excursion and so on).

Lessons? Know your audience, hyperfocus on what that audience needs, give them ample opportunity to participate and to do so fully, build it over time making it better and better, and you too will end up with a powerhouse social media hub no one with that particular affinity can ignore.

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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.