Published on Tuesday, March 17, 2009

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

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  • US Law

    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.

    By Stuart Falk, Wednesday, March 25, 2009

  • Price structure

    If any tour operator can afford to give a genuine 10% discount to a specific sector, then you must say that they are charging far too much margin in the first place to their "bread and butter" clients.

    By Stuart Falk, Monday, March 23, 2009

  • Cruise Critic Facilitated Program for Advertiser/Marketing Partner

    From Jaunted (Conde Nast): Royal Caribbean Cruises Has Web 2.0 Viral Infection 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.

    By Stuart Falk, Saturday, March 21, 2009

  • Cruise Critic Collusion

    According to a post on Cruise Critic by Laura Sterling, Cruise Critic's Community Manager, both she and the Editor of Cruise Critic met with a large group of "Royal Champions" onboard one of the free incentive cruises. Interestingly this explanation of Cruise Critic's involvement, which clearly went beyond providing contact information, has been removed from the site. However, Craig raises another question: what are Cruise Critic's policies regarding its Editors and other Executives accepting free or sharply reduced priced trips, along with special onboard treatment not accorded other guests?

    By Stuart Falk, Friday, March 20, 2009

  • data useage

    The issue was that cruise critic gave people's data to RCCL. If cruise critic had sent the invite themselves there would be little problem.

    By toby kesterton, Wednesday, March 18, 2009

  • how is this news ?

    Everyone does this ? Looked in your local paper lately ? A writer is hardly going to get another FREE airfare to XYZ if he/she says airline & country are awful -don't visit ever.

    By Craig Mathews, Wednesday, March 18, 2009

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