Tripadvisor’s Certificate of Excellence and The Empty Restaurant

Unbiased reviews have become the social proof that leads to success, combined with scarcity marketing and understanding human behavior.

Amelia Oceanfront B&B gets Tripadvisor Excellence Award

Following story about Tripadvisor and the Empty Restaurant is largely concocted, or rather re-situated in a psychological scenario that explains much of why certain establishments, whether restaurants, bars or hotels and B&B’s, are successful and others not so. The majority of the following story I wrote 6-1/2 years ago while residing in French St.Martin’s Orient Bay Village. There was a plaza (square) in the village with a dozen or so shops, a couple of pétanque courts and four restaurants. The reason why the story came back to me and thank goodness was still digitally hiding in the dusty pockets of one of my hard drives, was a big envelope I got in the mail from Tripadvisor yesterday. In it was a letter from the travel review giant’s CEO, congratulating us with our nomination as 2013 Winner of the Certificate of Excellence, made out to Amelia Oceanfront Bed and Breakfast.

My wife TJ and I took over operations of the Amelia Oceanfront B&B in December 2011, amidst mostly crucifying guest reviews. Having been in marketing and advertising for most of my adult life, l became an instant follower of Robert Cialdini, when he published ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’ in December 2006. Tracking the 6 principles of influence, Cialdini introduced Social Proof as a major influencer, especially powerful with the advancement of the Internet.

Here is the story as I observed it shortly after reading his book.

Entering the Orient Bay village square for the first time, we saw that we had the choice of four restaurants: one that was very busy, two that were moderately busy, and one that had just one couple sitting at a table in the back.

Which do you think we picked? Before I answer that, I share with you our thought process: We couldn’t bring ourselves to consider the nearly empty restaurant. If it were any good, more than two people would have been eating there. So we scratched that one. Then there were the two that were half-filled. One had plastic chairs and tables. That one was out. The other one was cute and lively – a definite contender.

So the choice was between that one and the crowded restaurant.

They both had attractive table settings. They had similar menus and pricing. There was no significant difference between the two, except that one was crowded and the other wasn’t. A quick glance on the published menu at the entrance told us that both had Escargots in the same price range. As our minds crunched the available information we figured in the less-crowded restaurant, the waiters would be less rushed, the kitchen less pressured and we figured we would probably get better service. But we also calculated that the crowded restaurant must have been crowded for a reason. A….there was now only one table left!! Without any more hesitation we grabbed it and felt lucky to be there.

How did we come to that decision?

You may say we made a logical decision, but I don’t think that’s what we did. Our logic, such as it was, was more a rationalization of deep-seated impulses. Neurobiologists claim that such impulses were implanted in the human brain millions of years ago and still pretty much define our actions and are therefor predictable. If you are in a business that directly deals with people, you must become an expert at understanding those impulses. Because when it comes to decision making, they are just as important, if not more important, as logic.

Cialdini showed how successful marketers play on these impulses to persuade prospects to buy.

Our final restaurant choice may have involved some rational thought, but that rational thought supported what we knew, and deep down inside, we already wanted to do. Our decision was based on a combination of “urgency” and conforming to “social proof.” And that’s what important in today’s marketing, advertising and sales: it needs to include adequate urgency and social proof.

When Searchamelia’s hosting company says that we have over 2 million page views a month, based on bandwidth use and geographic demographics – that’s social proof much in the same way when McDonald’s claims to feed 55 million people around the world every day.

Urgency you’ve seen during one-day sales or when a supermarket offers a specially priced item “as long as supplies last.”Urgency comes in two forms; artificially created by the sales and marketing people or real of perceived “scarcity”.

Many have written about these concepts before and yet in certain industries, they seem inadequately presented or entirely absent. And with the Tripadvisor envelope that arrived in the mail yesterday, I sadly realized that I sometimes (maybe even too often) neglect them myself when I write or create content to attract guests or customers for my clients. I am guessing that maybe you, too, may give social proof, urgency and scarcity scant attention.

So when we walked into the Orient Bay Village Square, we had only one piece of prior knowledge about those four restaurants: somewhere on the internet someone had given one of them top rating. And so that was the one we meant to go to.

But guess what?

That was the restaurant that was nearly empty. Seeing the empty tables – while surrounded by three restaurants that were doing good business — prompted us to instantly doubt the validity of the review.The review had said the food was excellent with pricing to match the value. So why didn’t they have more customers – more people like us who were willing to pay a little more for good food and ambiance. Since the restaurant was empty, but for two people at a back table, we became scared to try it. As our brain quickly processed several scenarios, such as perhaps the management had changed since the review was written or someone had died of fish poisoning recently. Who knew?

We had limited, though reliable evidence (the review) that the restaurant had pleased someone, but we ignored this social proof because our instincts made us fearful. Had we seen 20 or 30 positive reviews, we probably would have neglected the emptiness and marched right in. The effect of social proof – in this case, the negative social proof of it being nearly empty, made us shy away.

On social proof, Cialdini observed that:
“One principle of social proof to determine what is correct, is to find out what other people think is correct. That principle applies especially to the way we decide what constitutes correct behavior. We view behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it. Whether the question is what to do with an empty popcorn box in a movie theater or how to eat chicken or a pork chop at a dinner party, the actions of those around us will be important in guiding our personal action.”

How strong this phenomenon apparently is, can be underscored by a psychological study in which children with an extreme fear of dogs were cured of their phobia by watching a video of other children playing happily with dogs for just four days and just 20 minutes each day, Two out of three of the fearful children were not only able to interact comfortably with dogs after this experiment, and what’s more, the results didn’t dissipate over time.

I witness the power of social proof in action every day when guests check into our B&B and their first question is based on Tripadvisor reviews mentioning our excellent breakfast reputation. What’s personally even more intriguing is every guest’s assumption that being a good breakfast cook qualifies me to recommend which restaurants they should patronage during their stay. It’s a deducted dimension of social proof to have the trust of a potential stranger in guiding them to a restaurant, purely on what previous guests write about our breakfast and their experience with the B&B.  Almost as frightening as social proof inherent in canned laughter on TV sitcoms.

Back to our St. Martin restaurant experience…

So we had eliminated the one restaurant that initially had us sold to the Village Square, since the visibly empty restaurant did not corroborate the intitial social proof. Now there were three left to choose from. We quickly eliminated one because of the plastic chairs and tables. This, too, I would argue, was a decision based on emotional, not rational intelligence. But, considering the location and competition, it’s been our experience that a restaurateur who thinks a plastic chair and table is adequate is most likely to be one who thinks mediocre food is adequate.

So now we were down to two: one half-filled and the other almost full to capacity. Now urgency became the qualifier, because really both remaining options could have had great food. Given enough time, we could have asked people dining there what they thought of it or studied the posted menus more in-depth – thus gathering social proof ourselves, but the restaurant that was nearly full was filling up fast and had only one open table left. There were at least a half dozen other couples milling around the square and if we took too long to make our decision, the option of choosing the busiest one, would not have been ours. So we opted for that and took the one remaining table.

What then, was the final reason behind our ultimate choice?

Scarcity. It was “scarcity” – one of the factors that creates a feeling of urgency. The fact that there was only one table left, made us worry that we would miss out. So we yielded not to logic but to an instinct we had that scarcity equals value.

On this Cialdini wrote:

“The idea of potential loss plays a larger role in human decision making. In fact, people seem to be more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value. For instance, homeowners told how much money they could lose from inadequate insulation are more likely to insulate their homes than those told how much money they could save. Collectors of everything from baseball cards to antiques are keenly aware of the influence of the scarcity principle in determining the worth of an item. As a rule, if it is rare or becoming rare, it is more valuable.”

Scarcity, even promoted scarcity, creates a mental value. We had one guest posting a review on Tripadvisor, who expressed the fear that with so many positive reviews, we would be constantly sold out or we would raise rates beyond her affordability level. Scarcity does that.

So after ordering our meal, we asked our waitress why our first-choice restaurant was (now) completely empty and they were so busy. We expected to have our suspicions confirmed – that since that glowing review was published, something had changed. But no, that is not what she told us. She taught us a lesson in human behavior as she said, “I don’t know. But that’s the way it goes here. One night we are very busy and the next night it is someplace else.”
“What do you think accounts for it?” I asked. “The one that gets the earliest customers usually is the one that fills up,” she said.

So there it was. Our first choice probably had the best food, but it was now empty because everybody but one couple had come to the same conclusion we had. Like us, they probably made a decision based first on a lack of social proof and second on a feeling of urgency created by scarcity.

If I were the proprietor of any of those four competing restaurants I’d make sure that my place was always full by doing three things.

• First I would rope off all of the back tables and leave them unset.
• Then I’d let my regular customers know that if they came early in the evening, they could eat for half price, get a free glass of wine or champagne or appetizer
• And then, as the tables started to fill up, I’d gradually open up more by moving back the rope.
By taking advantage of the principles of social proof and scarcity, I would ensure that my restaurant would attract a continuous stream of customers.

And over all as a tourism destination, we must, of course, make sure that every promise and claim we make is backed up with factual proof. And most importantly we must provide social proof including peer endorsements and testimonials from satisfied customers and guests. In the Hospitality Industry worldwide TripAdvisor has undoubtedly taken the lead in ‘social proofing’, with the only drawback that it is hard to keep up to date with exact and up-to-date correct information. A lot of groundwork here is done by local review engines such as AmeliaBites.com (restaurants, bars, coffee shops etc.) or Industry sites such as BedandBreakfast.com

Last but not least never forget to include urgency in your message. Urgency can be created in many ways in an ad – but the strongest way is based on scarcity. You must let the prospect know that if he/she wants the product you are offering at the price you are offering, he or she must act now.

So there you have it: two extremely important advertising principles – social proof and urgency based on scarcity. Make yourself a promise that you will pay them heed. I am making that promise to myself as I proudly look at our 2013 Tripadvisor Certificate of Excellence.

3 Comments

  1. JudieMackie

    So, let me guess… you only have one room available this weekend? LOL Congrats, Partner!

  2. Vern N.

    Hi, interesting story about what drives people. I can fully confirm your findings. Best wishes for your B&B business!

  3. Johan Ramakers

    Thanks for the best wishes Vern. It’s now 2 years after I published the story and yes most of it holds true. The B&B is running 83% occupancy in February and has close to 90% on the books for March. I’ve learned about one more marketing factor however that is very defining: analyzing and choosing the right demographics. F.e. I don’t get spring breakers, but I do get a lot of their teachers as my guests. The types are mutually exclusive.

Leave a Comment