Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and NCL: A Social Media Comparison

Simply put, some industries are just better positioned for success in social media than others, and the cruise industry is a perfect example. They have a fun product, one that creates life experiences and stories which cruisers love to share with their friends, and which are often accompanied by an enormous variety of photos and videos.

Cruise lines also have some of the most passionate and loyal customers you’ll find in any business, with many passengers coming back year after year. Given that, I decided to take a closer look at three of the biggest players in the cruise business – Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) – and how they are using social media to engage with their customers.

A full review of all their social media assets would take more than one post to do, so I picked a few elements to compare: what they’re doing on official blogs, and how they use Twitter and Facebook. The result? There was no clear “best social media cruise line” winner, as each did well (or poorly) in selected areas, however on balance it appears that Carnival Cruise Lines has more deeply invested in creating social media experiences for their customer community – a position which befits the company holding over 51% share of the cruise market.

Let’s take a closer look.

Official Cruise Line Blogs

This is an area where Carnival excels relative to its peers. From the light and fun fan-focused blogs that are part of the broader Funville Online Community, to the aggregation of ship, brand, and key staff blogs over at best blogs at sea, blogging appears to be a key part of Carnival’s social media strategy. The official blog over on Funville acts, in effect, as another conduit of the same content and updates that appear over on Carnival’s Facebook page, a smart move to expose that content to the widest group of current and potential cruisers, many of whom might not be on Facebook.

However I think the best blogs at sea site serves up some of the most interesting content, providing in the words of John Heald, Carnival’s Senior Cruise Director (and de facto chief blogger) “…a way for you, the guest, to go through the “crew-only” door to discover what’s on the other side.” It’s aggregation of blogs covers the entire Carnival family of brands (including Cunard, Princess, etc.) so it’s a bit out of scope for this review, but worth the read. John’s blog in particular is refreshed regularly and is loaded with unique stories from someone who clearly lives the Carnival brand. This sort of behind the scenes peek is exactly the sort of content that passionate and loyal customers love to see.

Neither Norwegian nor Royal Caribbean appears to have embraced blogs as a long-term part of their social media tool set. For NCL, they dabbled in a ship-specific blog that documented the launch and initial cruise of their latest vessel the “Epic”, however whatever readership they built up for it likely wandered off sometime after the last post in June of 2010. As for Royal Caribbean, the only blog I could find is “The Royal Caribbean Blog” which, despite the name, is a fan blog and not affiliated with the company in any way.

Cruise Line Twitter Accounts

As you can see from the charts above and below, all three brands maintain active Twitter accounts, though in terms of follower count Carnival is the leader with 25,000+ at the time of this post (compared to roughly 12,000 for Royal Caribbean and 10,000 for NCL). I used Klout, Tweet Stats and TwitterCounter to play around with each account, and see what I could learn. In sum:

  • Size and Growth: As noted above, Carnival has the lead in terms of raw followers, and its account is growing faster in terms of absolute new fans each day (46 vs 38 and 33 per day/average). However the daily growth rate (net new fans/overall fans) is positive for both Royal Caribbean and NCL, with both growing strong.
  • Engagement: Carnival and Royal Caribbean both make heavy use of @ replies to engage with followers and the broader Twitter community, with @ replies on both accounts making up just over 50% of their total tweets. However while NCL is comparatively less focused on direct engagement, it makes much heavier use than the other two brands of retweet’s (RTs) to help spread positive comments, reviews, and facts about the brand to its followers.
  • True Reach/Klout Scores: Looking at each brand in Klout – a debatable tool that’s still interesting for comparisons – shows there’s not much difference when it comes to Klout metrics like “Amplification Probability” and “Network Influence” and of course, Klout Score. True Reach – which claims to be a measure of an account’s “engaged followers”, discounting spam and such – isn’t all that granular in this view, but it does hint that Carnival’s relatively sizeable set of followers isn’t quite as engaged as those of Royal Caribbean or NCL (“TR/Followers” is just that: True Reach/Total Followers, my own shorthand way of gauging the relatively quality of the followers of each brand. Here, Carnival looks like they piled on followers who might not be as engaged on average as those of Royal Caribbean or NCL).
  • Frequency: Royal Caribbean and NCL are both tweeting about 5 times/day, while Carnival is cruising along at a relatively slow 2.9 tweets/day.

Taking a look at content, all three seem to be following a mix of customer service, new content (mirrored on their Facebook pages), engagement tweets (@’s and RT’s), and special offers or promotions. All in all, each brand looks like they are aggressively trying to use Twitter as an engagement tool and not just a broadcast channel for their latest video or discount. Compared to many brands I’ve looked at in other industries, all three cruise lines are doing a pretty strong job of reaching out to their followers, talking with them, helping them solve issues, and generally providing a great communication channel for cruisers.

While Carnival embraced Twitter first (the account started in 2007) and has grown the largest follower base, their growth rate has slowed just as Royal Caribbean and NCL are starting to make heavy use of the channel. They each have a slightly different style, as reflected in how they use @ replies, retweets, and content, but there’s not clear top brand in this comparison.

And on to Facebook

Meanwhile, back on the most popular social network in the land, all three brands are employing a very similar mix of tactics. Each cruise line is using a default non-fan landing tab with a “fan gate” (like the page to see hidden tab content) to acquire new fans, have active Discussions tabs, and use a mix of content very clearly designed to drive engagement on their walls. A few pieces to note:

  • Landing Tabs: Though all three are using the same standard fan acquisition tactic – a “fan gate” as described above – they’re not all doing it quite the same. Of the three, Royal Caribbean’s landing tab is in my view the most effective: It gray’s out what appears to be a wealth of exclusive content, from videos to fun tools to “hot deals and cruise specials.” It hits nicely on the fan value proposition – like this page to get access to great deals AND lots of other good stuff – and hints at lots of activity and ways to play. NCL on the flip side promises (at the time of this post) a free “Like” t-shirt to the first 200 fans who buy something in their new online gift shop. Neat, but very short-term and doesn’t communicate the overall value or point of becoming a fan of NCL. Carnival is in the middle – nice creative, a good tie-in to their current “Didja” campaign, but not much else.
  • Discussion Tabs: Generally speaking these tabs do more harm than good, in my view. As is apparently the case for all three cruise lines, they act to pull conversation off the wall and into a buried tab that tends to get ignored by the brand’s social media teams. The result? A massive wall of unresolved rants and complaints. Clearly there are lots of discussions to be had – just look at the wide array of cruise forums available across the Web – and wherever possible these brands should be active in those forums to help address customer issues and cultivate customer evangelists. Inadvertently providing an official forum on their Facebook brand page, then ignoring it, is something to be avoided.

On content, as mentioned above each brand is using a mix of promotions, lifestyle/customer stories, and open ended  questions to drive fan engagement on their walls. The chart above is a quick analysis of the past couple of weeks worth of wall posts and their post interaction rates.

In brief, both Royal Caribbean and NCL saw fairly strong engagement rates on their posts during the period, while Carnival saw a fairly low average rate despite being helped by a high volume of Likes and Comments on a short series of posts profiling a wedding. In all three cases, shown below, the posts that drove the highest engagement rates were open ended questions – showing that’s still an effective tactic.

Wrap Up

As I mentioned at the start, while there’s no clear winner in terms of a cruise line that’s “doing social better,” it appears overall that Carnival has made social media more of a centerpiece of its overall marketing strategy than either of its two competitors profiled here. The Funville community is an interesting concept, and the various official blogs present some great content for a range of audiences in a friendly, approachable tone and format. Across Facebook and Twitter, all three brands seems to be running with the same playbook, utilizing a similar mix of content designed to drive promotions along with fan/follower engagement. If anything I’d give Royal Caribbean a slight edge on Facebook thanks to a more effective (from my view, not any conversion data I have) non-fan landing tab, with Twitter being a wash – each brand is pushing hard, growing, and driving engagement with relatively slight variations in tactics.

This analysis took a look at just three of the top cruise lines, ignoring for the sake of time and post space the myriad of sub-brands and smaller cruise lines that might be doing amazing things with social media. If you know of any that deserve a write up here, let us know in the comments!

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