Steve Kaufer is the energetic founder and CEO of highly successful TripAdvisor, whose suite of companies attracts nearly 32 million monthly visitors. He also finds time to raise four children and is an active board member for the charitable organization Caring for Carcinoid Foundation(CFCF). Since its inception, CFCF has awarded over 4.5 million dollars in research grants to leading scientists at renowned institutions.
Under Steve’s guidance, TripAdvisor has been able to carve out a defensible and almost monopolistic position when it comes to travel reviews. TripAdvisor, with over 20 million reviews and opinions, was practicing the principles of social media long before it became the buzzword of the day.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Steve and discuss the impact of social media.
Erik Qualman:TripAdvisor has been highly successful and profitable and you were acquired by Expedia in 2004. Where did the idea to start TripAdvisor come from, and how did it all start?
Steve Kaufer:It started in 1999, when I was trying to book travel and couldn’t find any helpful tools like a TripAdvisor to help during the decision process. So, like many entrepreneurs, I decided to fill a void in the marketplace. I had three co-founders, Langley Steinert, Nick Shanny and Tom Palka, and we officially launched tripadvisor.com in October 2000. Since that day I’ve tried to always maintain a view point from the customer.
EQ:It seems that TripAdvisor was ahead of the curve in terms of implementing some social media-like functionality? Any insight?
SK:One thing that we have always found is that user-posted pictures are always more popular than the professional beauty shots. Users find these to be authentic and an augmentation to the beauty shots. Now that more and more people are sharing photos via Facebook, mobile, etc. this part of our reviews will only increase in value.
EQ:What is one of the key insights about TripAdvisor that many of us might not be aware of?
SK:The popular belief that people only take the time to post something when they want to vent or discuss a bad experience is simply not true; at least in our experience. The majority of our over 20 million reviews and opinions we have received on TripAdvisor are positive ones. People are simply compelled to give back to a community that has given to them.
EQ:Recently, TripAdvisor has enabled the ability for hotel sites, airline sites, etc. to integrate some of the TripAdvisor review content onto their sites? Why?
SK:Again this decision harkens back to a user perspective. If I’m a user and I’m looking to book a hotel and I’d like to have some quick and salient user review information, this makes it much easier on me to have it all in one location.
EQ:This makes sense. In my mind it’s somewhat similar to what the major television broadcasters are wrestling with. Many major networks are requesting and in some cases suing the likes of YouTube and Hulu to remove their content for fear of losing viewers on their site, yet this is the almost the reverse of that, you are happy for others to post your content.
SK:We are fortunate to be profitable with our business model, one that has been based on putting the user first. This isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s not an issue where if a user sees our information on another site they don’t need to visit TripAdvisor. In some instances this will be the case, but in others the customer will require more information and will visit TripAdvisor to obtain it. Or they may visit TripAdvisor after they return from their trip to post a review. Also, in many cases, the user on said hotel or airline site will be exposed to TripAdvisor and our clients for the first time. Keep in mind that all this information has links back to our site and also is branded with TripAdvisor.
EQ:That is a good point and one that sometimes companies get confused with when faced with new technologies. It’s not necessarily where they see the content, it’s that they see the content. I always scratch my head when someone like the Associated Press asks Google not to list their stories anymore. Companies that truly get it are actually paying experts for search engine optimization so that they rank high in Google. Or this weekend for the Masters, they only streamed 4 holes online during the Phil vs. Tiger match-up. It seems like you would want to increase your viewership across every platform, rather than making an AOL-like walled garden mistake.
Steve Kaufer: Many have covered that we are all inherently social animals, which is true to some extent, but I think one of the real overlooked beauties of social media is the passivity of it. Unlike e-mail that requires a response, with a site like Facebook, friends or relatives can passively observe, and share without having to interrupt someone else.
EQ:It’s my understanding that TripAdvisor has benefited from the explosion of social media.
SK:We’ve had some notable wins in particular on Facebook and YouTube. On Facebook, we launched our Local Picks restaurant reviews and ratings application in the fall of 2007. The application easily enables the sharing of culinary opinions among friends. We were able to grow our offering from less than 100,000 establishments to nearly 500,000 in approximately 15 months. Our Cities I’ve Visited and TravelPod’s Traveler IQ applications have also been successful. Note: Active monthly Facebook users: Cities I’ve Visited — 1,794,279; Traveler IQ — 112,921; Local Picks — 16,218.
EQ: I know that I became addicted to the Traveler IQ application and had a little competition going with my wife and we each had our own respective cheat sheets.
SK:You weren’t alone. We are astonished at the amount of time the users interact with these applications — sometimes hours at a time, which is great brand exposure for TripAdvisor and TravelPod. These three applications I mentioned total about 2 million active monthly users on Facebook. And for the Traveler IQ and Cities I’ve Visited, we take comfort in knowing that we are helping to further the geographical education of our users.
EQ: This is true, I now know where Christmas Island is located (note: off the Northwest of Australia). And, what about YouTube?
SK:On YouTube, we were able to do a short two-minute video with celebrity Rosario Dawson and that has attracted over a million views.
EQ: What has been the secret to your social media success?
SK:I have a sign outside my door that says “Speed Wins.” That is our motto when it comes to social media as well. For every success you see, we’ve had plenty of items that we tested and didn’t work out. You really never know what the next big thing will be. In the Cities I Visited development process, my team estimated it would take four months to build. I put a challenge for us to get it done in four days, and we met that challenge. On the successful YouTube video, we originally launched a similar video with me as the spokesperson and that received an unflattering 1,000 views. It’s apparent that YouTube viewers find Rosario more appealing to listen to than myself.
EQ:Do you see the next step for TripAdvisor to integrate tools like Facebook Connect that will enable users to easily see reviews from their friends along with reviews from people that they don’t know.
SK: Again, it will all come back to the user. If the users find this sort of connection helpful, than, by all means, we will look to integrate such tools to benefit our users. It’s important to note that the comfort of being fully transparent varies from user to user. For some users it’s no problem, while other users don’t want their identity to be known and it may, in fact, affect how they review a particular travel experience if there is a chance it could go massively viral with their name associated with it.
EQ: You were captain of the fencing team at Harvard. Do any of the skills you learned while fencing transfer to your current role?
SK: Not sure how much is transferable, but possibly:
- Needing to anticipate your opponents moves and strategy.
- You need to be nimble.
- The competitive nature and learning what it takes to win.
Stephen Kaufer BIO