content marketing in adventure travel industry

Content Marketing Tops the List – Adventure Industry Peer2Peer Conversations

by Matthew Barker

The Peer2Peer sessions were a highlight at last year’s Adventure Travel World Summit in Puerto Varas, Chile. High on the list of talking points was the question of content marketing – what it is, how it applies to the adventure travel industry, and how companies can measure their results.

© ATTA / Lukasz Warzecha

Matt Barker speaking about Content Marketing at ATWS in Chile © ATTA / Lukasz Warzecha

We covered the subject in detail during my session Measuring Your Content [slides], sparking some excellent questions and much discussion in the Peer2Peer Exchange that followed.

Here are some of the Q&A highlights:

Q: How do we reach consumers with inspiring, authentic destination messages in an increasingly crowded media space where there are many voices, but few credible ones?

This question goes to the root of the problem with “content marketing.”

We are swimming against a rising tide of low grade content, churned out by people with no real expertise or authority, and then blasted out shotgun style to as many people as possible.

 

This is a fool’s game. The best way to beat it is by not getting involved.

Content marketing is most effective when done selectively and with restraint. Adventure travel companies, especially those with limited resources, should aim for quality interactions over quantity – a rifle, not a shotgun.

Instead of mass reach or vague ambitions of “going viral” start with your precise audience and their particular needs and then work exclusively for that narrowly defined cohort.

Ignore everyone else.

Identify where this audience is active at each stage of the customer journey and be there, providing consistent, credible value.

So what is content of value? Deirdre Campbell, President & CEO at Tartan Group, gave a few good examples:

“Practical, useful information: What does it take to get to the stunning view? Is there a local culinary or agri-food tour? Can you bike, hike or drive to adventures? Can you map your own trail and book a local guide? What is the weather like during various times of the year and are there advantages of going in low, shoulder or high season that guidebooks don’t mention? Is there a locals know section – where local ‘characters’ talk about their favourite local experiences?”

“Some clients have even posted blog posts with titles like “Is [name] resort right for me?” where they describe what type of traveler enjoys their experiences the most and which travelers have been disappointed. We believe this type of authentic, transparent information (bring rain boots in July and bug spray in August) builds trust and confidence in a destination, while still inspiring a visit.”

Curate, don’t create.

Instead of contributing to the deluge, recognise the value of curating authoritative content from other credible and reliable sources that your audience will value. (Tip: Outbounding is a good source for content curation.)

Use your expertise to build your own audience of qualified, engaged travellers – people who are actually likely to book a trip with your company. Get as many people onto your email lists and other owned channels (things you directly control – not Facebook followers.)

Treat readers and audiences with the respect they deserve and they’ll value you as an island of credibility in an ocean of garbage.

 

An important approach is to empower your happy customers to help distribute your content and promote your brand to their own networks of friends and families. As Deirdre Campbell wrote in the P2P follow-up:

“Invest in creating outstanding customer experiences with lots of guest/local interaction and you will build ‘brand ambassadors’ who will tell your destination story for you. This is as important for destinations as it is for experiences like hotels, attractions and restaurants.”

Put yourself in their shoes.

Most importantly, as Brendan Mark, Sales and Marketing Director of Heliconia, said:

“Content marketing is about telling stories and sharing information that the traveler wants and needs to dream, research and plan a trip”

“The first thing to remember is that it’s not about you. Engage your target customers with content that elicits an emotion or a feeling, and attach your destination message to this. If you have a great biking destination then you should be telling great biking stories.”

This is an excellent point: Content marketing is about telling stories and sharing information that the traveler wants and needs to dream, research and plan a trip – not what your company wants to tell them about yourself, your brand and your products.

Q: What kind of content distribution channels are available (paid or unpaid) for a travel company?

Part of the problem with content strategy is the sheer number of channels and tools that exist for publishing, sharing and promoting your content. It can feel overwhelming, and even make you feel guilty that you’re not doing everything, or keeping up with the latest channel.

 

Suddenly everyone is talking about Instagram and we think “Oh crap – now we need a Instagram strategy too!”

This is the wrong perspective.

We need to be thinking from the perspective of the target audience – who they are and where they’re active. Every audience is different, relying on different sources of information for each stage of the journey to purchase.

Here are a few examples:

Top funnel / “inspiration & dreaming” stages:

  • Social media – especially Facebook (and FB ads) but also Pinterest & Instagram for images.
  • Twitter can be useful as an indirect channel, i.e. finding consumer influencers to promote your content to their audiences.
  • Outreach & FAM trips with travel bloggers, media and other consumer influencers.
  • Display advertising.
  • Press and media coverage.

Mid funnel / “research & planning” stages:

  • SEO, especially if you have a large blog archive. If you have other assets (brochures, guides, old email archives etc) try to convert as much as possible into blog content.
  • Content amplification tools such as Outbrain (your mileage may vary).

Low funnel / “consideration & booking” stages:

  • Recapture prospects with SEO.
  • Search remarketing (Adwords).
  • Email can be effective, depending on quality of the offer.

Retention

  • Content curation via social and email.
  • Email newsletters / magazines.

Q: How much should we spend on marketing & advertising as a percentage of sales?

Jillian Dickens, Director at Bannikin, said: “Although there are a ton of different scenarios to consider, in general between 4 – 10% of annual gross revenue is a healthy percentage (10% being quite high). Another formula to consider is cost per acquisition – how much are you currently spending to gain one confirmed guest? This is very wide ranging in our industry.”

Test, review and test again.

Jonathan Burnham, Marketing Manager of Wildland Adventures, said: “You just need to experiment to find your sweet spot. I would try putting some more money into your marketing budget and go until you get the results you want. A lot of different types of advertising campaigns take a good amount of time to mature. Also, if you aren’t seeing the best results, try tweaking things before you give up. Don’t stop, just get better.”

Q: How do I get better ROI on my marketing spend?

The first step is to understand where your returns are actually coming from. Explore your Assisted Conversion reports in Google Analytics and identify which channels are assisting leads as well as sending the last-click. Be sure to configure goal tracking and goal values to get the full data.

Now look at your main traffic sources (“acquisition”). Which of these contribute most to your conversions, either assisted or last click? Which aren’t performing so well? Depending on the source of the traffic (and the nature of the visitors it’s bringing) you can identify new opportunities to “close the loop” and make sure more of those people end up coming back to the site to book.

Close the loop.

Example 1. Maybe you’re getting high-funnel social media traffic but they never come back to book? In which case look at retargeting to try and close the loop.

Example 2. Maybe you get lots of repeat visitors but last click conversion rates are low. In which case optimise your landing pages and re-evaluate how well qualified or targeted the clicks are.

ROI is about connecting the dots over the entire customer journey. Create touch points that bring them back to the site as they progress through the lifecycle, and measure the performance of each one.

In theory, calculating ROI is simple – profits minus costs. As Julie Thorner, President of Liquid Spark, wrote: “You have to know how much it costs, how many people it brings to your website, and how many people actually book a trip due to your initiative or campaign.”

“Focus your marketing on only those campaigns that meet your business objectives for selling more trips. Don’t get distracted by campaigns that you can’t measure or that spread your marketing budget too thin.”

For more on content marketing and ROI, see the slides from our ATWS session: Measuring Your Content: Turning Audiences Into Bookings.

facebook instant articles for travel content marketing?

What effect will Instant Articles and AMP have on travel content marketing?

Moves from the web’s two biggest giants to shake up mobile publishing have been causing waves among mainstream publishers.

Two features, Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) were launched last year, ostensibly to improve speed and overall experience for mobile users.

The initiatives are part of a broader shift in the tectonics of digital publishing, among a backdrop of debate around mobile speed and UX, ad blocking, the open web vs walled gardens, and other heady themes.

But while regular publishers grapple with the implications, could there be new opportunities opening up for content marketing too?

Instant Articles

Instant Articles is a way for publishers to post their content directly onto Facebook itself, allowing mobile users to load and read articles instantly without having the leave the Facebook app.

facebook instant articles for travel content marketing?

Instant Articles in the wild (Source

 

The company claims this makes the reading experience up to 10 times faster than the mobile web, making users more likely to engage with content and, of course, keep them inside Facebook’s walled garden.

Originally released for just a handful of major publishers, the platform is scheduled for general availability on April 12, meaning anyone, including travel businesses, will be able to publish their own Instant Articles.

The nuts and bolts are relatively straightforward. All content must already exist on your own site. From there it’s formatted into an HTML markup and submitted either manually or via an RSS feed.

Importantly, Facebook has accommodated publishers’ needs by allowing 3rd party ads, analytics and audience tracking.

As far as the mobile user is concerned nothing much has changed – you still share, comment and ‘Like’ links as normal, only if an article is available in the Instant format, that is the version that will be displayed to users on the mobile app.

Accelerated Mobile Pages

The clunkier sounding Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) is Google’s response to Instant. It works in a similar way – publishers provide a stripped down, mobile-friendly version of existing content that can be loaded much faster by users on a mobile device:

google accelerated mobile pages for travel content marketing

AMP pages in the wild (Source

Unlike Instant you don’t need to physically submit your content to Google, the search engine will crawl your AMP links and cache the content so it can be displayed instantly to mobile users.

As with Facebook’s platform, publishers retain their ads and analytics.

So what does it all mean?

The implications of all this for regular publishers and news orgs are complex. While the mainstream has already jumped in at the deep end, others are justifiably skeptical over giving up even more control and ownership to two already gargantuan platforms.

But for travel companies it could be an easier decision. If Instant and AMP make it easier to get your content in front of mobile users, it must be a no-brainer?

Firstly, it’s worth noting that these features are currently aimed at top tier news organisations and other mainstream publishers. Most AMP pages you’ll see ‘in the wild’ are breaking news and current events from well known sources.

That said, there is already talk of potential applications beyond news publishers. If AMP pages start displaying for a wider range of search queries, such as blog posts, long tail keywords, or even e-commerce and product pages, it might make sense for brands to jump on board.

For sites using WordPress there are already plugins out there to generate AMP and Instant Article versions of your content. The popular Yoast WP plugin announced they’ll be supporting AMP markup in the near future.

Secondly, don’t expect either features to provide a direct boost to your mobile visibility. Both Facebook and Google have explicitly stated that having content available as an AMP page or Instant Article won’t bring preferable treatment in the rankings or Newsfeed.

On the other hand, the AMP carousel does tend to appear high in Google’s mobile results, and in theory a Facebook post that loads faster should get better engagement rates, both of which mean there could be an indirect benefit to adopting these new standards.

Finally, although brands are constantly being told to act like publishers, they’re fundamentally different in that eyeballs alone are not enough – we’re looking for an action and conversion too. This means thinking creatively about how to get readers clicking off from the AMP/Instant Article and onto your site.

The jury is still out on all the above. A sensible position for brand publishers might be to wait and see how it all shakes out over the coming months, but be prepared to adopt quickly if they turn out to be an obvious win.

SEO implications of Google’s new mobile trip planner

Another day, another search engine optimization (SEO) wobble. In late January, Google released a major re-design of its mobile search interface for trip planning.

With this change, searches on Google for various destination keywords, such as “where to go in Thailand” or “Thailand destinations”, trigger a knowledge-graph result that leads users into a rabbit hole of Google-controlled content and travel-planning tools.

The move further de-prioritizes once-sacrosanct “organic” placements, causing yet another SEO wrinkle for travel marketers.

Google’s mobile trip planner

The interface looks like this:

Google mobile trip planner SEO

Users can filter destination results by “interests”, such as architecture, beach, culture, fishing, and Scuba diving.

Google mobile trip planner

From there, users can dig deeper into whatever location or point of interest piques their interest.

For instance, doing a mobile search on “where to go in thailand” leads to a horizontal carousel of Thai destinations, with the capital city on top. It pulls a representative airfare by pulling the nearest major airport geo-located to your phone for sample upcoming travel dates — along with benchmark lodging costs.

google mobile trip planner

Clicking on the Bangkok “location card” leads to incredibly long and detailed information. The card links users to other points of interest, maps, info on climate and when to travel, and YouTube videos — all hosted exclusively on Google-controlled digital properties.

google mobile travel

Most importantly – for Google, at least – is the prominent “Plan a trip on Google” section, which allows users to book flights and hotels and find restaurants, again all via Google’s pay-to-play platforms. (Still a bit rough around the edges but I bet that major OTA and metasearch brands that advertise on Google won’t be thrilled…)

google mobile travel

It doesn’t take a Sherlock to figure this out. Google makes more money when people stay on its properties and click on its ads. And these knowledge graph results are presumably a highly effective way of retaining users and channeling them towards ads and paid listings on hotel and flight search.

Google of course is crafting a broader, more altruistic, narrative around this. They’re talking about mobile usability and “micro moments,” i.e. customers using their phones in many, short sessions while searching for “immediate answers” in the journey to purchase. In a recent report, it said:

“Today’s travelers are turning to the web to be inspired and take action—and the brands that help them at those moments will win hearts, minds, and dollars.”

The author forgot to mention that increasingly, the only way for brands to reach these travellers through Google properties is by paying for ad listings.

So what does it all mean? Is it yet another nail in the SEO coffin? Well, not so fast.

The biggest losers in this particular update are likely the top-tier sites and publishers who’ve dominated destination search for a long time: TripAdvisor, Yelp, Lonely Planet, major news and travel sites, etc.

More than anything else, this is a play against the short-tail or “head” keywords that hoover up the lion’s share of individual queries and have long been dominated by the biggest travel sites.

The other losers are likely the OTAs and metasearch sites competing for big flight and hotel queries. With this new interface, Google is channeling more users directly to its own paid hotel and flight search tools.

At the very end is a very inconspicuous link to organic (i.e. non-Google owned) results: (Blink and you’ll miss it…)

google mobile travel seo

Where this doesn’t necessarily impact is further down into the longtail of search queries. A query like “Things to do in Bangkok” may be off limits, but for anyone outside of the top-tier that has long been the case anyway.

On the other hand “Visiting Bangkok with young children” and any of the infinite number of longtail keywords are still fair game.

These aren’t always purchase-intent queries and you might not convert them into bookings on the first visit, but used strategically within the rest of your marketing strategy they can be an important top-funnel source of traffic and prospects.

If this interface change has hit mobile share for short tail results, then I’m sure the big beasts will be smarting.

But for mid- to small-tier players, long-tail SEO as a traffic acquisition tool remains reliable, provided it’s used strategically and in conjunction with other conversion channels.

What's happening to rankings and keywords in travel SEO?

SEO: What’s happening to keywords and rankings?

A few days ago we published a piece for Tnooz on Google’s latest travel SEO upset, a tweak to the mobile interface which could cause problems for people targeting “short tail” travel keywords.

Coincidentally, in this week’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand Fishkin talks about the changing nature of keywords and rankings in SEO – with a specific focus on travel and flight searches. (Watch the full video below).

In our Tnooz piece we highlight the fact that although SEO is a fickle game, content-driven long tail SEO is still a reliable traffic acquisition channel, especially when used strategically in conjunction with other tools. (More on that here.)

In this short video Rand explains how content can be a good driver of organic traffic, provided it’s sufficiently useful, detail-rich and optimised not just for keywords but for user intent.

Time to turn your email strategy on its head?

Is there a marketing channel more used and abused than the humble email? Email has somehow managed to retain its importance in digital marketing strategy despite becoming synonymous with spam and sleazy, aggressive sales.

Perhaps part of the problem with email as a marketing tool is its versatility. Email (when used correctly) can be effective at various points in the customer journey to purchase. It can work at high-funnel inspiration and mid-funnel planning/consideration, it’s obviously good as a low-funnel driver of sales and it can be especially powerful with post-sale customer retention.

email spamGiven this versatility, the widespread misuse of email by unsophisticated marketers is mind-numbingly dumb and self defeating. Used as a blunt tool to hammer unwanted sales messages into unsuspecting inboxes, most commercial email is distrusted, blocked and filtered into the junk folder where it belongs.

Not that email isn’t good at producing sales – it clearly can be, provided care is taken with relevance, segmentation and the quality of the promotion and message (see this good analysis from Econsultancy).

But proper email strategy isn’t just about leads and sales. Used effectively, email can carry people beyond the moment of purchase and turn your satisfied customers into repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals.

This is a no-brainer. You’ve spent good money acquiring leads and customers, now you need to use every tool available to improve your Customer Lifetime Value (CLV). And email is purpose-built for the job.

Email can be effective much earlier in the customer journey too. We know that travel purchase decisions can be long and convoluted, with multiple inputs and interactions contributing to an eventual booking:

email in the customer journey to purchase - travel content marketing

Digital channels should work together to create a customer journey to purchase [click to enlarge]

Good email can be central to nurturing your prospects towards making a purchase, sowing seeds of inspiration for future travels, or delivering useful and informative content to help people plan and research their upcoming vacations.

But getting this right means turning everything you know about email marketing on its head.

With bottom-funnel email, the idea is to offer as relevant and compelling a promotion as possible – you’re selling yourself, your brand, and your offering. But that’s just a narrow band of the spectrum. Elsewhere in the customer journey your emails need to be about the audience themselves, their interests, and their needs.

You need to be thinking about what they want to read, not what you want to tell them.

For a start this means ditching the ubiquitous but utterly ineffectual “company newsletter” email. You know the type: a message from the founder, some latest news and a blog post or two. There’s a reason emails like this see terrible open and click rates: They’re branded and promotional and they exist primarily to serve the sender, not the recipient.

What would a reader-oriented email look like? Maybe it’s a “lifestyle magazine” that curates authoritative content from high quality sources around the web – all the stories and features that your particular audience would want to read, not necessarily just your own content.

For two good examples see “The Saddlebag” from BikeTours.com or “The Latin American Traveler” from Ideal South America.

At first pass it might seem counter-intuitive to send emails packed with links to other people’s content but there’s some method to the madness. Remember this activity isn’t designed to drive direct sales, it’s aimed much earlier in the customer journey.

The goal is simply to maintain a strong relationship with your subscribers, bringing your brand to mind every time they open and read your emails and, when they are ready to book, guess who they’ll come back to?

With this as the cornerstone to a healthy distribution list you can insert some owned content (experiment with the mix, but an 80/20 split seems about right) and send separate, sales-focused emails aimed further down the funnel – taking precautions to segment your messages and not do anything that could damage the relationship with your readers.

Remember that proper content strategy is about using overlapping and integrated channels to nurture prospects along the customer journey. Use other tools and channels to achieve that: Facebook and Twitter custom audiences, Adwords search retargeting and SEO are all effective at reconnecting with your email subscribers later on when they approach a purchase decision.

Fundamentally this is about smart content marketing. Empathise with your audience and focus on their, not your company’s, needs. Identify what they want and then do your best to provide it. Build a qualified, engaged and loyal audience, and then create the necessary touchpoints to recapture people when they’re ready to make a purchase.

It’s indirect and takes much more thought and sophistication than indiscriminate sales and spam, but in the long run it’s well worth it.