travel content marketing confusion

Why small travel businesses fail at content marketing (and how they can succeed)

The theory of content marketing is straightforward enough: identify the information that is likely to engage your consumers and give it to them. This turns site visitors into audiences, builds your brand authority and gives you opportunities to sell to your audience with a relationship based on expertise and trustworthiness.

Your audiences may subscribe to your email list, they may follow you on social media, they may simply be so impressed that they return to your site for more over and over again. Each one of these touchpoints presents opportunities to market your brand and services.

As ever, things are much trickier in practice. Genuinely engaging content is, by definition, difficult and expensive to produce – consider for a moment the deafening noise of all the other competing content out there on the web; to succeed yours needs to outshine it all! This means hiring professional content creators or editors, which can get very expensive very quickly.

Then you need to find the right strategic approach: choosing what type of content to produce, figuring out how to promote it, at what volume and frequency, and how to do so in a way that is efficient at converting audiences into customers in sufficient numbers to deliver a return.

travel content marketing confusion

Does this sound like you?

It’s not surprising that most small travel brands’ content marketing efforts tend to revolve around posting a few articles each month on their blog, sharing them to their handful of social media followers and perhaps out via a monthly email to an equally modest subscription list.

Most hard-pressed and overworked business owners are unsure what impact this is having or how to measure it. But they’ve likely read that “content marketing is important” so they continue to spend a few hundred bucks per month commissioning articles and hoping that somewhere along the line it’s contributing something to their bottom line.

In 99% of cases it’s not, and the oft-presumed solution – more blog posts Scotty! – won’t help either. The fact is, as was argued persuasively by Mark Higginson on Travel Blather, churning out content at the quality and volume required to shift the ROI needle is simply not scalable or cost effective for many businesses.

That money and time could instead go into Adwords and send new leads like clockwork every month, all for a fraction of the effort.  And at our consultancy we’ve told more than a few small business owners that’d be the best direction to take.

This might seem like a strange thing for a content marketer to say, so here’s the inevitable but:

There are other content marketing strategies that are way more appropriate for SMBs.

The problem with most approaches to content marketing is the emphasis on publishing frequency, i.e. the belief that in order to and build and maintain audiences you need to be constantly pumping out new stuff to keep people engaged and the search engines interested.

Don’t even try. Leave this to large brands with larger content budgets. Online consumers have a finite attention span and you’ll always be upstaged and drowned out by the big boys with the resources to act like real publishers.

Instead of playing the (unwinnable) volume game, focus down at the other end of the spectrum. What are the handful of things that truly distinguish your brand and your expertise?  A single property hotel knows their neighbourhood better than anyone else. A local tour operator knows more about their destination than most guidebook writers. This unique expertise can be translated into highly effective content assets, and at relatively low cost – you already have the knowledge locked up in your business, all you have to do is convert that into digital content with the help of an editor or ghostwriter.

Content of this nature doesn’t need to be cranked out every day/week/month. A smaller amount of static “evergreen” content can be hugely effective into the long term, particularly if it’s properly optimised for organic search. Instead high frequency, focus on depth and detail. Create a content asset that makes a unique addition to the web, an authority resource that cannot be found anywhere else.

This is clearly a bigger undertaking than writing a blog post, but rather than trying to turn out ten (good) blog articles every month for uncertain returns, once this asset is done, your content creation worries are over for 6 months or longer.

Content Volume doesn’t matter, it’s how you use it that counts.

The critical step is to use and deploy your content in ways that will have an actual impact on your bottom line, with an understanding of how to measure the outcomes.

Simply chucking articles at a blog is not a content marketing strategy. Instead you need to understand how your content can be effective for people at the different stages of the customer journey, how they might engage with your content, and how you can maximise and benefit from those interactions.

Understand that consumers at the research/planning stage are not necessarily ready to make a booking, and informational content is unlikely to convert site visitors into customers, at least not on their first visit.

Instead focus on how you can capture an interaction and an opportunity to follow-up later. Think about ways you can continue the relationship, assisting people along the customer journey and eventually bring them back to your site to make a booking. Downloads & email list subscriptions, email autoresponders, effective content curation, remarketing campaigns and social media shares & follows are all useful touchpoints for follow-up marketing.

Optimising your content to facilitate these interactions and touchpoints requires a degree of background wiring and plumbing, but is essential for driving ROI.

If you build it, they probably won’t come.

Once your content is online and optimised you need to win the eyeballs and attentions that it deserves. Organic search is unlikely to suffice at this low publishing volume, and your content will likely need an extra boost – paid, earned or both.

Paid content amplification solutions include Outbrain, Facebook newsfeed ads, etc. The goal here is simply to put more people into the top end of your marketing funnel.  Audience targeting options vary by the platform, and again you’re unlikely to convert many sales direct from this traffic (but that’s not the point.) Instead you can use this initial paid traffic to kickstart your engagements and start following up with your new audiences as outlined above.

Earned promotion is essentially old-school PR in a digital context: reaching out to relevant bloggers, journalists, publications and other influencers and asking them to promote your content. Outcomes tend to be directly proportional to the quality of the content and its relevance to the individual influencer, and although you’re offering content that is of intrinsic value to their audiences, some will expect payment for promotion.

Measure and optimise

The final, but essential, piece of the puzzle is to monitor your content performance and understand how and where it is contributing to traffic growth, leads and bookings.  This breaks out into two broad categories: ROI monitoring and campaign performance.

Since the content itself isn’t driving conversions directly, accurate ROI monitoring requires an understanding of how the content and interactions have assisted bookings throughout the customer journey. A typical customer journey might look like:

Referral from a blog article to your content > Downloads your content asset > Sees your remarketing ads > 2 weeks later Googles your brand name to research your service > 1 week later visits your site directly and makes a booking.

Your analytics monitoring needs to reflect the complex nature of these assisted conversions to give a full picture of how your content and channels interact to lead to the eventual booking.

Campaign performance is more straightforward: you’re looking for metrics that indicate how well visitors engage with your content. While traditional analytics KPIs tend to focus on sessions and pageviews, content performance will also look at page dwell time, pageviews per session, social shares, return visitors, and other measures of audience engagement.

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Getting all this right is no easy task but compared to the black hole that is high frequency content marketing, a content strategy like this can deliver meaningful direct returns, while also contributing greatly to your brand’s authority and credibility.

Ready to start your brand’s content journey? Get in touch to discuss.

compass magazine - branded publishing case study travel industry

How Compass Magazine sets the bar in branded travel publishing

Brand publishing, an evolution in the content marketing trend, is based on the idea that brands can and should act like bona fide publishers in their own right. As the theory goes, many travel companies have enormous stores of expertise and knowledge locked up in their brand, assets and employees’ heads, and brand publishing allows the more creative among us to unlock that expertise and put it all to work.

compass magazine branded publishing travel industry case studyThe key, and biggest challenge, to successful brand publishing is to approach the endeavour as at once separate to, and yet fully integrated with, wider marketing strategy. When brand publishing is treated as a regular marketing tool it can appear inauthentic and potentially duplicitous. But when divorced entirely from core marketing strategy and oversight it can quickly become an expensive vanity project, a colossal black hole for resources with not even a whiff of ROI.

Finding the sweet spot between the two tensions is the fundamental challenge to successful content marketing. A rare example of getting it right is Compass Magazine, a print and digital magazine published over the last nine years (1 year for the online version) by high-end travel agency Cox & Kings.

Compass would look at home alongside the regular travel glossies on the shelves of WH Smith. It includes travel news and NIBs, feature-length destination pieces from respected writers like Matthew Teller, Sue Watt and many others, alongside interviews and contributions from such household names as Monty Don, Rick Stein and Kate Adie.

With a print edition produced three times a year and digital versions (ebooks & PDFs) available on demand, along with supplementary blog content, Compass has a print readership of 50,000, plus website traffic, a combination of both Cox & Kings travellers and casual readers.

The impact of that audience share on Cox & Kings’ bottom line is impressive. Every feature records a subsequent upswing in inquiries and bookings on the destinations covered and the magazine is particularly potent in generating repeat business from former travellers, with a 15% increase in repeat bookings since the print version was launched.

The company was understandably reluctant to share precise figures but the proportion of leads/conversions that are assisted by Compass content are described as “significant.” This is clearly an example of content marketing that works.

How do they do it?

By treading that infinitesimally fine line between publishing and marketing.

To this end Compass is professionally edited by Jennifer Cox (no relation), a writer, editor and broadcaster with over 20 years experience in the mainstream travel media, and is produced with processes familiar to regular commercial publications; tight schedules of commissioning, editing, design & layout, subbing, proofing, print and distribution.

As with all successful content marketing efforts, the goal for Compass is to create a publication that can be judged as a quality consumer travel magazine in its own right, as opposed to a hyped-up sales brochure.  As Cox explained:

“We aim to ensure that Compass doesn’t look or sound like a brochure. This is crucial for its integrity. When I’m commissioning or setting up interviews, I deal with my professional contacts in the industry: writers or personalities you’ll see in the national press or glossy magazines. This ensures that Compass ‘rings true’; readers engage with genuinely interesting articles and up-to-date news, rather than just flicking through a thinly-veiled sales tool.”

None of that is to say that Compass exists as separate and disconnected to the rest of Cox & Kings’ digital marketing strategy. In fact Compass is a logical extension of Cox & Kings’ brand marketing efforts, supporting the company’s position as a leading and well-established authority in high end and experiential travel, staffed by “tour consultants” with the kind of expertise that is reflected in the publication.

Although Compass follows the usual standards of journalistic objectivity, the magazine prioritises coverage of countries, experiences and hotels from C&K tours and references specific itineraries and products heavily throughout its features.  For instance, a double page feature by Monty Don on a recent trip to India is immediately followed by a detailed reference page compiled by a C&K destination expert, including a variety of related tours and excursions.

compass magazine - branded publishing case study travel industry

A guest feature presented seamlessly alongside branded content

The editorial team relies heavily on this in-house expertise from the company’s regional experts, getting frequent updates on travel news and using them to fact check content on their areas of knowledge.

Here Compass has avoided another pitfall that often frustrates brand publishing: poor communication between marketing and operations teams that prevents access to all that stored knowledge. This is unfortunate as other employees are often the biggest potential source of input and expertise.

But the publication’s integration with C&K’s digital channels goes deeper. As with the best content marketing assets, it can be accessed for free but only after sharing your email address to receive follow-up newsletters and sales messages.

Referral traffic to the Compass homepage is one of the highest sources of traffic for the entire site and the large archive of exemplary content has earned a colossal portfolio of diverse, high quality backlinks which play a central role in C&K’s dominance of multiple organic search keyword groups.

Overall Compass is a classic example of branded publishing done properly: “quality content” that rivals its commercially produced peers, so informative and inspirational to have acquired a true audience in its own right, all without sacrificing its connection to a wider digital strategy that yields clear returns with measurable financial value.

Learning points & transferable techniques

That said it’s obvious that not every travel brand can emulate such an ambitious initiative.  Compass has benefited greatly from C&K’s handsome resources and support, long-established brand recognition and, on a practical level, the company’s efficient in-house editorial and print operation (for large scale brochure distribution).

Although few travel brands can muster such resources there are still some useful and transferable techniques here that should apply to all content marketing efforts, no matter how modest.

Repurpose content: Once a content investment has been made it is imperative to recycle and extend value in as many ways possible. Converting blog articles into a magazine and re-publishing that in ebook stores and as PDFs is an excellent way to extend the life cycle of each piece of content. Content quality aside, investing in slick production also leaves you with a tangible asset that can be used for digital PR and link earning, all contributing to referral and organic search traffic. You don’t need an in-house designer for this, you can find skilled freelancers at very affordable rates on sites like Odesk and Freelancer.com.

Utilise outsiders & influencers: Compass makes great use of external contributors, either commissioning from credible journalists or running contributions and interviews from well-known personalities. There are many benefits to partnering with influencers, such as lowering the burden on your in-house resources, benefiting from their perceived impartiality and authority and bringing their own audiences and followers to your content.

Where possible curate, don’t create: There’s no need to create 100% of your content from scratch. Industry trends and news pieces can be curated from other sources, while destination and other features can be compiled from a variety of existing content elsewhere. So long as you curate ethically and responsibly this is an excellent way of lightening the load and bringing fresh perspectives (and authority) to your content.

Integrate channel-wide: The final piece for maximum ROI is to ensure your content efforts are fully integrated with the rest of your digital channels. This means making sure your downloads yield email addresses (ideally segmented into interest groups), that content is fully optimised for search, that you’re targeting audiences with effective re-marketing campaigns and, critically, that your analytics is capable of tracking and reporting all this activity in a useful and actionable way.

content deluge wave

Curating for travel consumers: the hows and the whys

The good folks at Buffer have published a practical nuts & bolts guide to content curation for busy people. Rather than reinvent the wheel I suggest you head over there and check it out, but first maybe it’d be useful to take a quick detour into why curation can be such a powerful element of your digital strategy.

We know that the web has long beencontent deluge wave
deluged by a flood of “content” that grows at an exponential rate, making it ever harder for people to access the information they want, and at the right time.  Various solutions exist but they’re all inadequate: search engines only help you find the content you’re already looking for, they don’t aid discovery. Social tends to prioritise fluff and popularity at the expense of credibility and niche publishers.

Enter the curators. A curator is someone who applies a filter to the deluge, proactively sifting out the content of interest from the endless stream of garbage. The most effective curators are people who know their audiences so well they can create a filter that is hyper-targeted for their exact needs.

This has valuable applications in the B2B world (ahem) but is also enormously important for consumer-facing travel brands. The Buffer article offers some useful pointers on becoming an effective curator, here are a few travel-specific reasons for doing so:

From creator to curator

High value content is the lubricant that moves prospects through your marketing funnel, encouraging and reassuring them along the customer journey until the final point of conversion.  But high value content is expensive and needs to be created and deployed strategically with a constant eye on outcomes and ROI.

Instead of filling the gap with lower value content and contributing to the deluge, content curation can pick up the slack. There’s absolutely no need to churn out new content just for the sake of it when something already exists elsewhere on the web.

Rather than writing yet another “recommended restaurants in…” space filler blog article, why not curate some of the best existing recommendations from elsewhere?

When you can create new value, create new content. Otherwise, curate it from elsewhere.

Promotion by association

But this isn’t just about time & cost saving. Travel consumers draw heavily on independent sources of information and reassurance before booking: travel guides, publications, blogs, review sites, and so on.

Curating relevant content from authoritative sources at the right moment can contribute significantly more to your customer journey than content you’ve created yourself.  Branded/owned media tends to appear biased or subjective – when reading your content your visitors are (rightfully) thinking “well you would say that, wouldn’t you?”

Putting independent authority content out there that reinforces your brand messages is a powerful way of moving people further down your marketing funnel and towards a conversion.

You can tell people how amazing your destination is until you’re blue in the face. Finding and sharing an articulate, inspirational travel blogger who says the same thing might be much more effective.

Engaging influencers

Which brings us to a welcome side-effect of effective curation: putting your brand in front of other consumer influencers and content creators.  Content creators love being shared and promoted to new audiences: your links, tweets, likes, recommendations and comments will earn you their appreciation, possibly a few shares in return and eventually a mutual relationship – especially if you follow the rules and curate ethically and positively…

The rule book

Curation isn’t copying and there are some ethical best practices that curators should follow, as much for your own benefit as for the publisher:

  • Only reproduce the excerpts necessary to make your point.
  • Don’t curate exclusively from a single source, filter what is relevant to your audience from multiple sources.
  • Prominently identify and link to the source (not hidden away at the end).
  • Provide additional insight, analysis or commentary that is longer and more detailed than any excerpts you reproduce i.e. add value, don’t just copy.
  • If curating images, only thumbnails should be used without permission. Images should link directly to the source.
  • Curated content should be retitled from the original source.

A few good curators

And finally, a curated list of some good travel curators (this is getting a little meta):

  • Outbounding.org: a project we’re involved with that offers a community-curated stream of high value, easily-shareable, travel content.
  • G Adventures do an excellent job on Facebook of curating high authority content from their own brand ambassadors and elsewhere.
  • Both WildJunket and National Geographic Traveler offer good examples of a regular roundup of curated travel content.
  • Barbara Weibel of Holeinthedonut.com is one of many excellent independent Twitter curators, sharing great content from across the web.

How about your audience? Could you be the curator they need?

Converged media travel marketing funnel I&I travel media

Converged media and the travel marketing funnel [infographic]

The preeminence of “content” within digital marketing strategy is well established, at least in theory if not yet in widespread practice.

Many of the very principles of web marketing have been recast around the demand for quality content i.e. material that adds sufficient value to the end user, generates conversations & relationships, and ultimately drives consumer behaviour. This new orthodoxy is called content marketing and it has subsumed previously siloed practices & channels such as SEO, social media, email, etc into one singular and integrated whole.

Well that’s the theory anyway. As usual the devil is in the detail, particularly around the tricky issue of integration. Far too much of the current discussion has halted at the first step and still revolves around vague platitudes like “invest in quality content” and “avoid spammy links.” This might have been useful back in 2011 when the first Panda updates hit, but it’s over two years since then and there are still only a notable few travel brands that have truly adapted to the new landscape.

I created this graphic as an attempt to demonstrate how content, or converged media, can play a key role throughout the entire travel marketing funnel.  The purpose of this graphic is to sketch out how each digital channel interacts with each other, at what phase of the consumer purchase process, and how content can be tactically deployed within the wider inbound marketing strategy to maximise outcomes and ROI.

This is an ambitious (possibly over ambitious) task and each brand will have its own unique travel marketing funnel. This is by no means a blueprint and by and large, smaller brands will be less active further up the funnel. The intention here is just to demonstrate the potential of a forward thinking content strategy and how it could work in practice.

Converged media travel marketing funnel I&I travel media


Please feel free to embed this graphic onto your own blog or site, using the following code:
<p><center><img src=”http://ianditravelmedia.com/iandi/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/converged-media-travel-funnel.jpg” width=”670″> <br/>The role of converged media in the travel marketing funnel from <a href=”http://ianditravelmedia.com/”>I&I Travel Media</a></center></p>


Are you getting serious about the new search marketing?

Search Engine Watch published a great article this week written by Jeff Slipko, SEO strategy manager at Expedia, specifically relating to the travel industry, with some stark warnings about the changing landscape of search marketing, many of which dovetail with what we’ve been saying at I&I Travel Media for some time.

The article takes a broad view of all the recent and ongoing developments in SEO, including:

  • Google’s recent Penguin algorithm update which targeted link spam,
  • The previous Panda update which targeted on-site content quality,
  • The ever stronger competition posed by the major brands (Kayak, Expedia, Google flight & hotel search, etc),
  • The ever decreasing margins available from relying on PPC advertising.

Based on all of these long-term processes, Jeff argues that:

Looking at online marketing as just PPC and SEO isn’t enough anymore. In a post-Panda and Penguin landscape, sites need to be better than that.

Successful travel sites will look at online marketing as a holistic effort that includes as many pieces of inbound marketing as possible – SEO, content, social media, conversion, user experience, on-site merchandising, just to name a few.

And, because a picture always speaks a thousand words, SEW also gave us this handy graphic which encapsulates the idea of a broader approach to online marketing:

Image credit: http://www.seomoz.org/ugc/what-to-charge-for-seo-and-inbound-marketing-services-14703

At I&I Travel Media we always like to see someone else banging the same drum as us, especially when what we’re saying has so much overlap. Here’s a passage from our recent ebook “A New Paradigm For Search Marketing In The Travel Industry

But times are changing. The most recent changes made in search engine and social media technology has signalled that the future of online marketing lies very much with the development and creative deployment of smart and innovative content. More than ever, it is content that will underpin success in search engine rankings, social media visibility and reach and brand development. The days of cheap content written for search engines are over, and online travel businesses of all shapes and sizes will need to consider investment in professional, quality content as important as their other online marketing channels.

So, the question is: are you getting serious about these real and rapid changes? Do you have a strategy in place? Are you ready to take advantage of the opportunities, or are you more likely to be caught off guard and get caught up in the risks?