Travel marketing is a $@£$%

Digital marketing is a great way to burn lots of cash, now more so than ever. It used to be that SEO and Adwords were the only game in town. These days we’re scrambling for mobile strategy and attribution models; first we needed a plan for Pinterest, then it was Instagram, now it’s video. Even when you (sort of) know what you’re doing it can make your head spin.


Are you doing content marketing or just chucking spaghetti at the wall?

And then you have to do it all in travel. Admittedly I’m biased, but is there a more challenging B2C industry for marketers? Over the years I’ve noticed three fundamental features to travel marketing that are the bane of many businesses—especially SMBs—and the downfall of many a travel startup.

Here’s my take from a decade or so in travel marketing. What’s yours?

Acquisition costs are ridiculously high

Until fairly recently, even smaller travel businesses could expect to do okay on the “free” traffic generously supplied by Google. A few meta tags here some cheap content there, throw in a shit-ton of dodgy links and up the rankings you went.

For better or worse those days are largely over. SEO gimmickry is too risky and the first page results for any vaguely competitive travel query are stitched up by top tier brands.

When I started out in travel SEO ten years ago a query like “Peru vacations” would yield a mixed bag of independent operators and specialist companies. Try it now and you’ll get a monoculture of aggregators and top-tier OTAs, occasionally punctuated by some of the larger operators.

SEO isn’t “dead” but it has changed beyond recognition.

This trend forced the minnows into paid channels—originally Adwords, more recently Facebook. But ad networks are auctions where higher demand means higher prices, so having been forced into paid traffic acquisition these companies simultaneously faced an ever increasing cost per click (CPC).

These days an Adwords CPC for travel queries can range from $2 to $7 and beyond. Depending on a website’s conversion rate that can shake out at a cost per acquisition (CPA) at anywhere from $40 to $200+.

With non-ecommerce websites an acquisition is usually a lead or enquiry that must then be closed by a sales team. That’s an awful lot of money to be paying for an enquiry.

This isn’t just a travel thing—the exact same process has unfolded across all industries and the collective response has been the move towards content or “inbound” marketing. Roughly speaking this is about acquiring eyeballs further up the funnel where clicks are cheaper but less purchase ready, and then creating ways for some of them to come back later when they’re ready to make a purchase.

When done right this approach can certainly work. But for travel companies, the second big problem is that:

The customer journey is ridiculously long

There’s plenty of research on the time and length of travel purchase decisions, but we intuitively know that the process from an initial spark of inspiration down to actually booking a trip can take months, years or even decades.

And at each step of that journey people are drawing on 3rd party sources of information, reviews, distractions and competing offers.

So once you’ve been forced to shift your acquisition efforts earlier in the customer journey, you’re instantly plugging a leaking funnel and battling exponentially diminishing conversion rates.

Using content to “build audiences” is fine in theory, but it’s painful to think that many of these people could be months or years away from making a purchase.

(This, coincidentally, is why most “influencer marketing” has such a thorny relationship with attribution and ROI. “Impressions” up in the inspiration phase of the customer journey have a tenuous connection with bottom line KPIs like bookings and revenue.)

But it’s not impossible! If you’ve got the resources to create great content and the expertise to use social media, email and retargeting in a strategic, joined-up way, content marketing can definitely work for travel companies.

But the third fundamental problem is that:

Purchase frequency and customer retention are ridiculously low

All of this would be okay if leisure travel, like many other consumer industries, had reasonable purchase frequencies and high retention rates. But even in the biggest markets, people typically travel only a few times a year, with just just one or two international trips at most. Single destination operators are at a further disadvantage—how many travellers go back to the same place with the same company every year?

Even for the few companies with loyal customers who repeat book each year, that’s still a punishingly low retention rate compared to the up-front acquisition costs.

This means that even after being forced further up the funnel, where customer acquisition becomes more indirect, longer-term and leakier, the few people who do eventually book may never come back again!

Put these three factors together and you’ve got an extremely challenging environment for travel marketers, especially those on limited resources.

What to do?

There is a way through the morass, but you’ve got to work with these fundamentals, not against them.

High funnel acquisition efforts should have a relentless focus on delivering value and embrace the fact that, at this stage of the customer journey, people usually aren’t ready to book.

See Compass Magazine from Cox & Kings or Travel by Lightfoot, an email magazine from Lightfoot Travel; both are classic demand generation activities. Neither is overeager to force enquiries and bookings; instead they are used simply to bring early stage audiences into each brand’s funnel.

For those on more modest budgets, think in terms of demand capture rather than demand generation. Use content strategically, such as downloadable assets, to capture audiences when they begin to research a destination or experience. This is still high funnel activity with relatively low acquisition costs, and it gives you an easy way to convert casual audiences into qualified prospects.

Paid channels are cheaper when the traffic is less purchase-ready and the competition is less intense. Use digital ads earlier in the customer journey, and be smart with email and retargeting to build as watertight a funnel as possible.

The key to all these activities is providing as much value and quality as you can afford, and not prematurely forcing people towards bookings. They’ll book when they’re ready, not because you’ve filled their inbox and Facebook feed with promotions. Use different channels strategically and with restraint to provide a compelling, consistent experience as they make their own way down the journey to purchase.

A lot of this is anathema to marketers on tight budgets. But, when done right, it works out more cost effective than throwing ever more cash at Adwords and Facebook. It takes restraint, patience and plenty of added value. All things that, in an era of splogs, spam and relentless retargeting, can go a long way to win over your audience.

Using automated email to convert new subscribers into customers

Good old fashioned email is still a great marketing channel, allowing direct, personalised communication with your customers in a place where they still (for better or worse) spend plenty of time–their inboxes!

put email on autopilot with autorespondersAutomated email (otherwise known as email autoresponders) is a great way to put some of that activity on autopilot.

With automation you can send pre-written emails on a predetermined schedule, timed to reach each subscriber at just the right time.

Used properly, this tactic can make email a major component of your customer journey, i.e. the path to purchase that people follow before making a booking with your company.

When people first subscribe to your mailing list, they may not be ready to book. You can use email automation to ‘drip’ emails into their inbox, gradually giving them the information they need to make a decision and book.

There are several big advantages to this approach:

  • You can split big messages into smaller ‘bite-size’ emails, and drip them out over time. This prevents overload and avoids people zoning out.
  • It helps keep your brand at the forefront of people’s minds for an extended period of time.
  • You get total control of the delivery and timing. Social media channels in comparison make it much harder to reach the right people at exactly the time you want.

This is especially powerful in travel marketing. We know that it takes time for people to move from the “inspiration and dreaming” stage of the customer journey down to actually making a purchase.

Email autoresponders are a smart way of priming new subscribers and moving them through this process towards the “purchase” stages of the travel purchase decision. You can use an email sequence to start with trip planning content, and gradually get more specific about particular experiences and tours, before finally ending the sequence with an offer.

travel customer journey to purchase

And what’s more, it’s fantastically easy to set up! Most email service providers (ESP) offer email automation features that are intuitive and straightforward to use.

Email automation best practices

Provide value

Getting people to read an entire sequence of emails is a pretty big ask. Before you do anything, think carefully about what you want to send, and why. For it to be effective it needs to offer genuine value to your audience, beyond just getting them to book a trip. Empathise with their needs and interests and use your expertise to provide content that they’ll enjoy and value.


Make sure people know what they’re signing up for, and that they can expect to receive a sequence of emails. Be clear on the duration of the sequence (so they know it won’t last forever!) and clearly explain the purpose of the emails. Show them where and how they can opt out.

Be concise

You’ll usually get better mileage from more, but shorter and simpler, emails. Each email should pivot around a single issue or question that is relevant to that phase of the purchase decision.

One approach may be to frame each email in FAQ style, with each email answering a single question from ‘real life’. You could even include an element of user generated content (UGC) from your previous customers–take the questions or concerns most commonly fielded by your sales team and answer them in these emails.

This allows you to put a ‘human face’ to your emails–real questions from real people. It also lets you demonstrate your expertise and credibility with well thought out and compelling answers.

It’s all in the timing

You need to find a balance in your email timings. Too frequent and you’ll just annoy people, too infrequent and they’ll have forgotten all about you when the next email comes around.

Generally speaking the first ‘welcome’ email should come immediately upon sign-up. After that you can move onto an email every two or three days.

Simplicity works

Aim for just one action or outcome from each email. The ideal action is either a reply or a click to your website. Give people just one thing to do–if it’s click, give them one link to click on. Don’t dilute the objectives with lots of different objectives.

Test and optimise

Email automation metrics fit into two categories: email performance/engagement and conversions (leads, enquiries, etc).

Performance is easy: your ESP will give you open, click and reply rates. You can use those to benchmark each email performance and compare with industry averages.

You should be constantly evaluating your email performance and testing variations in things like your subject lines, images, headlines, and body text to improve your numbers.

Monitor outcomes

To fully understand the impact that your email sequence is having on the bottom line (enquiries and bookings) you’ll need to tag your URLs for Google Analytics to know where the clicks are coming from.

This is straightforward enough using Google’s URL builder. You’ll also need to have goal tracking configured in Google Analytics. (Give us a shout if you need any support with this.)

Setting up an email autoresponder sequence is very easy. But perfecting and optimising your campaign takes time and effort. Start by putting yourself in your audience’s shoes and thinking about what sort of emails they might appreciate. Once you’ve solved that, you’re halfway there!

Questions? Need some help? Get in touch any time!

travel customer journey to purchase

Why you shouldn’t leave “inspiration” and demand generation to the DMOs and big brands

As every travel business knows, the customer journey begins long before they pack their suitcase and head to the airport.

A typical traveller could have been planning their trip for weeks, months or even years prior to making a booking. People draw on a vast amount of online information while they research, plan and eventually book.

Smart digital strategy embraces this reality by nurturing people along the path to purchase. We use content to connect with people and build relationships with potential customers, capturing their attention and retaining their interest as they prepare to book a trip.

Doing this effectively means using multiple channels, fully integrated to work together as they move people through your marketing funnel and towards a sale:

travel customer journey to purchaseIn reality things are rarely this clear-cut. In a different situation you might use display ads in the “inspiration” stage of the customer journey. Email could be used in the “consideration” phase. Ditto for social, SEO, and pretty much any other channel you could name.

An easier way to break this down is by thinking in terms of demand generation vs demand capture. This is a simple concept but it could transform how you plan your digital strategy.

With demand generation we’re trying to inspire and educate our potential customers – informing them about destinations and experiences that they haven’t already considered or started researching.

This activity sits early in the customer journey, long before they start proactively searching for specific services and suppliers. With a travel purchase this could be years ahead of the booking date. Demand generation is usually the domain of DMOs and larger companies – people with the resources to spend on brand advertising and planting seeds of inspiration for long-term purchase decisions.

On the other hand demand capture is about connecting with people once they’ve made a decision and have started to search for a supplier. This is where most travel businesses’ marketing strategy begins – SEO and Adwords are classic demand capture channels and are where SMB travel firms tend to focus their budgets.

demand generation vs demand capture travel content marketing

It’s intuitive that smaller businesses would want to focus their attention on the directly lead-generating channels and leave the “inspiration” heavy lifting to tourist boards and bigger brands. But is it necessarily the case that travel SMBs should avoid spending time and money on demand generation outright?

Although demand generation activity is certainly a less direct and longer-term effort, there are a number of ways that it can pay off – even for smaller firms.

Own your audience

Firstly, demand generation creates opportunities to build your own audience.

Hoovering up purchase-ready traffic from Adwords is fine, but you’re still only buying Google’s audience. As soon as the money is turned off, or the cost-per-click gets too expensive, you’re left high and dry.

By contrast, demand generation activities let you put potential customers onto your own audience lists. Engaging audiences earlier in the purchase decision with compelling but non-promotional content means getting people onto email databases, into your retargeting lists and growing your social media followings. These are owned assets with a much longer shelf-life than an Adwords campaign.

Avoid the rat race

Secondly, building relationships with potential customers earlier in the purchase decision gives you an advantage when they do start searching for potential suppliers. Chances are that people are comparing your prices to a dozen other suppliers, along with TripAdvisor reviews and all the other validation people use to make a big travel purchase.

Getting in early and making an impact with genuinely useful, objective travel content and advice helps establish your brand, your credibility and your expertise. Anything that helps differentiate your company from the rest at the moment of purchase is enormously powerful.

Slash costs

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, building a pre-qualified audience of your own can also help slash your customer acquisition costs and improve your overall returns.

Retargeting to a warm audience is infinitely more effective than throwing your ads out there cold. Use retargeting on both Google and Facebook to show ads to people who’ve already demonstrated an interest by accessing your content.

This one-two approach to audience building, followed by audience conversion lets you cast a tighter net and avoid wasting precious money on less qualified clicks.

Find the sweet spot

Although it’s counterintuitive, spending money on indirect demand generation and audience building can save money further down the line when it comes to demand capture.

The trick is to find the sweet spot, aim for a balance between the two with the available budget and where you’ll get most bang for your buck.

Not sure where to start? Give us a shout and we’ll help you explore your options.

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 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.


Measuring your content: Converting audiences into bookings [ATWS slide deck & resources]

Just because content marketing is “indirect” in nature, that doesn’t mean you can’t quantify its impact on your bottom line. In this webinar, with the Adventure Travel Trade Association, we explore some of the basics to attribution in the travel customer journey.

View the full webinar here and see the slide deck and the links & further reading below for additional guidance on some of the topics covered.


Links and further reading

Slide 6: Alaska Alpine Adventures

Slide 8: Mapping the travel customer journey to purchase

Slide 12: Create, edit, and share goals in Google AnalyticsSet up Ecommerce TrackingCross-domain Tracking [if you’re using an external booking engine], Google Tag Manager [for easier control over your tracking].

Slide 13: When to Use Google Analytics Goal Values

Slide 15: How to Prove the Value of Content Marketing with Multi-Channel Funnels

Slide 16: See for dashboards and data visualisation. (Feel free to contact us for more info on setting this dashboard up.)