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.

spaghetti

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.

travel massive what is brand publishing and why do content creators care

What is brand publishing and why should content creators care?

Bloggers working with travel organisations is nothing new. But as the marketing landscape evolves and travel companies start to think and act like publishers, we’re finding exciting new opportunities for content creators and audience builders to work with their industry partners.

Travel businesses have a huge need for insights and data on the audiences they’re trying to reach, can independent publishers and bloggers move beyond the sponsored content model and start to provide a new level of value? It will require a higher degree of maturity to our relationships but the opportunities are vast!

See the slides from our talk at TravelMassive Manchester, Dec 9 2015 here:

measuring-your-content-converting-audiences-into-bookings-4-638

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

Re-cap the details of our ATWS session on content strategy with the following deck. Links to further reading and additional resources are also provided below.

Links & further reading

Slide #7: Google’s customer journey tool / Mapping the travel marketing funnel

Slide #10: See the ebook in action

Slide #11: The biggest mistake in content marketing (and its very simple solution)

Slide #13: Influencer marketing: has the bubble burst?

Slide #16: Ignore the hyperbole: SEO is alive and kicking

Slide #17: Using retargeting to unlock content marketing ROI

Slide #18: CRO: The anatomy of an ideal tour landing page

Slide #20: Curating for travel consumers / How to curate an email newsletter that people will read

Slide #22: Content planning template

 

 

content and search retargeting - matthew barker

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

Content fever continues to spread, with travel companies pumping out articles and ebooks, hosting blog trips, posting photos to Instagram and building their email lists, but to what end?

We have the faint notion that “content” helps us sell to our audiences, but the actual mechanics behind that process can be less clear. Despite the content deluge, too few companies are doing this strategically and with little grasp on the bottom line value. Meanwhile many agencies and “experts” are happy to part them with their cash for “content” without any meaningful strategy. AKA:

chucking spaghetti at the wall content marketing strategy

Part of the problem is a disconnect between “content” and the rest of digital marketing strategy. Content is the engine that drives our marketing, it isn’t a standalone activity in its own right. The better the content, the more powerful the engine. But you still need to use it strategically to reach and engage the audience at the right time and place, and at some point you need to find ways of turning those new audiences into sales.

Here are three brief examples of how content can integrate with wider digital strategy to have a tangible impact on your bottom line:

Lowering paid search CPAs

If, like most travel companies, paid search (namely Google Adwords) is swallowing the lion’s share of your marketing budget, even a small improvement in campaign efficiency can have a massive impact on your returns.

The key to PPC success is ruthlessly optimising conversion rates while lowering the cost per acquisition (CPA), i.e. how much you spend to get a customer. When you’re spending several dollars per click at high volume, getting a handle on the CPA is critically important.

Smart content strategy can play an important role here. Engaging people with stand-out content first and then bringing them back to your site with targeted search ads gives you highly-engaged, pre-qualified audiences who are much more likely to convert than consumers coming in cold with no previous contact.

You can segment this audience and use search ads to re-capture them at the moment of purchase. With the analytics data indicating exactly how much more likely they are to convert, you can adjust your bid strategy to spend more on acquiring this traffic and still see lower CPAs thanks to much improved bounce and conversion rates.

GA SEPT Barker publisher pic1

Targeting paid search to people who’ve previously engaged with your content is a great way of using content to support bottom-line results.

Success will depend on the quality and nature of your content, and its relevance for the audience you’re trying to reach. You need to offer people extraordinary content that is perfectly suited to their needs at that stage in the journey to purchase.

But the content alone is not enough – coupling it with search retargeting opens the door to consistent and scalable returns.

Improving CLV with email

Regardless of how you’re bringing in the leads and sales, extending the value from each one is another critical, but often ignored, efficiency. Retaining prospects and customers is usually much cheaper than acquiring new ones and you already know that happy and engaged customers are more likely to repeat book and can be powerful evangelists for word-of-mouth referrals.

Email is a perfect channel for extending Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) but you’ve got to be smarter than simply blasting out company updates and your latest promotions. Recognise that email isn’t always great as a lead-gen tool, but that winning opt-in permission to access someone’s inbox gives you a huge opportunity to share relevant, valuable content and reinforce your brand’s credibility and authority.

A common mistake is to send the “company newsletter” format email: Aim to send what your audience wants to read, not what you want to tell them. You can even go as far as to curate an email magazine with content from other quality sources in addition to your own.

The goal is to use your email to establish your credibility and expertise. When they’re ready to make a repeat booking, or recommend a supplier to their friends, it’ll be your brand that comes to mind.

With the conversion path reports you’ll see email emerging as an assisting channel, kicking off conversion paths at the start of the journey to purchase:

GA SEPT Barker publisher pic2

Again – exemplary content is the vital first step. But it won’t suffice on its own. You need to understand where your email fits within the wider strategy in order to evaluate its true impact.

Converting PR & exposure into leads

In the widest sense, PR is any form of earned exposure: press coverage is the obvious example but social media visibility, blogger partnerships and “influencer marketing” all qualify as online PR.

Whereas in the past you could only guesstimate the value of PR via metrics such as ad value equivalent (AVE), these days robust analytics and attribution modelling allow you to trace high-funnel interactions from PR activity all the way down to leads and revenue.

But doing this requires an understanding of the journey to purchase, and what content and information your customers require at each stage. It’s reasonable to expect some leads from a PR engagement, but it’s also likely that much of the audience won’t be prepared to make a booking at the exact moment they’re reached.

By creating touchpoints and connections to maintain contact with these people as they move through the funnel you can bring more of them back to the site when they do become ready to part with their cash, thus improving your returns from the entire engagement.

This is all measurable in your Google Analytics reports, allowing you to see the actual $ value even from indirect and high-funnel PR engagements.

Email, retargeting and social are all obvious tools – which one you choose will depend on the nature of your target audience, where they’re active and the types of content they need to make a purchase decision.

Takeaway

There are countless other ways to unlock ROI from brand publishing – with smart content strategy you can identify the most appropriate solutions for the audience and with proper attribution modelling it’s easier to evaluate bottom-line outcomes, even with long and convoluted conversion paths.

Getting these two pieces in place is the essential first step before making any content investment.

This post first appeared here on Tnooz.

Why content marketing is its own worst enemy – and what to do about it

Although this deck is a couple years old and is nominally about B2B marketing, it’s still incredibly relevant to companies trying to connect with travel consumers:

The core question is simple: if, like every other brand, you’re now supposed to be a publisher – what does that mean for the volume of content your audiences are exposed to, and how easy will it be to reach them through the deluge of noise and competing information?

As the signal-to-noise ratio widens, what does that mean for audience fatigue and consumers’ ability (or willingness) to absorb and engage with the ever rising tide of branded content?

The answer is obvious – people will put up their barriers, tune out and switch off. And they’d be right to do so.

But smarter brands have already recognised new opportunity in this ever noisier landscape. You understand that while everyone else is locked in a race to the bottom churning out space-filler blog articles and yelling into the void on Facebook, you can differentiate your brand with stand-out content that truly serves its purpose: to reach, engage, and sell to your audience.

This is something Rand Fishkin recently addressed with his excellent video Why “Good Unique Content” Needs to Die:

The rise of content marketing over the last five, six years has meant that there’s just a lot more competition. This field is a lot more crowded than it used to be, with many people trying to get to a higher and higher quality bar.

Rand’s answer is that instead of toeing the old line about producing “good, unique content” we need to be striving for much, much better, or 10X content, i.e. “10 times better than anything I can find in the search results today.”

The lesson is that just being a “publisher” is no longer enough, when everyone else is being a publisher too.

You need to be striving for genuine excellence in your output, producing content that demonstrates the expertise and passion that makes your brand unique.

And you need to wrap that content inside a complete marketing strategy that not only builds and engages your audiences, but creates multiple opportunities to sell to them and deliver clear, consistent ROI.

Fortunately, this isn’t as tough as it sounds. If your company has an interesting story to tell, then you’re already halfway there. Give us a shout to explore your opportunities.