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 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.

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.

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.

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