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.

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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:

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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.

Independent hotels & the untapped potential for local content marketing

In a recent Skift interview, Gray Shealy, executive director of the Master’s of Hospitality Management Program at Georgetown University, discussed how hotel chains could follow Airbnb’s lead to better connect guests with the local neighbourhood and provide a more immersive stay in the area:

“…what Airbnb allows a user to do is really have an accessible localized experience… People are looking to relate to people… and get away from the touristed restaurant establishments and things like that.”

Shealy argued that hotel groups should aim to provide a similar degree of connection to their locality, as an extended, hyper-local concierge service. In his view, hotels should become a “knowledge hub, a place, a resource, a library for the traveler.”

The interview was primarily about major hotel groups trying to improve their appeal against the onslaught of Airbnb-style competition. But we’ve been saying exactly the same thing to smaller, independent hotels for many years.

With their intimate local knowledge and expertise, these companies are much better placed to provide true connections and insights to their surrounding areas.

Not only that, but this knowledge can also be used as a powerful marketing asset to drive new bookings.

Think about it: when we talk about “local knowledge hubs” no one knows their patch better than independent hoteliers. While the Sheraton may give its guests a free mobile app to explore the neighbourhood, local hotel owners already have the vital info right there in their heads, on hand for whatever their guests need to know.

The best restaurants within 10 minutes walk… family friendly establishments… gluten free cafes… how to catch the tram to the museum… the bus to the train station… the reliable taxi company… the list goes on, and hotel owners don’t need fancy apps – they’re a true tourist information service with unparalleled knowledge accrued over many years.

Although hoteliers understand the usefulness of this information for their guests, most don’t realise its enormous potential as a cost-effective marketing asset to help generate new bookings.

Converting that expertise into a digital format – for example a guide to the local neighbourhood – creates a magnet that we can use to bring new visitors to the website.

When a traveller is searching Google and looking for information on the neighbourhood, the content will help bring them to our website. When they ask their friends in the area for recommendations, perhaps someone will share our guide with them. We can even run cheap ads on Facebook and Twitter, targeting users who may be planning a trip to the area.

For a good example see this guide to bird watching we recently published for a family-owned lodge in Peru. The guide provides expert content based on the owner’s many years experience, and it quickly became effective at bringing new visitors to the website.

Content Marketing - Matthew Barker - Reknown Travel MarketingUsers can download the content for free by subscribing to the mailing list. In doing so they instantly qualify themselves as a valuable prospect for the business.

After all, if someone is going to the trouble of downloading content this specific, it’s a safe bet they’ll be considering making a booking before long.

Once the audience has downloaded and engaged with the content, we’re able to follow up with retargeting ads and high quality email messages, making sure we remain fresh in their minds and that they come back to the site when they’re ready to make a booking.

This journey to purchase can be easily summarised with the following diagram:

Customer Journey - Matthew Barker - Reknown Travel MarketingThis is at the root of all content marketing: using your knowledge to build and engage an audience and then converting the audience into leads and sales.

In the long run this can become one of the most cost-effective sources of new bookings – significantly cheaper per booking than the approximately 15% commission that many hotels pay to online travel agencies (OTAs).

Hotels that are able to package their expertise into creative digital formats can tap into a huge demand for high quality, local information and use that as a driver for online bookings.

The success of all content marketing efforts rests on the quality and reliability of the raw material – and independent hotel owners are often the gold-plated, definitive source of local knowledge.

Have a think about your hotel, your audience and your own expertise. What knowledge assets are locked up in your business that we could unleash onto the web?

blog long tail SEO traffic - travel content marketing

Ignore the hyperbole: SEO is alive and kicking in travel (even for the small guys)

“SEO is dead” is a well-known catchphrase, most commonly heard from newly unemployed spam merchants in bitter reaction to Google’s latest algorithm update.

It’s always a wild exaggeration of course – the only thing that can “kill” SEO is for consumers to stop using search engines.

Unfortunately, nuance and restraint does not a clickbait headline make and the true victims of this hyperbole are business owners caught in the middle, trying to make sense of confusing and often conflicting advice on search marketing best practice.

dont panic SEO is not dead in travel content marketing strategy

But while SEO may not be dead, there’s no doubt that in just a few years it has changed beyond recognition.

Until fairly recently by pulling the right levers virtually anyone could build a business on “free” Google traffic from their target keywords.

A few optimised meta tags, keyword-stuffed content and some guest posts or paid links (never mind where from) and hey presto, a top spot for all your main lead generating (“money”) keywords:

  • Vacations to…
  • Hotels in…
  • Flights to…
  • Cheap deals for…

But allowing anyone to buy their way into the top rankings regardless of their actual worth was a problem for Google and its user experience. The search engine responded with a succession of updates to combat the dark arts, combined with a more punitive regime for sites caught breaking the rules. Over time this concerted psy-ops campaign helped terrify the link spam industry out of business.

The result was the colonisation of the money keywords by major brands, the ones with the perceived authority to justify a prime spot of Google real estate.

Run a search for any major travel queries and where there was once a diverse ecosystem you’ll now find (with a few exceptions) a monoculture of TripAdvisor, Expedia, Orbitz and other top tier brands.

(For reasons of brevity/sanity we won’t get into a value judgement over whether this is “a bad thing” or not. Many small sites didn’t deserve their demotion, many did. And yes those big brands are still pulling the same levers that got the small fry de-indexed. Let’s just agree that life isn’t fair.)

Although breaking into top rankings for major queries is still possible, it’s certainly not feasible for most smaller companies or new entrants without very deep pockets.

Sadly there are still many SEO agencies out there who’ll gladly say otherwise to part small business owners with their cash.

For a stark indication of how far SEO has diverged between large and small brands, take a look at Google’s own Customer Journey tool which breaks out the role that each channel plays in the marketing funnel.

For large travel companies, organic search remains a bottom funnel channel – most effective at capturing traffic at the moment of purchase and converting clicks into sales:

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But notice the dramatic reversal for small travel companies, where organic search switches from the classic bottom funnel, lead-gen channel and moves way up to the top of the funnel, bringing traffic in at the very start of the customer journey:

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See here for background and insights from the Customer Journey tool.

You couldn’t ask for a clearer sign of how far SEO has changed for most smaller travel businesses.

Locked out of the rankings for most big money keywords, they’ve been forced into the long tail of search queries – the almost infinite number of low competition, low volume keywords for which high rankings are more realistic.

So instead of ranking for keywords like “Croatia hotels” we’re talking about things like “what’s the best time of year to visit Zagreb with young children?” and the countless number of other tiny volume keywords that make up the long tail:

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It’s called the long tail for obvious reasons…

This is still potentially valuable traffic, but it’s a very different beast to the “old SEO” we were used to.

Harnessing and profiting from long tail traffic requires entirely different strategy and expectations to targeting high competition money keywords:

User intent

By definition these searchers aren’t ready to make a purchase. These are people who are researching and planning their trips, they’re coming in far too early in the customer journey to convert into leads or sales.

The challenge therefore is in converting these audiences into qualified prospects and to ensure they come back to the site later when they are ready to book.

There are a number of ways to achieve this: email, smart retargeting, paid search and social media to name a few.

This is at the core of all content marketing – first building and engaging an audience and then using the appropriate channels to bring them back on subsequent visit(s) to convert the sale.

With long tail traffic, organic search provides the first touch and we use other channels to close the sale. For example, here’s a conversion path that starts with organic search and finishes with a PPC ad click:

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And here’s a conversion path that starts with organic search and finishes with a click from social media:

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The idea is to use multiple channels together in order to extend the value and returns of each one. This takes foresight and strategic planning but the reward is lower costs per acquisition and improved ROI across the board.

Paid search (Adwords) is particularly pertinent here. With notoriously high costs per acquisition for many travel queries, using search retargeting to focus bids on consumers who have already engaged with your content can be a huge help in clawing back some of your margins.

Content planning: Also by definition, individual long tail search queries come with tiny search volumes.

It’s only by accumulating them in their thousands that you’ll bring a significant volume of traffic to the site.

But companies that have been investing in blogging or other content creation for several years will notice that their sites are already attracting plenty of long tail traffic, in fact it’s often the single biggest source of organic traffic for the entire site:

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Blogs can become a major source of organic traffic in the long run

“Optimising” for these queries is usually a case of simply creating the most useful content possible for the intended audience.

What to do

While “keyword research” and “on-page SEO” are still important for targeting high competition money keywords, it’s neither scalable nor necessary for long tail search.

Instead, focus on depth and detail. “Quality” is important, but mostly in terms of the substance of guidebook listings, not Hemingway-esque prose.

This means anticipating and answering the questions that your target audience may have when planning and researching their trip.

Your sales and operations teams can be a source of insight here – what are the common questions they find themselves answering?

From there you can extrapolate into the subjects connected to your destinations and services: the best time of year to visit… recommended attractions, museums & galleries… eating & drinking recommendations… travelling with kids and families…

There’s an almost infinite number of subjects that your potential customers would find useful.

Google’s Panda and Hummingbird updates both promoted detailed and informative content, and an on-site blog is a convenient place to accumulate an archive that drives long tail search.

Importantly, avoid creating another content farm just churning out content for the sake of it.

Fewer longer, deeper and authoritative articles are more useful than hundreds of thin posts about very little. Keep an eye on your analytics to identify the subjects that keep visitors on the site and focus on giving them more of what they want.

Mark Hodson is co-founder of 101Holidays which gets millions of visitors each year by targeting top funnel keywords.

He says:

“It’s certainly possible for small travel companies to compete against the big boys in search but you need to use all your expertise to create an invaluable online resource.

“Try to create pages that visitors will find and think ‘This is what I want – I can stop searching now’.

“Some tour operators are reluctant to share their destination knowledge because they’re worried that competitors and DIY holidaymakers will use it to their advantage, but there’s really no alternative now.

“Google is not rewarding companies that have ‘secret knowledge’ they refuse to share on their websites.”

Attributing value

A problem with top funnel channels is that it’s harder to evaluate their impact on the bottom line.

When SEO was primarily about lead gen it was fairly easy to look at the sales sent directly by organic search, do some simple sums on your costs and calculate your returns.

With long tail search (and any other top funnel channel) the activity isn’t generating direct sales, it’s starting conversion paths that are closed by other channels.

You want to credit the closing channel for the sale, but for accurate ROI measurement you also need to assign a value to the preceding clicks too.

With the Google Analytics assisted conversions report you can do just that.

With some simple configurations you can view the number of assisted conversions that were generated by your content, and compare them alongside your other channels:

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It’s possible to configure this report for any traffic source or piece of content you want to track.

As we’d expect, the above report shows us blog content tilted heavily towards assisted conversions – remember, these visitors are usually researching not booking.

It’s with the stronger last click channels shown above that we brought them back and closed the sale.

With this report we can see in clear terms the full value, and therefore the ROI, generated by our long tail SEO.

No one in their right mind would say that this is an easy, cheap or short-term solution. But the fact is that SEO is certainly not “dead”, even for the smaller players.

In fact, with their unique knowledge, insight and expertise it’s often the smaller, independent operators who are best equipped to lead in this area.

So maybe the SEO world is a little bit fairer than we thought, after all…

First published here on Tnooz.

travel content marketing path to purchase

Mapping the travel marketing funnel with Google’s customer journey tool

The decision-making process behind a travel purchase must be among the longest and most complex of all consumer choices, potentially taking years and countless sources of inspiration before travellers commit to a destination, choose a provider and make a booking.

Understanding the customer journey to purchase and how it translates into the marketing funnel is essential to effective content strategy. We need to know where our prospects originate, which channels bring them into first contact with the brand and how they interact with our content and each channel over time until converting into a sale.

These are idealised concepts – each customer experience is unique and the funnel differs from brand to brand according to the product and the nature of the particular audience. But thanks to some number crunching and an interactive tool from Think With Google, Google’s consumer insights division, we can identify some macro trends across the travel industry and explore what they mean for wider content strategy.

The tool uses anonymous Google Analytics data sampled from tens of thousands of travel companies, segmented into large, medium and small businesses based on the number of e-commerce transactions completed over 45 days (large > 10K transactions, medium 500–10K, small < 500).

The data is visualised to show which channels are most effective across the customer journey. Some are more effective as assisting interactions, i.e. making contact earlier in the path to purchase while others are stronger as last interactions, i.e. as the final touchpoint that closes the sale:

travel content marketing path to purchase

There are no surprises here and it’s fairly easy to interpret the journey indicated above. We know that display and, to a lesser extent, social media are not always great converters – people rarely click on either to complete a booking – but they are effective at initiating or assisting the purchase process. This confirms what we know about those channels: good for brand building, awareness and inspiration, not so great at closing sales.

Likewise, common sense tells us that direct traffic will always be weighted towards the last touch: these are consumers who have discovered the site previously via other channels, shopped around, checked the reviews, spoken to family and friends and then, once they’ve finally made up their minds, they return to the site directly for the last interaction and complete the booking.

Where it gets interesting is with the side-by-side comparisons of large, medium and small travel businesses and what that means for their respective content strategies. Compare this journey for small companies with the one for large brands shown above:

travel content marketing path to purchase

The most obvious difference is how fewer channels play a prominent role in smaller brands’ marketing funnels. This makes sense: smaller budgets and fewer resources necessitate a tighter focus and a simpler, more streamlined marketing funnel.

For smaller businesses the smart investments are always on reliable lead-gen channels that reach consumers further along the path to purchase. These companies don’t have the kind of resources to throw at higher funnel ‘inspiration’ style activities. They must focus their efforts on demand capture rather than demand generation.

Related to this is the dramatic switch of organic search from a last touch interaction to the earliest of first touches. This runs counter to the received wisdom that SEO is primarily a good lead generating, or last touch, channel.

In reality only the largest brands can now compete for the high demand “money” keywords, i.e. the “cheap hotels in…” and “vacation deals to…” searches, allowing them to hoover up the purchase ready, last-touch traffic.

These #1 spots are rarely within reach for most SMB travel companies, forcing them into the long tail of low competition queries for which they can realistically rank: “best time of year to visit Zagreb with young children” and an infinite number of other tiny volume queries.

Although long tail queries can be valuable, it’s very rarely purchase-ready traffic. These are planning and research searches, not credit-card-in-hand ready to book queries. The challenge is in figuring out how to convert this high funnel traffic into qualified prospects and recapturing users when they’re closer to making a booking.

This is important because many small business owners still assume that organic search should be their primary lead-gen channel, and there are more than a few SEO agencies out there willing to part them with their cash on that pretext.

Instead, smart SEO strategy should be about using the right content to attract qualified, high funnel clicks in combination with other channels more suited to converting and retaining prospects: email and paid search are the obvious candidates – just as we can in the graphic above.

[NB. Although not strictly a channel in its own right, retargeting (for display, search and social ads) is enormously effective at converting high funnel audiences into prospects and leads. Unfortunately the data doesn’t segment retargeting ad clicks.]

The journey for medium businesses also reveals some useful insights. Looking at the graphic below we can see the marketing funnel beginning to stretch. Unlike small companies, brands in this bracket are not focused exclusively on bottom funnel lead-gen activities and start to have more resources to invest in mid and higher funnel channels:

travel content marketing path to purchase

Organic search is still way out as an assisting channel, suggesting that even medium sized travel businesses can no longer rely on SEO as a primary lead-gen channel and should be thinking about higher funnel, content-based strategies instead.

We can see also the emergence of branded search as a supporting channel. This reflects the emergence of background brand awareness for companies in this category, potentially generated via offline advertising and marketing/PR initiatives, as well as online brand building activity.

It’s interesting to see that for medium businesses, display clicks are more effective further down the funnel than with large brands. This could be a reflection of large brands’ willingness to invest in brand advertising and top funnel inspiration, while for medium-sized companies display is more effective when used as a retargeting mechanism to recapture previous visitors and bring them back to the site.

While absent for small businesses, social media makes an appearance for mid-sized businesses although it’s markedly more of an assisting channel here than with large brands.

The implication is that businesses in this bracket aren’t using social media for lead-gen activity such as promotions, deals and other product or sales related content. Instead social can be effective at bringing in softer, higher funnel audiences and helping nurturing them for recapture further down the funnel.

As before the display, search (especially retargeting) and email channels offer ideal solutions to this challenge and we can see how effective they become at bringing audiences back to the site for conversion when they’re closer to making a purchase.

There are of course countless other questions and nuances to content strategy that this data doesn’t explore. Email here is treated as a black box when in reality email strategies vary wildly, from aggressive lead gen to the brand building and soft selling of curated content.

But the overall lesson is clear: it takes many touchpoints to make a travel sale, and each one offers an opportunity to inform, inspire and delight the audience, nurturing them into prospects and ultimately, leads and sales. Getting this right and understanding the role and limitations of each channel is the key to successful content marketing.