“Overtourism” and the neglect of demand generation

A couple of years ago I did a tiny piece of pro-bono consulting for Project Cordillera, a social enterprise promoting community-based trekking in the Andes and alternatives to the oversaturated Inca Trail.

The problem was that although there’s enormous demand for trekking in Peru, consumer awareness is concentrated almost exclusively on the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. Operators offering a new activity, even for the same audience in the same destination, find it hard to get their product in front of their target market.

There are roughly 33,000 Google searches a month for the “Inca Trail”, which makes it easy (if not cheap) to advertise via SEO or Adwords. The market exists, people are proactively searching for the product, and marketing is about demand capture or, in simple terms, being in the right place at the right time.

But if you’re developing a brand new trekking route, say the virtually unheard of Qhapaq Ñan trail, SEO and Adwords will be of little use – the market is too small (or nonexistent). No one is searching for the product, and there isn’t enough demand out there to capture.

Demand capture vs Demand generation in travel marketing

In this scenario the challenge becomes one of demand generation, or creating a new market entirely from scratch. You have to reach the target audience(s) and educate them about locations and activities they weren’t previously aware of. Only then can you nudge them into the consideration phase of the purchase decision and, hopefully, get them to book something.

Good content strategy anticipates and answers questions throughout the customer journey. Great content strategy addresses things they didn’t know they didn’t know.

But travel marketing is uniquely challenging, and large-scale demand generation is beyond the abilities and budgets of most tour operators. In reality the lion’s share of travel marketing expenditure goes into demand capture, with advertisers slugging it out in competition for consumer awareness and attention.

And because mainstream travel publishing is now an unofficial branch of travel marketing, the entire problem seeps out from advertising and into the media that people see and consume, further stimulating demand where it already exists.

This is one of many contributing factors to the “overtourism” crisis. The industry as a whole has neglected new markets in favour of chasing easy money and pageviews. The result is unsustainable consumer demand in a relatively small number of destinations, while lesser-known locations struggle for visitors.

Stuart McDonald, cofounder of the Travelfish website, charges people for travel consulting, helping them figure out where to go and what to do. As he puts it: “One of the biggest challenges is steering people away from place A to place B – not because B isn’t as “good” but because Aunt Nancy went to A, so my client has to go there too. There’s a big part of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ to this. It’s not all the fault of the industry, but there’s this self-perpetuating cycle that keep popular places popular.”

This is a gap that tourist boards and DMOs will need to cover. Rather than driving ever greater visitor numbers, tourism authorities in popular locations will have to shift towards managing and spreading demand within their destinations.

But this represents a fundamental retooling in content strategy and marketing tactics. And although we’re moving in the right direction, the execution is not always there:

This opens up some blue ocean that independent publishers and startups can occupy. Everyone wants a solution to this problem:

  • Consumers are fed up with mass tourism and saturated destinations.
  • Travel companies and tour operators find demand capture too competitive, while creating demand for new products is difficult and expensive.
  • Tourist boards will need new approaches to destination marketing to make their local markets more sustainable and differentiated.

This is something we’re very interested in at Horizon Guides. Our marketing solution for tour operators and tourist boards straddles the boundary between demand generation and demand capture.

We acquire most of our readers in the early stages of travel research when they’re in-market for a destination, but aren’t entirely sure where to go, what to do, or how to do it. This means we can do the heavy lifting in demand generation to promote new and emerging activities and locations.

We’re starting with our guide to trekking in Peru which we’re reissuing with a heavy slant on alternatives to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, plus some new partners who offer amazing experiences that most people will never have heard of.

In the era of overtourism, “getting off the beaten path” has changed from a pithy but empty marketing slogan into an imperative that affects the entire industry. We think that by rectifying the systemic neglect of demand generation, Horizon Guides can help make a difference.

Tour operator trying to launch something new? DMO seeking to spread demand? We can help you reach and inform your audience – get in touch to find out more!

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.

The complete guide to paid media channels in travel content strategy

The trick to effective content marketing is being in the right place, at the right time, with the right content and messaging.

Once you’ve defined your audience you can start planning content campaigns to fit their needs at various stages of the customer journey to purchase.

Customer journey to purchase and decision making process in travel

Tactical considerations include how we a) distribute and amplify our content to reach the right people at the right time, and b) how we reconnect with them at a later stage when they’re ready to make a purchase.

Paid channels such as display, search and social pay-per-click (PPC) ads provide some of the most reliable and consistent solutions to distributing content to target audiences and recapturing qualified prospects later in the customer journey.

paid channels in travel content marketing customer journey

Bonus resource! Paid media is notorious for its acronyms – you’re going to see a lot in this article. To help, we’ve included a handy glossary to all the main terms at the end. Enjoy!

Display advertising: alive and kicking (ish)

Display ads (“banners”) are one of the oldest and most recognisable ad formats. Originally a mainstay of online advertising, the utility of banner ads has been questioned in recent years.

While it’s true that click through rates (CTR) on standard display is low relative to other formats, they do retain a role in the content strategy mix.

The biggest platform for display ads is the Google Display Network (GDN), which is administered via the Adwords interface.

They look something like this:

google display advertising in travel customer journey

Common characteristics:

  • Very low cost per click (CPC) – usually between $0.10 – $0.30.
  • Reasonable targeting – you can target basic demographics, interests and contexts. A very useful feature on the GDN is placement targeting i.e. choosing the sites where you want your ads to appear – great if you know which sites your audiences visit.
  • Low purchase intent – people rarely click banners and make a purchase. This means it’s much more effective early in the journey to purchase.

In terms of content strategy and the customer journey, these characteristics make display useful for distributing content, generating high volumes of traffic and bringing moderately qualified prospects in at the top of the funnel.

An example use-case would be using display ads to promote content, such as a downloadable guide. This is an affordable way of bringing high volumes of traffic, which can be qualified and re-captured at a later stage.

Honourable mention: Gmail ads. Gmail ads are a subset of the Google Display Network that offer some slightly different “inbox friendly” ad formats which appear in the “Promotions” tab of the Gmail inbox.

Gmail ad targeting is based on user activity, i.e. displaying ads related to the subjects people are emailing about. This gives them an edge on ‘regular’ display ads as it means we can start targeting users’ travel intentions. For example, if people are emailing their spouse, family or friends about booking a walking holiday to Italy, we can use that context to target relevant ads.

Gmail ads have niche potential – they can have an exceptionally low cost per click and, depending on targeting, can send fairly well qualified traffic. They’re great for distributing free content such as downloadable guides and bringing high volumes of cheap traffic to the site. It won’t convert into bookings on the first visit but it will get people into your ‘funnel’ to be qualified and re-captured later in the customer journey.

Facebook ads

Facebook’s advertising product has turned the company from plucky startup to corporate behemoth in less than a decade. And once you realise the power of its ad targeting features it’s easy to see why.

facebook newsfeed ads for content promotion amplificationWith its vast amount of user data, Facebook has unparalleled ability to laser target hyper-specific audience demographics and interest groups.

Its main characteristics:

  • Exceptional targeting.
  • Powerful, automated optimisation.
  • Medium-to-high cost per click.
  • Great for highly targeted clicks and results (conversions).
  • Great for reaching mobile audiences.

Facebook ads are controlled and administered via the self-serve Business Manager interface.

The platform’s versatility makes Facebook ads useful at various stages of the customer journey, but it’s worth bearing in mind that people aren’t often purchase ready when they’re using Facebook. They’re more likely to be browsing and chatting than booking.

This makes Facebook ads ideal for soft content “amplification” such as promoting downloadable content, contests, etc.

Other notable features are video view ads which are currently at very low ‘cost per view’ and can be a great source of “inspiration & dreaming” phase audiences.

Another format that is worth a look is Instagram ads, which are also controlled via Business Manager. Again, a good source of early phase “inspiration & dreaming” audiences.

Generic search

As we move further along the journey to purchase we move out of the “inspiration & dreaming” phases and into the “planning” and “discovery” stages. Here people are searching for specific products and services and they overwhelmingly use Google to find them.

This is where “generic” search ads come in handy. As with display (above), this is administered through the Adwords interface. Search targeting is based on keywords – matching ads to the search terms that people enter into Google. Generic keywords describe the products or services that people might be searching for; “cheap flights” or “trekking holidays” for example.

generic google search ads in the travel customer journey

  • Very high purchase intent – people are ready to book and hand over their cash, these ads let you capture them at this critical moment.
  • Exceptional intent targeting – you can match your ads to the specific keywords people are using.
  • Very high cost per click – demand for these ads is sky high, which forces the cost up; travel keywords range from $2 to $10+ per click.

As a result, search ads are best for hoovering up purchase-ready prospects. Their high cost means that campaigns must be properly targeted and configured – it’s scarily easy to burn through your entire budget with a poorly configured campaign.

Brand search

Brand search ads work exactly the same way as generic search (above). The only difference is that here we’re targeting the brand or company name in the keywords.

This is a subtle but important difference. It implies that people are already aware of the company name, and are searching you out specifically.

google brand search ads in the travel customer journey

  • Best converting – you’ll get the best click through and conversion rates from brand search.
  • High CPC – not as high as generic search but still fairly expensive per click.

Brand search is best for capitalising on wider brand awareness and other activities such as offline promotions or PR.

Beware of competitor bidding! If you have a strong brand you might find your rivals are targeting your brand keywords too, trying to scoop up some of your audiences. This is allowed in the Adwords terms of service, but it’s not okay to use trademarked brands in the ad headlines or text without permission.

The secret weapon: retargeting & lookalike audiences

The above channels are useful enough in their own right and can bring a lot of extra value to your content marketing efforts, but it doesn’t stop there.

Wading in to really shake things up is the hugely powerful concept of audience retargeting.

Not strictly a channel in its own right, retargeting (or “remarketing” to Google) is a targeting tool that can be used in conjunction with all the ad formats outlined above.

In a nutshell it means we can show our ads specifically to people who’ve already visited our site and engaged with our content.

This puts the paid channels on steroids and unlocks the secret to content marketing ROI by recapturing the people we’ve previously reached with our content efforts.

Use-case: people who’ve downloaded a travel guide on your site have demonstrated a keen interest in the subject. Showing these people related ads further down the customer journey is a surefire way to turn engaged audiences into leads and sales.

A second powerful retargeting feature is lookalike audiences, i.e. other people who share the demographics and interests of your target audience, letting you reach even more people with your ads.

If 1,000 people download a travel guide from your site then that’s a great result! You can then use a lookalike audience to target audiences that are orders of magnitudes larger with overlapping interests and demographics to the original 1,000 people. This means high volume while retaining the relevance and targeting of your original audiences.

Watch out: Retargeting has earned a bad rap thanks to its ‘stalky’ undertones and the unsettling feeling of being watched and followed as you browse around the web. Generally speaking, if your ads feel intrusive then you’re doing it wrong. It’s a powerful tool and needs to be handled with caution – unfortunately many advertisers go way overboard. Be subtle, offer genuine value and try to provide an enjoyable user experience.

Update: An obvious (but surprisingly overlooked!) way to keep things subtle is to remove or exclude people from your retargeting audience once they’ve converted. Otherwise you’re wasting budget and potentially upsetting people at the same time. (h/t @travelfish).

Some other important considerations

Paid channels can be a cash burner: When you’re paying for your traffic you need to make sure every click counts. Use the right tool for the job and be conscious of how different formats are more (or less) suitable at different phases of the customer journey.

Watch your quality/relevancy scores: All the channels outlined above use some form of relevance score to ‘grade’ the quality of your ads and their suitability for the target audience. Poor quality signals such as low click through rates and unfocused targeting will force up the cost per click and can ruin your ROI.

Be granular: Maintain high relevancy scores by being focused and granular, breaking your campaigns out into as many segments and audience groups as is practical. Don’t try to squeeze everyone into a ‘one size fits all’ campaign. Tailor your targeting and ad messages to specific groups.

Test, optimise and test again: Never just switch on a campaign and leave it on auto-pilot. You need to continually test, adjust, and optimise to prevent ad fatigue and declining relevancy scores.

Neither Google or Facebook are your friend: Both ad platforms are deliberately confusing and offer “automation” features of dubious value. Tread very carefully – their #1 goal is to get you to spend more money, not necessarily help you get the best outcomes.

Bonus: Glossary of online advertising and paid channels

Adwords: Google’s self-serve advertising platform. This is where you create and manage all your Google ad campaigns, and includes both Google search and Google display ads.

Business Manager: Facebook’s self-serve interface, the equivalent to the Adwords dashboard.

Cost-per-acquisition (CPA): The amount you spend on each acquisition – which could be a sale, a lead, an enquiry or any other action. CPA is the main metric of campaign performance.

Cost per click (CPC): The average you spend on each click. This is how most ad campaigns are charged for – you choose how much you’re willing to spend for a click. Travel CPCs depend on the platform, ranging from 10 cents for display ads to $10+ for high competition search keywords.

Cost per thousand impressions (CPM): The average you pay for 1,000 views of your ad. This is most relevant for display and Facebook advertising and is an alternative way of charging for ads.

Conversion rate optimisation (CRO): The process of testing and optimising results (conversions) from paid campaigns. This can involve adjustment to ad design, audience targeting, and landing page design.

Click through rate (CTR): The % of clicks on an ad per total impressions (see below). A low CTR indicates poor ad design and targeting, which can push up the average cost per click.

Impressions: The total number of times an ad has been viewed.

Google Display Network (GDN): The vast network of 3rd party websites that display Google banner ads – in the region of 2 million websites. These 3rd party sites earn a share of the cost per click that Google charges the advertiser.

Pay per click / cost per click (PPC/CPC): A catch-all name for any online advertising that is charged on a per-click basis. Sometimes (confusingly) used to describe Google search ads.

Programmatic: Automated campaign management tools that continually adjust your bids in real time to get you the lowest cost per click and higher click through rates. Mostly applicable to high volume, large budget campaigns, and generally administered via 3rd party services.

Retargeting / remarketing: A tool for targeting audiences who’ve previously visited your content. Offered by both Facebook and Google.

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.


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 Slemma.com for dashboards and data visualisation. (Feel free to contact us for more info on setting this dashboard up.)