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?

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.

retargeting ads unlock content marketing ROI - I&I Travel Media

Using retargeting ads to unlock content marketing ROI

Content marketing is, by definition, an indirect approach to revenue generation. In fact, so the theory goes, the more indirect the better.

But although it’s true that content created to delight and inform, not to sell and promote is usually more effective at engaging audiences, the inescapable question is: when and how does that translate into bookings and revenue?

There are various approaches to converting casual audiences into paying customers, but perhaps the most direct and measurable is via retargeting ads, a subset of pay-per-click (PPC) advertising that allows you to show ads tailored to people who have previously visited pages on your site and engaged with your content.

This is especially useful in a content marketing context: great content is effective at creating initial touch points with the target audience, but they’re usually top-funnel clicks from consumers who aren’t always ready to make a purchase.

content marketing in the travel customer journey to purchase

Retargeting is an easy way of keeping the brand in front of these people as they move along the customer journey, bringing them back to the site at just the right moment for a booking or other conversion:

retargeting ads unlock ROI from content marketing - I&I Travel Media

The mechanics are fairly simple: using either tracking cookies or your email database you can build audience lists defined by specific visitor behaviours, for example people who viewed your blog or other content assets but not your sales pages, people that abandoned the site at the booking form, etc.

You can then create ads tailored to these audience lists on a number of different retargeting platforms:

The Google Display Network has long-established retargeting capabilities (Google calls it remarketing), which lets you place banner ads on sites across the web. For even better precision you can also combine your retargeting lists with the network’s other targeting capabilities, such as location, interest, placement, and more. Display ads are often seen as the runt of the PPC litter but combined with retargeting they can come into their own as a powerful lead generator – particularly if the original content left a lasting impression on the user:

display retargeting ads for content marketing ROI - I&I Travel Media

Remarketing Lists for Search Ads (RLSA) allow you to target Google search ads to people who have previously engaged with your content and are therefore significantly more likely to convert. Search ads are already the king of the lead-gen channels, adding retargeting can make paid search even more powerful:

search retargeting for content marketing ROI - I&I Travel Media

Retargeting for search ads is especially attractive since paying for Adwords clicks can be a major drain on marketing budgets. RLSA offers two powerful refinements to regular Adwords PPC strategy:

  • You could choose to bid on keywords you don’t usually target just for people who have viewed content on your site. For instance you might reserve keywords with very high CPC for people who are already familiar with your brand and content.
  • Alternatively you could simply choose to increase the bids on your regular ads for people who have previously visited your site, to increase your chance that these extra qualified prospects will see and click your ads.

Finally, Facebook Custom Audiences offers a similar solution for showing News Feed ads to people who have visited your site, specific pages, or downloaded your content.

There are various other platforms that may be of use for certain campaigns, such as video retargeting lists for YouTube audiences, retargeting ads for Twitter, and services like Adroll for managing high volume programmatic campaigns across multiple networks.

These are powerful solutions (sometimes a little too powerful), and there is some risk that needs to be managed. Aggressive retargeting can lead to ad fatigue among your audience, which will hit campaign performance while negatively impacting your brand.

There’s also the risk of seeming  creepy – we’ve all noticed these ads ourselves while online: that weird sense that you’re being followed by some cruise operator ever since you read an article on winter sun destinations three weeks ago.

When a consumer gets to this point you’ve gone too far and you start doing more harm than good. It’s important to balance your campaign and keep it appropriate for the audience.

Effective retargeting

Stay unobtrusive: Cap the number of impressions and put a reasonable time limit on your ads. If they’re not clicking or converting after a week or so, chances are they’re not going to – know when to let people go.

Target placements: Google Display Network allows you to determine specific sites for your ads. Use this to exclude low quality categories (gambling & adult sites, mobile apps, etc) and your knowledge of the audience to target the sites they’re most active on, especially when in “purchase mode” for your product.

Custom Vs automated audiences: Both Facebook and Google offer “lookalike” tools to expand your audience to other users not in your actual retargeting list but based on similar affinity/interests. Tread carefully and be sure not to expand your audience list too wide – the wider it is, the less targeted it becomes and you start to lose all the benefits of retargeting.

This also defeats the object of using retargeting to reconnect with existing prospects and people who have engaged with your content.

Test, optimise and test again: Don’t just press play and sit back. Monitor and optimise your ad groups, the creatives, your messaging, your bids, the landing pages you’re sending traffic to, everything. Every saving you make can be reinvested into the campaign to produce more leads.

Continuity: Aim for coherence across your campaign. You want people to know they’re dealing with the same brand in each interaction from initial contact with your content, to clicking on your ads, to arriving at a landing page. This is important for conversion rates but it’s also critical for long term brand building and recognition.

Tread very carefully with mobile display partners: Both Facebook and Google will offer to show your ads on their various networks of 3rd party sites, including mobile sites and apps. Think carefully about spending money on low quality mobile clicks as your ads will appear in some very unusual (and not always useful) places and you can very easily burn through your budget on useless clicks.

How have your experiences been with these retargeting tools? Give us a shout for more information or advice.

travel content marketing - if you build it they will come

The biggest mistake in content marketing (and its very simple solution)

Of all the potential pitfalls and mistakes with content marketing, perhaps the most common is the assumption that “great content is all it takes.”

This is the belief that as soon as you’ve published your brand new, jaw-dropping content the audiences will immediately flock to your website, falling over themselves to subscribe to your blog and newsletter, follow your Facebook page and generally throw their cash at you.

As Rand Fishkin recently explained, this almost never happens. The reality, as many businesses quickly discover, is that even the best content can languish without a kickstart to push it in the right direction.

travel content marketing - if you build it they will come

PAID VS ORGANIC PROMOTION

That kickstart can come in two broad forms: earned and paid promotion. Earned promotion or influencer outreach (essentially online PR) is incredibly important – particularly if your content is truly as good as you think it is.  Finding journalists, publications, bloggers and other influencers to help promote your work can be an effective (and satisfying) way of getting content in front of its target audiences.

Earned promotion is also insanely difficult and time consuming. Influencers tend to be busy people and you’ll usually need a prior relationship to get even a reply to your email, let alone any concrete offers of help. They may expect payment, which blurs the lines between organic and paid promotion but is often a sensible route as without a solid and mutually beneficial agreement you’ll often find that the “buzz” around your content quickly plateaus once your influencers and their audiences move on to the next item of interest.

content amplification paid organic plan vs reality

Which one does your organic promotion most resemble?

The hard reality is that unless you’re Coke or Oreo the vast majority of content, no matter how good, is unlikely to gain the organic traction required to deliver a solid return on the campaign.

Fortunately paid promotion, or paid amplification, offers us an effective and affordable lifeline and there are a number of pay-to-play solutions that can give your content the boost it needs early on in its life cycle.

Facebook Newsfeed ads

paid content amplification with facebookFacebook has faced numerous complaints with the quality and usefulness of its ad services but the platform is undoubtedly effective in displaying content that is laser targeted to audience interests, locations and other important demographics.

Recently Facebook has simplified its ad options, and for content amplification you’ll be most interested in the ad type labeled “Clicks To Website”

Once you’ve determined your budget and targeting preferences you can set the location for your ads: Newsfeed, mobile Newsfeed, or the right hand column.  The newsfeed ad is by far the most prominent location which sits seamlessly inside each user’s feed and, with the right targeting, messaging and creatives, can be enormously effective at driving traffic to your new content.

Another important element to Facebook’s ad offerings are the Lookalike Audience tool – allowing you to target a much wider net of consumers with similar interest to your existing followers or website visitors.

Read more: Introduction to Facebook Lookalike Audiences

Promoted Tweets

Twitter is another vast social network that can be useful in getting content in front of your target audiences. Using their simple advertiser interface you can set up Promoted Tweets that will appear in prominent locations for the preferred audience. Like Facebook, Twitter allows some powerful targeting solutions, including targeting users who follow specific accounts.

Read more: How do Promoted Tweets work?

Paid discovery (Outbrain / Taboola)

A relatively new entrant is the “paid discovery” model currently dominated by two services, Outbrain and Taboola.

paid content amplification with outbrain

Someone clicks these? Yep, and in huge numbers too.

Paid discovery allows advertisers to place links to their content inside ad blocks on other publishers’ sites. The advertiser pays per click, which is split between the platform and the publisher.

Unlike regular PPC advertising, Outbrain and Taboola both focus on editorial content: you can’t use their networks to promote commercial pages or products, and they both enforce some degree of editorial oversight in order to maintain a baseline level of quality within their networks.

Both have signed an impressive stable of top-tier publishers into their networks, making it possible to drive huge amounts of traffic to your content, which at between .25 – .40 cents per click is far from prohibitive. The two systems are roughly equivalent, the major difference being that Taboola seems to emphasise entertainment and gossip content while Outbrain has more coverage of relatively higher-brow content and publishers.

The main drawback to these platforms is the lack of targeting options available. Outbrain claims that its algorithms determine the context of the content, its popularity and other factors and then recommend it to particular viewers based on their own browsing behaviour and interests. This is fine in theory but you have to take them on their word that the targeting algorithm is as good as they claim.

The other downside is that the platforms are still young and not particularly user-friendly. Getting a campaign up and running can take some time and navigating the admin dashboard isn’t hugely intuitive. It also takes a few days data collection before you can optimise your images and headlines.

Reddit ads

Compared to some of its younger and flashier rivals and despite its colossal traffic and loyalty figures, Reddit barely gets a look in for ad dollars. This is great for advertisers as it makes inventory insanely cheap and, because the site is organised into thousands of “subreddits” on virtually any subject, audience targeting comes as standard.

Unlike the cost-per-click models above, Reddit sells ad units on a CPM basis, i.e. for every 1,000 ad views. Advertisers use the simple self-serve interface to create their ads and decide which interest groups or subreddits they want to target.

Pricing is streamlined: targeting interest groups costs a uniform $0.75 per 1,000 views, or $1 per 1,000 views for specific subreddits.  For this you can buy a sponsored placement at the very top of your target page:

paid travel content promotion with reddit

Audience targeting the old fashioned way

With the right subreddit and some compelling ads, this is yet another simple and affordable way to drive significant volumes of targeted traffic to your new content. Detailed instructions are given here.

Extract full value

Before you spend a single cent on paid distribution you need to ensure you’re ready and prepared to extract full value and return on your investment. This spans all the way from your overarching content strategy right down to tactical-level implementation.

Start with an understanding of your audience, where they are in the customer journey and what the desired outcome is that you’re trying to achieve.  Few content campaigns lead to direct bookings, and neither will the traffic sources outlined above. The intention is to connect with people higher up the funnel, giving them a reason to engage with your brand and helping facilitate future bookings and revenue generation.

For that reason it’s essential you couple these traffic generation techniques with touchpoints for follow-up opportunities: resource downloads and email subscriptions, re-targeting campaigns, and so on. It is via these direct response channels that you’ll start to drive inquiries and bookings.

There are also a number of variables at the tactical level: you need to get your page layouts, headlines and images exactly right, and if you’re paying for high volumes of traffic it’s well worth A/B split testing those landing pages to understand where and how you’re losing valuable traffic.

It’s also critical to focus on the details behind the scenes, using all the available wiring and plumbing to optimise your content for search and social, including Schema.org markups to exploit rich snippets, optimised Open Graph and Twitter card tags to facilitate more effective social sharing and, most importantly of all, full goal and event tracking to monitor the exact outcomes and returns that your campaigns generate.

Getting this right can take time and effort, but compared to the difficulties, opportunity costs and uncertain outcomes of organic promotion and influencer engagement, paid amplification is often the simplest and fastest route to audience creation at scale.

Further reading:

Content Promotion: The Difference Between Brands with Fans & Anonymous Content

Maximize ROI via Content Distribution Networks