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.