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.

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