Generations – Reaching over the age barrier

If different age groups use your site, how can you effectively market to everyone? Should you adopt a general or personal approach? Piers Ford reports

Age is a delicate matter at the best of times, but for online travel marketers it’s one of the trickiest demographic issues to address.

Should you drill down as close to a one-to-one relationship as you can get, and risk excluding a swathe of potential customers who don’t quite match the habits of the age-based profile you’ve come up with? Or should you cast your net as wide as possible, cutting out a hefty chunk of your target audience because your assumptions about their online habits and preferences have been too general?

It’s a dilemma that will only become more acute as sophisticated marketing methods become a key differentiator in the competition to generate traffic and convert it into sales.

If, like STA Travel or Saga, the needs of a particular age group are the very fabric of your business, this doesn’t require such a leap of the imagination. But it is becoming increasingly important, even for general, wide-ranging campaigns, to incorporate some generational thinking into the way they segment campaigns to build a model that takes the search and response habits of different age groups into account.

“Of course, there are ways to segment according to age – search engine tools are already coming on and they will get better – but at the same time travel is applicable to everyone so you don’t want to exclude anyone,” says Supriya Dev, Millennium and Copthorne account director at online marketing specialist NetBooster.

“You need to look at the sort of business you already have. If it’s primarily aimed at the sub-26 market, you’ll need a combination of buzz marketing, social networks, blogging and banners. In the age group above that, people are very search-engine savvy, so you can use that to cover the business and leisure sectors – but bear in mind they are also more receptive to e-mail marketing, so incorporate that into your campaigns.

And with more of the over-50s online, you need to integrate e-marketing with traditional offline channels.”

There is no room for strategies based on a single assumption, according to Dev. If you’re in the hotel industry, pay per click will probably contribute the bulk of your conversions. Keywords should be constantly optimised to make sure you’re attracting the most qualified traffic. Different age groups use different search terms, so ‘accommodation’ might work better than ‘hotel’ for an older audience.

The Ritz might appeal broadly to an older, luxury-conscious target but it could just as easily be packaged for a young and trendy audience. The campaign has to be tailored accordingly. But you should also be thinking about supplementing search with affiliation and e-mail.

Some experts suggest that while it is an increasingly important consideration, age tends to be incidental to a number of other considerations, making contextual marketing – rather than the scattergun of natural search – a prime medium for many travel companies. For example, if you’re a high-end hotel chain looking at a seasonal campaign, your main target is likely to be empty nesters and high earning professionals – and by definition they will probably fit an older demographic. So you should look at the sites that they are likely to read and advertise there.

If your product appeals to a broad age range, you should be working with affiliates who have similar core strengths but can take your content and tailor it for their target market.

“Look at where people spend their time online,” says Mark Forrester, managing director of consultancy Occupancy Marketing, whose clients include EastBreaks, Apex Hotels and Scottish Hotels of Distinction.

“Most 25-year-old graduates use Bebo, MySpace and all the social media, so if you want to target that group that’s where you have to be, and you need your media agency to come up with the right creative to match.

“We buy exposure on other websites for several of our hotel clients. If they’re a three-star operation that appeals to coach parties, we’ll buy exposure on websites appropriate to Silver Surfers. But if they’re a boutique hotel, there’d be no point in doing that. We measure return on investment very well for our clients and while using tools such as Google Analytics to track where the conversions are coming from isn’t an exact science, we can usually show them what the return is.”

According to Mark Mitchell, senior strategic planner at search engine marketing agency The Search Works, a recent campaign by one of its clients, Eurostar, clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of age-targeted marketing.

“In March, Eurostar decided to target the 25-45 age group in the London and Kent areas using MSN’s demographic testing tool,” he says. “It maximised the ability of its ads accordingly and achieved a 30% increase in hits. The click-through rate was higher than every other search engine, the click-to-sale ration was 35% higher and the cost of sale 16% lower.”

Mitchell says that a lot of integration meetings with clients and agencies now focus on segmentation studies and the importance of making the marketing creative target certain audiences – and the fact that marketing directors now get involved in discussions about search strategy is a sure sign that it’s heading up the radar.

“It does come down to us and the creative agencies to target key audiences,” he agrees. “If you look at First Choice, the content is wacky and creative, as risky and dynamic as it needs to be for its target 18-25 market. But Page and Moy’s audience is more conservative, looking for straightforward reliability, safety, security and reassurance.”

According to Drew Patterson, vice-president of marketing at specialist travel search engine Kayak, developing marketing content that speaks to specific demographics is one of the major challenges for the industry.

“There is enormous room for segmenting the online search experience for different age groups but you need good information to conduct that kind of targeting and we’ve been coming up with unconventional travel ideas – promotions and surveys – to achieve that; like asking consumers questions about the strange items they’ve found in hotel rooms, or their ideal room-mate.”

Patterson admits that some advertisers have been mildly embarrassed by Kayak’s tactics: “But ultimately, they pay us and measure us on the performance of our traffic – and we deliver a 12%-17% conversion rate compared with Google. They’ll put up with a bit of irreverence for that kind of traffic!”

Ultimately, though, there is still no set formula for age-based online marketing. It’s a question, says NetBooster’s Dev, of learning as you go. Campaigns will become more tailored as the tools to
support them evolve.

“It’s all about increasing conversions and decreasing spend,” she says. “Search engine demographic segmentation means that PPC campaigns for particular age groups will get better. But I think we have to be careful, too. If you get too detailed and sophisticated, you’ll end up excluding the people you’re
actually after!”

How STA successfully targets the youth of today

STA Travel uses a mixture of online and traditional media to reach its target student audience.

Marketing director Celia Pronto says the starting point is to identify what they are consuming, the sites where they are spending time and what they are doing while they are there.

“This audience moves and changes so rapidly and it’s vital to understand their behaviour, identify what strategy would work in those areas and how the STA brand fits into them, then make the commercials work.”

Pronto says search remains a staple marketing ingredient but she detects a notable shift in the development and
adoption of new technologies, such as social media

“I don’t think anyone has all the answers on that yet. So the question is, where can we drive some traction to be in that space? It’s impossible to be everywhere so the main point is to be relevant.”

This is where being a specialist comes into its own, with the opportunity to focus exclusively on creating the right tone of voice and content rather than trying to net everyone from 20 to 70.

“We have some annual campaigns that are key for us from a strategic and return-on-investment point of view: a big round-the-world campaign at the start of the year, a gap year campaign for the A level results season and a big Australia campaign towards the back end of the year.

“But as much as there are consistent campaigns that work for us, we recognise that we’re dealing with a fickle market so there’s a constant level of experimentation around new campaigns.

“We build our budgets sensibly, based on all channels including new technology.”

Embracing the middle ground

Virgin Holidays has the kind of strong online brand that you’d expect from a well-optimised, 12-year-old website.

“Search engine optimisation is our primary traffic driver, and we have a lot of self-referred customers who come in via and the Virgin Atlantic sites,” says e-commerce manager Chris Roe. “Our pay-per-click strategy is focused on the Long Tail and tends to be driven by specific seasonal and event-based searches, like the Cricket World Cup, Caribbean, Winter, or even a property name.”

But new products require variations in approach, he points out.

“We recently took on a new destination – Mauritius – which is quite high-end and not in the traditional Virgin consideration set,” he explains. “We knew we’d have to drive the online marketing campaign according to a different demographic: older couples, wealthy families and honeymooners, and that meant a different approach. We did a deal with and became a featured tour operator on its site. And because we know the Silver Surfer tends to go for brands like BT, Yahoo! and Tiscali, we targeted our banner advertising there rather than MSN or Hotmail.”

Silver Surfers come of age on the Internet

Warner Breaks’ integrated online marketing strategy reflects the increasing confidence of the over-50s market in terms of Internet use.

“Two years ago we were much more limited in what we could do,” says online sales and marketing manager Matthew Finch. “Now there’s far more acceptance of online methods and, as a result, our understanding of online marketing to our customers has increased. Relevance is key: we have to be upfront, purposeful and clear about our objectives.”

Warner’s strategy combines search (paid and natural), banner advertising, affiliate networks paid on a commission basis, and e-mail marketing.

“You can’t sponsor on wildly different search terms,” says Finch. “We have to find terms that will appeal to the 50+ market. And our methods tend to be less intrusive, not loud and shouty or gimmicky. But the returns on banner advertising are getting much stronger and the wider opportunities – Teletext, Ancestry sites, Friends Reunited – generate large volumes of reach.”

Finch says this is an increasingly important part of the strategy but the rise of e-mail marketing has been the most significant feature of the past year.

“Our database has trebled in the past 12 months, and we’re now able to segment it into different groups and tailor our messages for each group,” he adds.

“The conversion rate is much higher doing it that way. Two years ago we were sending out one or two e-mails per month. Now it’s one or two per day.

“We’re also looking at viral marketing and we’ve already run a few games and quizzes successfully. Word of mouth is still a key aspect of the marketing picture and this is a cost-effective way of spreading our brand.”

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