User experience – Breathing life into new channels

Online brochures have numerous benefits over print editions. But should tour operators completely abandon the traditional, glossy format, or is there space for both to co-exist? Linda Fox investigates.

Probably conceived in somebody’s back bedroom like many online concepts, the digital brochure has come a long way in five years. What started life as a PDF of the print brochure can now be an up-to-date dynamic version with video clips, sound and deep links into the booking page.

The development of the online brochure has been driven by a number of factors. Firstly, the need to provide consumers, who might be in the mood to buy a holiday, with the depth of information they need.

Mike Cogan, partner of travel technology consultancy Equinus, says: “It is a big turn off if the content is not there and they have to fill in forms online.”

Secondly, there’s the desire to lower brochure print and distribution costs whether through high-street travel agents or through the post. Everyone acknowledges there are still people who want the look and feel of a printed brochure to browse from the comfort of their own home. Then, there are those who are spending an increasing amount of time online researching travel and the option of a digital version could be the difference between them buying a holiday or not.

Herein lies the dilemma for tour operators – torn between driving down costs in a world where margins are thin and the emotional crutch of continuing to do something that has been successful for years and still is.

There is also a bit of a fear factor as Traveltainment’s UK sales director Colin McKee points out: “Operators have been reluctant to cut their print runs. In their eyes it puts them at a disadvantage with their competitors. The brochure is their main source of marketing to consumers.”

And, says Cogan, there are a lot of vested interests to consider, whether internal or external, in the brochure creation and production cycle. 

Cogan says: “It is wrench for them but PDFs are not really good enough. The challenge is being able to manage both – to find that transition capability with one foot in each camp.”

There are other compelling reasons for creating some form of online brochure content, such as improving the online user experience, the ability to track user behaviour and, with the environmental debate very much in the spotlight, cutting down on waste.

Richard Stephenson, chairman and chief executive of online publishing specialist Yudu, advocates travel companies should continue their print run but try to convert customers to the digital edition little by little.

“We’re not ‘print is dead’ merchants. I would not ditch my print edition, but, if you can move a percentage of hard copy, say 20%-30% online, you can save money. Give people the option to take the digital edition, and if 30% do and are happy with it, you are sending out fewer brochures. It is a bold move to ditch a glossy, beautiful brochure.”

First Choice head of e-commerce Alun Williams is an advocate for that approach and the tour operating giant sees print and digital as supportive of each other.

“We know people are coming to our site with a (print) brochure because they are typing in their brochure code, so we see it as a marketing mechanism driving people to the retail network.”

Williams adds that it is not a “huge leap of faith”, to think tour operators could slowly reduce print volumes as most people now begin their holiday research online.

According to Stephenson, producing a digital edition does not have to cost a lot but it depends on volumes and what you want to do within the brochure.

“Prices range from between £10 and £25 a page and it’s difficult to create website pages for much less than that. With Yudu, you keep all the pages and you get the same look and feel as a static brochure.”

He has witnessed travel companies substantially increase clicks through to the booking pages of their websites by using e-brochures.

In addition, where brochures feature videos and other interactive content, clicks increase further.

Using Yudu’s format, he estimates that a company would typically pay £4,000 to create a digital version of a large brochure. He cites the example of a travel client getting 250,000 page views and about 12% of those clicking through to buy a holiday using the links within the digital brochure. While not all of those will actually buy the holiday, with an average purchase price of £2,000 a company could see a fast return on investment.

Digital brochures are not just the answer to saving on print and distribution costs they also provide an opportunity to create much more targeted marketing.

Gary Jacobs, a partner at creative agency Fox Kalomaski, says: “The beauty is that it can be pretty dynamic. It can change in the way the market does – whether it’s better pricing or a new hotel that has just opened.”

He adds that e-brochures can work well as part of an existing campaign, where consumers can be driven from a press advertisement to an online brochure within minutes.

Stephenson also says travel companies are using digital brochures to build up a database of much more qualified customers by collecting e-mail addresses.

“You don’t want them to go to your website and ask them for their e-mail. You put a brochure on the site that you think they want to look at and that will ask them for their web address.”

He adds that companies can take things a step further by targeting a certain group with an e-mail shot of a digital brochure and then track their usage. From the e-mail the company can see who clicks on what and for how long.

“You don’t know who goes into the high street but now you are building a database of interested people and you can start to build profiles.”

While the technology is improving and many travel companies are putting the medium to good use, there are pitfalls to look out for.

Experts say it is not enough just to put up an online brochure and expect people to find it. It has to be as good an experience as the offline version, if not better.

Jacobs says: “We get a lot of large organisations saying they have got to have one but don’t want to spend more than turning a print brochure into a PDF, but then the consumer experience is pretty poor.”

First Choice’s Williams agrees online brochures should not ape the offline world.

“Online is a very different medium and I have seen lots of implementations where it looks like you are thumbing through a physical brochure, however, consumers are looking for tailored content.”

Given what can be done with digital brochures, it is surprising that more travel companies are not using them to better effect.

The irony is that the cost and emotional issues that are keeping travel from progressing with the medium are the very same factors that should be driving the industry forward.

Jacobs says: “The world of e-brochures started in a back bedroom and they seem to be having trouble getting out of that whole mindset.

“It’s a time element because the generation coming through is more used to doing things online and even to getting products on their mobile phones.”

Executive view – First Choice head of e-commerce Alun Williams

On the online brochures…
“They were a quick and simple fix for providing more tailored content to users, rather than providing a big fat brochure where 80% will be irrelevant to the user. We find significant numbers downloading them but it is a little bit like apeing the print world.

“We developed shortlist technology and it is core content that consumers select based on imagery, text, price and availability. They can build up their shortlist of holiday options and save it for a later date or e-mail it to friends. It is embedded in the core transaction.

“The online brochure is for people who are in more of a browse mode, whereas with the shortlist they are more ready to buy. We have a phenomenal uplift of conversion with it.”

On operators pulling back from print volumes…
“We all know the majority of people are starting their research online, so they require that content to be inspired in order to make that decision. It’s about investment in that content online and it gives you the opportunity to extend breadth and tailor it more specifically.”

On whether the industry is taking full advantage of digital brochures…
“The industry is taking advantage of what’s there. Youtube is a classic example. People are embedding it into their own content now.”

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