Off Exploring was initially developed in 2002 for a lone traveller to keep in contact with his family. But the site has developed enormously since and has developed white labels for some of the biggest brands around. Nathan Midgley talks to the company’s co-directors
Venturing into social media is a risky business. Try to establish yourself on networking sites and you face unreceptive users and measurement difficulties. Try to build a platform from scratch and you face a long development cycle – and inexperience means you start way behind the curve.
Off Exploring’s white-label product effectively solves the second set of problems, and throws in a Facebook application that might even solve the first.
The site has grown from a personal project to a platform that can deliver a range of compelling user-generated content – including journal entries, maps, videos and message boards – and integrate it with a travel company’s inventory to help maximise sales.
Just ask STA Travel – a pioneer in this area, but a company that has outsourced the technology behind it to a third party.
Off Exploring began life in 2002, when technical director Andrew Ace was travelling in Australia. It was initially set up for Andrew to share his experiences with friends and family back home, but the project’s potential quickly became clear.
“When you’re travelling you meet a lot of people, and you want to keep in contact,” says Andrew. “People ended up getting to see the site, and were very enthusiastic about it.”
A public version appeared “around 2003 or 2004” and grew through word of mouth – but its early incarnation bore little resemblance to today’s site. “Developing it was a long, constant process over four or five years,” explains Andrew.
However, he stresses that Off Exploring had few direct competitors at the time. “You had sites such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree, but they were mainly based on community and discussion. [Off Exploring] was also about having a record of your travel experiences, your own photo album and notebook.”
Andrew’s project was supported by brothers Doug and Rob Campbell, whose other projects include IT services firm ecommnet.co.uk and car accessory retailer autobestbuy.co.uk. As co-directors, they developed a site that balanced functionality with ease of use.
“We went on to develop strong mapping and video capability, but it was all about making it user-friendly,” says Andrew. “A lot of users don’t necessarily know about uploading videos or writing blogs, so we made sure they don’t have to be ‘techie’ to use it.”
As the site took shape, the business model gradually came into focus. An initial plan to sell subscriptions was shelved as the team realised the potential of licensing their platform and content.
“Because all the content is for personal use, it’s more positive,” says Doug, arguing a difference between personal journals and consumer review sites such as TripAdvisor. Later he relates this to what won Off Exploring its deal with STA Travel in 2006: “We are able to leverage what is available on the site for the benefit of the travel company. If someone is on STA’s site looking at a holiday in Bangkok, you can go and look at what people are doing in Bangkok today.”
Off Exploring is able to integrate contextual advertising into that content. “We can bring in current offers that take into account that you’re in London reading a blog post about Australia,” says Doug. Product can also be added to existing travel plans – nearby hotels or tours might appear on location markers on a user’s map, for example.
As well as offering a strong content proposition to clients, the white-label model helps Off Exploring itself develop. “One of the strengths of white label is developing across a broad range of businesses, so you’re faced with a variety of challenges,” says Rob.
Andrew offers an example: “One small agency we work with has destination specialists who would take a call about, say, New Zealand, then put together an itinerary and put the details in the post. Now they can put all that on an interactive map and send their customer a link.”
The system is designed to be agile, with the most basic implementation – essentially a reskinning of Off Exploring – requiring only five days of development work. It can also be broken down into components to meet the needs of clients. “We want to get across that it isn’t just a tool for backpackers. Leisure travel operators might just want videos or maps,” says Doug.
The team’s confidence in its white-label proposition proved well-founded. Off Exploring’s work with STA not only won the latter a Travolution Award for Best Use of Social Media in 2007, but also generated traffic for the company – 15%-20% of all STA’s traffic now arrives on a travel blog, and the company has been able to cut its pay-per-click marketing budget.
Those effects could be redoubled in a few weeks, when STA launches its version of Off Exploring’s Facebook application, which sends journal updates straight to the user’s mini-feed. This boosted traffic immediately when it launched in 2007. “Now Facebook is our biggest single source of traffic,” says Andrew.
Between 30% and 40% of Off Exploring’s traffic now comes from the social networking site, he says.
Off Exploring’s white-label partners can already let users post videos directly to other sites such as MySpace, and Andrew says the company will probably develop an application for Bebo.
“We don’t see the social networks as competitors,” he explains.
The travel journal space is increasingly busy, but the team continues to look for ways to make Off Exploring cut through – ideas which, like the Facebook application, can eventually be offered to white-label partners.
“Mobile development is exciting,” says Andrew. “So many travellers are carrying mobiles. Knowing where people are when they send in content opens up lots of new possibilities.”
John Harding, sales and marketing director at Hotels4u.com and sponsor of the Travolution Tr@vel Pioneers award
It’s widely acknowledged among travel professionals that the average online consumer is a mistrusting soul when it comes to believing what a travel provider is telling him about its product and services.
This is hardly surprising when you consider that many travel businesses have a vested interest in selling one product over another, which in itself can lead to over embellishment of the truth.
Who can blame consumer scepticism when past experience of a ‘glorious, panoramic, sea view’ turns out to be little more than an obscured view of a building site or when ‘exemplary service’ is in fact, anything but. When considering the validity of social media, ask yourself this: who do you trust more – the website trying to make a sale or the factual account and unbiased experience of the consumer?
The growth in popularity of social media networks can in many ways be attributed to the absolute need for consumers to seek reassurance. The opportunity to read about the experiences of like-minded travellers is one of the fundamental steps taken by a rising number of consumers during what can be a lengthy buying cycle.
This presents the online marketer with a valuable and targeted opportunity to engage with potential customers at a stage when they are most receptive and likely to convert.
Equal importance should be attributed to the inherent need for travellers to share experiences in ‘real time’. The aspirational value attached to dialogue between friends and family while on holiday is enormous and sites such as offexploring.com facilitate this effectively.
Those of us who have a genuine commitment to customer service should have nothing to fear from social media and should embrace the concept with both hands. When used properly, user-generated content can enrich and support existing website content and in the eyes of many consumers, is now expected as the norm.
Any nervousness from travel providers about adopting social media could be extinguished by the knowledge that in general, there are ‘More raves than rants’ when it comes to UGC.