Marketing initiatives are changing and being at the top of Google’s search results is no longer the main aim. Travel companies are now seeking a distributed content strategy. Piers Ford reports on innovation in advertising.
Long-term success will be judged according to its impact on visitor numbers – but as pervasive, multi-channel campaigns go, Tourism Queensland’s search to fill ‘The Best Job in the World’ – islands caretaker for the Barrier Reef – indicates the scale of innovation the travel industry will depend on to punch its way into brighter times.
The blend of social media, marketing, PR and advertising absolutely reflected the blurring of these traditionally independent silos and amounted to a viral power that throws down a gauntlet to the rest of the industry, daring it to do better. The good news is that many digital marketing experts are confident that the pioneering spirit throughout the sector is strong enough to rise to the challenge.
But while travel is widely considered to be a primary marker for marketing trends, others suggest that it also needs to take a lead from retail and financial services organisations that have spotted the new blend and are already exploiting it in increasingly subliminal and intuitive ways that reflect the way their customers want to be targeted and spoken to in a multimedia world.
The unabated rise of social networking is a major driver. But so, too, is the evolution of search. Semantic technology is generating a groundswell of change that could redefine the role of search in multichannel campaigns.
Some players at the cutting edge of the travel sector are already asking their marketing partners to find ways to shift away from their old, purely brand-oriented grails to a new model based on distributed content, on trust – which could eventually see search results listed according to the quality of their integrated links rather than their popularity – and crucially, a model that exploits the language that their customers use in the digital environment.
“People in the industry do see search as innovative and there’s some cool stuff being done with pay-per-click – for example, link-ups to inventory so that you can back out of paid search when all those flights to a particular destination have gone,” says Arjo Ghosh, chief executive officer at digital marketing agency iCrossing.
“But there is still not much research being done on natural search, and it’s a wider picture. From proactive clients, we’re no longer hearing, ‘Get me to the top of Google’. Instead they want a distributed content strategy that allows them to appear in as many areas of the page as possible: news alerts, web results, video content, social media. They want numerous chances to be out there in the network.”
The shift from content ownership to distribution, which might involve sharing content across creative commons, is a big imaginative leap – not least for legal departments wrestling with intellectual property issues. But this, says Ghosh, is where the industry needs to match its product innovation with new marketing nous.
Ghosh offers insurance giant More Than as an example. Type in ‘flood advice’ on Google, and apart from The Environment Agency – which, as a trusted resource, you’d expect to come top, the first option is a 14-point list of dos and don’ts on More Than’s ‘Living’ site, a magazine with a wide range of specially-commissioned editorial material. The advice list dates from the summer floods of 2007 and doesn’t contain any overt branding. But, says Ghosh, it will continue to drive traffic through to the site for ever.
“Most sites are so branded that they can only generate semantic links to products,” he says. “Innovation means taking a horizontal approach, a connected vision that looks at how closely PR and communications and marketing are now linked. It’s a mass market of niches out there and you need to know the language of each one. At a senior marketing level, that means understanding that the idea of getting brand equity on the net is about much more than the separate, traditional elements.
“People want to take bits of their brand and distribute it all around the web, so it’s not just on their site – after all, that isn’t necessarily where the customer wants to go. So they need to research. Where on the network would the distributed content model work for you? It could be Facebook, it could be an influential travel writer’s blog. Wherever it is, travel companies need to take their content out to people – and that means they have to invest in trusted, authoritative content that will mix with the social network conversation and user-generated content.”
The extent to which the travel industry is still missing this trick is revealed by applying the More Than example to a travel-related search term. Type ‘swine flu’ into Google, for example, and you can surf through pages of results without encountering any similar example of lateral marketing initiative, weeks after the virus became headline news. But at the same time, swine flu has triggered multiple conventional PR campaigns. Innovation can only follow when the response is joined up.
Hedley Aylott, managing director at online marketing agency Summit Media, says it’s a matter of finding a different way of looking at your footprint: the quest is to achieve topic rather than search term-related rankings.
“The variety of content is a huge opportunity for brands to position themselves more cleverly in the world of universal search,” he says. “You should be aiming for a comprehensive understanding of the entire customer journey. The last click won’t always win the business and it will be different for every travel company. You have to find a way to join it all up, and these are the big questions we’re wrestling with every day: what’s the value of each stage?”
Building authority – and trust – through an understanding of the semantic web is going to become a priority. Travel companies will have to analyse the context of the vocabulary their customers use to search, not simply identifying the key words, according to Aylott.
Harnessing the might of social media – which has been demonstrating the marketing power of first-hand experience shared with ‘friends’ since its advent – should be a marketeer’s top goal. That means making their own websites more interactive communications channels – and not necessarily with state-of-the-art multimedia content.
“Retailers such as B&Q with its how-to video content have shown that you can drive up site traffic by 20% using video search,” says Neil Jackson, head of search at conversion agency Tamar. “But in travel, it isn’t just about replicating the brochure image. Part of the problem is that marketers are very protective about their branded content when in fact a slick-looking video isn’t the be all and end all.
“If the message is right, a grainy video doesn’t matter. After all, most customers are shooting their YouTube video content using a flip camera. Travel companies can do the same: upload it, tag it, title it and add in key words, annotations, comments. Then embed it and take some of the content across to their own web page. Encourage people to vote for it on YouTube and a good rating will show itself in Google search results.”
Jackson notes that smaller operators are leading the way on this front, and he urges larger players to speed up the decision-making processes that drive their campaigns so that trends can be exploited more quickly.
“The more people talk about you in the right context and topic, the better,” Aylott says. “So you need to know the topics inhabited by potential customers: mountain biking groups on Facebook, for example, if that’s one of your holiday themes.
“Clever brands will empower their customers to do the work for them, make them a virtual part of their SEO team so that UGC is matched by the semantic searchability of their own sites and their target areas of the web. Get them talking about their holidays, get them to write about their experiences – on your site – and that will naturally generate traffic.”
Understanding customers will also become vital for travel companies to make the most of Google’s growing range of tools and initiatives in their marketing strategies. Interest-based advertising, for example, targets customers with relevant adverts based on accumulated knowledge of their YouTube visits and content network views. More precise geographical and demographical targeting is an emerging factor in PPC. And customised searches for Google account holders allows the customer to manage their own search results according to relevance.
“Understanding your customers and having clear campaign objectives will enable travel companies to make use of a lot of these innovations and ensure they are targeting the right customer at the right time and in the right place,” says Pete Oxlade, group account director at digital direct agency CheezeDMG.
But innovation doesn’t mean neglecting your traditional marketing vehicles, like your website, he emphasises.
“Paid search campaigns are very different to content campaigns on Google and campaigns should be set up to take this into account.
“Other emerging Google initiatives that enable you to target customers to an even greater detail can only be truly seized upon if you understand your customer and have an end product – a website – that doesn’t disappoint. So there’s no point setting up a detailed search campaign that exactly matches what a customer is searching for if you then send them through to a poorly designed website that makes them do the search all over again.”
Of course, the ultimate goal is maximising conversion rates. And prolonged searches make it ever more complex to identify the most profitable conversion points during the customer’s journey.
“Consider the number of sites someone may look at before they make a final decision,” says Nick Oram, head of digital at agency Total Media. “You might be paying for someone to visit your site three or four times before they convert, so it’s in your interest to make your site as sticky as possible with weather, maps and video content. The more you can do on your site, the less repetitive it will be for your customers.
“Also, paid search and SEO have worked very well while margins have been high, but with profits falling it’s a tougher shout and nobody wants to throw money at search evolution without understanding it better. Bear in mind that many travel products such as Voyages of Discovery and Swan Hellenic are complicated. They are searched for by digitally literate clients but those clients will want to talk to a person before buying. In other words, the digital media generates the traffic but the conversion may be offline, so dynamic numbering applications that tie digital sources to a telephone number will become very important measuring tools.”
Travel players will probably need to relax their fixation on return on investment and last-click-wins campaigns and be more proactive about switching off search terms that don’t lead to significant conversion rates.
Working with their agency partners, they should track all the hops. They should also rethink cookie-based measurement. Current research, says Summit Media’s Aylott, suggests that 50% of sales in some sectors happen after a 30 days, so if you are measuring conversions using a 30-day cookie, many sales may not be accredited to it.
Aylott adds: “It’s a perennial issue: how to you measure incrementality? And that’s why you need a continuous strategy to evaluate conversions on an incremental basis,” he says.
“Any client who isn’t using multi-variant testing – which is becoming standard – is on a hiding to nothing. And any agency not offering it or helping their client to implement it is not doing their job.”
Mark Cook, search marketing director at agency Further Search, says the next phase of search campaigns in travel should target mobile, now that 3G devices are achieving meaningful market penetration.
“The scope for mirroring the success of viral marketing campaigns on mobile is absolutely massive, particularly when it comes to personalisation,” he says. “We’re getting to the stage where an entire trip or holiday can be informationised so that you can keep delivering appropriate and meaningful marketing content at each stage.
“Google Maps is one of the top web destinations, so what better than to take the API and use it to deliver content direct to your customer’s iPhone? We’ve already seen Hotels.com offering booking vouchers via Twitter, which also has an API. The technology is there and over the next year it will become sufficiently distributed to work into marketing campaigns.”
PhoCusWright cited mobile as a key technology trend in travel for 2009, after years in the doldrums of inadequate device technology and weak business models. It suggests that as 3G subscriptions explode, applications will embrace location and context in ways that enhance the travel experience for the customer.
Airlines take off in social media
After an experimental year in social media in 2008, travel companies – and airlines in particular – are getting to grips with the potential to converse with their customers more effectively, and integrating that back into their marketing strategies, according to Stefan Hirsch, director of travel at agency Sapient.
British Airways’ frequent business flyer community metrotwin.com, and Air France and KLM’s collaboration, bluenity.com, have been notable early attempts to use social networks to drive brand loyalty and revenue.
“[Airlines] now see the opportunity to engage consumers in an online, informal dialogue,” suggests Hirsch. “They are particularly keen to understand customer behaviour, and as they think about placing their brands on Facebook, Flickr or Twitter, they need advice and support.
“Obviously, the holy grail for airlines is one-to-one communication so a trend that we believe will evolve over the coming months is greater marketing activity with partners that enables more specific targeting.
“For example, if an airline knows that a passenger is travelling to New York next month for a journey down the East Coast with a bunch of friends because they are all connected on Dopplr, its rental car partner can offer a discount for group car hire for the whole trip, based on information gathered from the social networking site. The result is that consumers are offered a service, not advertising.”