Travel search – Buying into clients’ habits

Travel marketers know paid search works. However, consumers’ buying patterns can varying according to the type of product they want, so can a one-size-fits-all approach still apply? Netizen Digital managing director Lewis Lenssen finds out

Using paid search marketing to get your website in front of consumers who are actively searching for your offering is not a new concept.

As the travel industry has moved online, search engine marketing has emerged as the tool of choice for delivering targeted consumer responses. Online travel marketers are all keenly aware that search is an effective, affordable way of converting consumers who are ready to buy.

But what about consumers who aren’t ready to buy? Where do they fit into a search marketing strategy?

It is clear that consumers are using search engines early on in the buying cycle, and often long before they reach for their credit cards. The characteristics of search make it the obvious choice for consumers who are researching and evaluating products and services. In order to connect with prospective clients at an early stage, companies need to maintain visibility throughout the buying cycle.

In a recent study by Netizen Digital’s technical development team we found that search terms used to research and evaluate a particular product won’t necessarily result in a direct conversion, but they are likely to make a substantial contribution to the final sale.

One of the key selling points of pay per click is its measurability. The logic goes that by tracking a website you can see which keywords and ads attract visitors who actually purchase the product. Over time you focus your spend on the keywords that work and cut the budget on keywords that don’t generate sales.

This simple explanation of PPC campaign optimisation applied in other industries certainly appeals to the average marketer’s desire to minimise wasted spend, but does it stand up to the complexities of consumers’ search behaviour as they journey from research to purchase?  

For low-involvement purchases, such as CDs, the logic holds reasonably true. Consumers search for the product they want, compare brands and prices on the advertisers’ websites, and then decide which site to make a purchase from. In this case, an optimisation strategy based on keywords that lead directly to a sale will work.

But what if prospective customers visit your site a number of times, weeks before they actually part with their cash?

With its endless options and variables, travel is traditionally seen as a high-involvement purchase that entails a deep level of research and evaluation on the part of the consumer. This research and evaluation is part and parcel of the holiday buying experience – something that consumers enjoy and initiate long before they are ready to buy.

While some travel products have become commoditised, in broader categories the classic view of the consumer buying cycle still applies. Online consumers know they want holidays, but they don’t necessarily know what type. Search’s efficiency in gathering information makes it the ideal mechanism for research and evaluation. Consumers use search to decide what to buy as well as where to buy it from.

The problem for many travel firms lies in the fact that search is often regarded as purely a tool for direct response, and as a result, campaign optimisation is often based solely on keywords that result in direct sales.

There are categories within travel that are characterised by a very short, low-research buying cycle, but there is no one-size-fits-all definition of online travel consumer behaviour. Each supplier needs to understand the characteristic search behaviour of customers in their specific categories in order to develop an effective search strategy.

Our experience in managing paid search marketing campaigns, for more than 150 travel companies selling a broad range of travel products, has given us a deep insight into the search behaviour of travel consumers. In our recent study we looked at the behaviour of consumers across three travel categories: accommodation, insurance and dynamic packaging.

We found that on average 60% of purchasers across all of our travel categories had visited the same website previously. The number of previous visits drops reasonably rapidly but almost 10% visited more than five times, a figure that alone demonstrates that to truly optimise a campaign requires an analysis of more than just the final search before the sale (see graph 1).


A closer look at each category gives us a more interesting picture.

Travel insurance stands out with 70% of purchasers buying on their first visit, and only 10% visiting more than three times before a sale. Travel insurance is a fairly uncomplicated buy and it isn’t something that consumers will spend a significant amount of time researching; they know they need travel insurance – they just need to find the best place to buy it and it is often at the last minute.

However, in the accommodation category less than 40% booked on their first visit. Clearly accommodation is a far more important and complicated decision that involves factors such as personal tastes and budget, and the sheer level of choice available. 

In the broader category of dynamic packaging, 61% of consumers visited the advertiser’s site more than once and over 43% visited more than three times. This scenario really highlights the shortcomings of a one-size-fits-all approach to campaign optimisation. Companies that operate within this category have a diverse offering and deal with many different types of consumer – each with a slightly different length and depth of search journey. Applying blanket optimisation that is based purely on the last keyword before purchase simply wouldn’t be effective. The results for companies within this category varied significantly, highlighting the need for insight at an individual level (see graph 2).


The next graph looks at the period over which the multiple site visits occur. In all cases, except for travel insurance, more than half of purchasers have a gap of over one day between first visiting the site and actually purchasing.

This emphasises the point that the ads are not necessarily being used to answer a firm requirement but being used to support the process of refining choice.

In order to get the most out of paid search marketing, travel companies need to understand the stages that their customers go through before buying their products, and how they interact with their websites at each stage.

On first glance, it seems the majority of sales are delivered by a relatively small proportion of keywords but, as our data highlights, it is often more complicated than that. Travel firms need to ensure they don’t reduce budget on what might seem to be ‘lower performing’ keywords if they do in fact add value earlier on in the cycle. If your analysis doesn’t include the whole search journey you could be reducing the overall performance of your campaign.

By understanding your customers’ search behaviour you can optimise your campaigns to achieve better return on investment throughout the journey, not just at the final destination.

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