Attracting eyeballs and winning customers online will increasingly be fought on the mobile battleground where the best app wins, according to Facebook’s head of travel.
Speaking to Travolution during a visit to London this week, Lee McCabe said mobile was “on fire” at the moment, with both users and usage growing.
Last week Facebook itself underlined its faith in the channel with the eye-popping $19 billion deal to buy instant messaging service WhatsApp.
“People are moving to mobile faster than ever,” McCabe said. “Desktop and laptop ownership is declining and ownership of tablets and smartphones is on the increase.”
McCabe dismissed scepticism that mobile will ever be a significant booking channel for travel, saying it is forward-thinking OTAs rather than suppliers selling direct that are challenging this assumption.
“We can see travel bookings are coming as people understand the opportunities more, and that’s probable being driven by the OTAs.
“Big hotel chains and airlines are not moving fast enough with their app strategy. By 2015 PhocusRight predicts 12% of all travel booking will be on mobile devices.”
However, with the average number of apps downloaded sitting at 26, only up to five of which will be travel apps, McCabe said the entire online paradigm will move away from search.
“When you look at how people use mobile, it’s 80% apps rather than mobile web. You might have a hotel, airline or car rental company you are loyal to but you will want an aggregator.
“Now there is a massive opportunity that suppliers do not understand yet. We will move from web, from searching 30 different sites, to apps and that browsing won’t happen.
“You are going to be far more restricted. All suppliers should be focusing on having one very good app and getting penetration on as much mobile real estate as possible.”
To help partners drive app adoption, Facebook has integrated with Apple’s App Store and Android Play store which are a single click away through its app install ads.
McCabe said that due to the information it holds on users, Facebook can provide travel companies with a more targeted way of getting their apps to the right people at the right time.
“What we have is identity. We deal with real people, not proxies or cookies. That allows companies to really target,” said McCabe.
A recent development of the mobile app ‘install ads’ has been to prompt a particular engagement, like making a booking, through the Facebook advert.
To meet the explosion in mobile – Facebook says half of its traffic is now from mobile devices – the social network is currently testing Nearby Places in beta.
This is giving users personalised map-based results for the things that are around them like hotels, restaurants etc., based on what their preferences are and other social signals.
Companies with Facebook pages can then generate reviews and ratings, drive traffic and either online bookings or phone calls through the application.
McCabe said Facebook has only scratched the surface so far with Nearby Places and it is busily indexing more data so that the service becomes ever more personal to each user.
“This is long term. Hotel companies should be making sure they have a page because this is the anchor for everything.
“On Nearby you are going to get more and more exposure. Of all the time people spend on mobile, 20% is on Facebook.
“People are logging on every day and spending more and more time on it because the newsfeed is getting more and more compelling and relevant.”
McCabe added: “There is a great opportunity for smaller companies if you develop a great app because most companies have not got great apps yet.
“Smaller start-ups are developing great apps that do not yet have the brand presence. HotelTonight has created a delightful experience but it is not a big brand.
“There is first mover advantage here because people who download it and have a great experience are going to be loyal. They key is to keep it simple and not duplicate your website.
“The best apps are just a beautiful experience. Uber works really well, it’s simple to use and there’s no advertising. WhatsApp is a good example too. I would be investing in your apps right now.
“Apps will drive travel. People are missing the boat right now. There is a huge window of opportunity.”
The growing use of mobile and Facebook’s presence on the channel means web users will increasingly be navigating cyberspace through the prism of the social network.
This raises the possibility of the constantly logged-on user being tracked across devices and firms creating increasingly targeted campaigns for users at different stages of the buying cycle.
“Big players are starting to realise the branding value of Facebook. Prime time is all the time. You can now target a Superbowl audience every day of the week very easily.
“Large companies are taking TV ads they would normally show to a mass audience and cutting them down into different versions and playing them on Facebook to very different segments.
“You cannot do that on any other channel. Facebook can be as sophisticated as you want it to be.”
McCabe dismissed the recent suggestions that young people abandoning Facebook is threatening the very future of the social network.
“They are still using Facebook. It’s not the newest thing out there but they are still using it as much as ever.”
Facebook said daily active people in the UK in December numbered 25 million on average, a 4% growth against Q2 2013, with mobile daily users at 21 million, up 5%.
The network has 25 million business pages, of which one million are active advertisers, and fourth quarter mobile revenue of $1.25 billion almost equalled total revenue for the same quarter in 2012.