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The New Era of Travel Affiliate Marketing

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Several weeks ago, a couple of longtime readers came to me with some intriguing questions covering all aspects of affiliate marketing in the travel industry. While my personal experience with the affiliate world is admittedly limited, the quickly changing landscape of search and social media marketing (SMM) will undoubtedly have an impact on travel affiliates.

But as the travel segment gets increasing crowded, and the major online travel agencies (OTAs) continue to build brand identity, the race to leverage new opportunities in search and social media is most definitely on for smaller players. Other questions about the economy also hover like a dark cloud over the travel industry, but all the recent stats about online travel point to growth in 2008.

To sustain this level of growth, the questions are plentiful: will OTAs become increasingly more dependent on their affiliates and aggregators to generate valuable customers? With shrinking commissions and lower margins, how can those affiliates increase their own revenue share? How are they going to separate themselves from the masses, when travel affiliate content is inherently similar? And perhaps the most important question, just how important are affiliates to the online travel industry?

How Big is the Travel Affiliate Space?

Unfortunately, collective data about the overall contribution of travel affiliates is sparse. Diane Clarkson, analyst for Jupiter Research, concedes that even they haven't looked specifically at the potential for this vertical. However, a recent retail report they published in May "indicates that US online marketers will spend $2.1 billion on affiliate marketing fees in 2008, an increase of 15 percent over the previous year. Between 2007 and 2012, online affiliate marketing spending will grow at a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of nearly 13 percent to reach $3.3 billion."

While online retailers and financial services account for approximately one-half of the affiliate spending, they're followed closely by education, auto, travel, and then all other sectors. So a significant slice of $1.65 billion puts affiliates in the U.S. travel industry in a reasonably comfortable place.

In the UK, where retail, travel, and financial services are the bread and butter of affiliate marketing, M-travel reported that affiliates drove more than £3 billion in sales in 2007.

According to research by E-Consultancy's Affiliate Marketing Networks Buyer's Guide, the £3.13 billion total for 2007, compared to £2.16 billion in 2006, illustrates the healthy state of this digital sector which will continue to grow strongly during 2008...Commissions and fees paid out to affiliate networks (covering payments for both networks and affiliates) amounted to £186 million in 2007, up 40% from £133 million in 2006 (and compared to £83 million in 2005).

How is the Travel Affiliate Landscape Changing?

The biggest change over the last several years has been the effort to reduce cannibalization by affiliates, with the OTAs and direct travel suppliers beginning to enforce restrictions with regards to SEM and keyword bidding strategies to maintain trademarked terms and related search traffic.

In 2007, we started to see the effects of this impact the affiliate space, according to David Ranby, Superbreak's Internet marketing manager.

"Maturity has been forced on the affiliate market by changes in PPC policies, increased adoption of direct marketing, and by the aggressive commercial models increasingly being adopted by the mass portals that used to think big visitor numbers were all that matters, and instead now have to pay dividends to new owners," Ranby said in another report on M-Travel. "The 'hobby' affiliate is squeezed out and only specialists or professionals can survive."

So in 2008, the new trend is affiliate and aggregator based mass portals, who are taking their SEO and SEM efforts well above the hobby level by adding layers of valuable, expert content or specializing in niche segments to win the game. This doesn't mean smaller players won't be able to earn revenue on travel affiliates, but it does mean they will need at least two things:

  1. An intense focus on their specialties and unique offerings (experience in planning extensive and complicated tours in remote areas, for example).
  2. Resources and the means to integrate new technology into their marketing strategies. This will go beyond XML integration of feed-based data and dynamic packaging, extending to their use of dynamic ad serving, tools, and widgets applicable to social media platforms.

How Will Social Media Marketing Work for Travel Affiliates?

By nature, social media is an affiliate platform -- spreading votes of confidence and recommendations by word-of-mouth. Meanwhile, the entire industry is working on monetization plans for social media, but it will largely come down to experimentation with different tactics.

Again, I turned to M-Travel for insight from some professionals in the affiliate business. Expect affiliates to exploit SMM for SEO.

"We're seeing affiliates in the Share Results network experiment with attaching their own pre-roll ads to video content on their properties, and especially affiliates who are using their personal identities to promote through blogs and social networking," said Nicky Senyard, CEO of Share Results.

As we get closer to 2009, I predict we'll finally see far more maturity in social marketing strategies, as companies fight to create SMM programs that are measurable in all aspects of brand loyalty and awareness, relationship marketing, and profit building.

Social networking platforms are the ultimate test beds for increased behavioral targeting, as well as demographic and psychographic goldmines. It will come down to adaptability and the ability to create a rich media experience, and successfully use a mix of widgets, feeds, video, and beyond to engage consumers and cultivate additional sales from these experiences.

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