I am what many in this industry would call a second generation search marketer, since I started way back in the dark ages – 1999 – eons in the search world. I’ve played on the agency side, worked the freelance angle, muddled through as an industry journalist and expert speaker, and recently, I jumped into unfamiliar territory – being an in-house marketer, for the first time, in the travel vertical, no less! Since it is an insanely competitive category, I very well may have lost my marbles.
It’s overwhelming, to say the least. Where do I start, I ask myself? Reading all of the articles ever written on in-house SEM can’t even help me now. Instead, I must dig deep, get my bearings, and look to all of the search and marketing knowledge I’ve acquired over the last eight years to help prioritize and wade through the daunting tasks ahead of me. Ok, great – I feel a little better now, but not much.
Then it hits me… First and foremost, I’m a consumer of travel and leisure products, and surely, I know what does and doesn’t work for me when I am planning my own vacations and adventurous activities. As the owner or manager of a travel-related site, you truly need to put yourself in the traveler’s position and see your site through their eyes. And, dare I say it? Sometimes the “rules of SEO” are made to be broken, or at least need to take a backseat to getting the sale, once visitors have come through search.
Marketing Brain: Meet Consumer Mindset
I’ll skip over the basics of building a search-friendly site and all that jazz about creating search-friendly URLs, and avoiding gratuitous use of Flash. Blah, Blah, Blah… Travel is inherently sexy – escapism at its finest, and to be successful at getting the sale, you must initially sell the experience of travel through the careful use of words and images, and those fancy “moving pictures.” I personally prefer a few strategically placed, well-composed video and/or Flash elements, not cheesy animations. And yes, you must do this all within a site architecture that is search-engine friendly. Striking the proper balance is critical.
To use those words and images effectively, you should absolutely have a deep understanding of your demographics, or potential customers. Keyword research, while a traditional part of search marketing and critically important in the travel sector, will still only get you so far. For niche travel services, there’s so much more to it than the simple search volume of “cheap hotels” and “discount tickets.” Focusing on the greater trends in travel, such as eco-tourism, active senior travel, adventure activities, and experiential tours can reap far greater rewards than going after the big guns.
You also need to know whether your audience is looking for budget or upscale, family-friendly or couples-only resorts, and possibly, whether men or women are the primary researchers and buyers of your travel services. Your overall site design, creative elements, and calls-to-action will quickly tell users whether they got to their final destination or need to fly back to the search results.
Typically, only those sites with vast amounts of, or varied, inventory can target multiple consumer segments or hit the right customer with their price points. Distribution points become a major consideration. A distinct and reasonable argument can be made for creating destination focused sub-domains, micro-sites, or portals to attract different types of travelers with different interests. Landing pages and extensive search advertising campaigns will also segment these customers significantly, driving them down a special path to conversion.
Give Me What I Want
Engage me in the experience, and I’ll spend more time on your site. Make the navigation path I’m supposed to follow clear and inviting. Don’t make me work to find critical information I need. Answer these important questions for me concisely within your content, and I’ve all but handed over my reservation – or at least bookmarked your site for a later stage of planning.
What options do I have? What do I need to know? Where do I show up? How do I get there? When can I go? What dates/times are available? How do I sign up? How do I give you my money? Make it easy for me to sign up, make a deposit, or reserve my dates in real-time, and get a confirmation via email. I don’t want to wait three days for someone to get back to me; I’ve already moved on to find instant gratification elsewhere.
What options do I have? What do I need to know? Where do I show up? How do I get there? When can I go? What dates/times are available? How do I sign up? How do I give you my money?
Make it easy for me to sign up, make a deposit, or reserve my dates in real-time, and get a confirmation via email. I don’t want to wait three days for someone to get back to me; I’ve already moved on to find instant gratification elsewhere.
Take advantage of using internal site search to track what your users are looking for – and what they’re not finding easily on your site. It may give you critical insight into a potential business growth area where you can meet a specific need.
Dude, My Life Is in Your Hands
The average vacation is still a significant expenditure, especially for those on a tight budget. But the fact is, if travelers feel like they’ve gotten more than they paid for, the better their experience seems, and the more willing they are to become an advocate for you. There’s also the value of time and factors of convenience. More experienced travelers know that the most expensive isn’t always the best, and that bargains can often bring the most value. If I’m going heli-skiing, and your long-standing safety record means I pay a little more, then my life is well worth a few extra bucks. If I happen to get lucky and discover a gem of a high-end resort on off-season rates, then I have justified the added indulgence of a spa treatment.
Your job is to convince every traveler that your service provides the most value in one way or another. Do this well, and social media or word of mouth marketing will support your online efforts, building the trust and credibility from reliable, external sources.
Still confused about how you can succeed in the competitive travel search vertical? Come to SES Travel Edition July 26-27th and learn more about effective content development, paid search campaigns, travel review and social media sites, tracking conversions, and other strategies in the online travel marketing industry.