As digital channels mature in scope and power, the industry needs to catch up
Using social ties to fuel a business model predates the digital age -think of Weight Watchers. Social interaction got digital as long ago as the late 1970s, when the first internet bulletin boards appeared. And the first online ads date to the early 1990s. From these disparate roots, the modern practice of marketing over digital channels has had years to evolve. But has it evolved enough? When it comes to “social media” – including household names like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Instagram as well as more specialised channel – the answer is no.
The very name ‘social media’ may stand in the way because it encourages businesses to think of these channels the way end users do. Consumers primarily consider them as fun and useful, but they are actually sophisticated media channels. Their technology capabilities have evolved drastically, yet businesses have not kept up.
The unique ability of digital channels to engage, measure, and create two-way dialogue is reason enough to take them seriously as tools which can support marketing, operations, finance, or human resources activities for a company. ‘Social marketing’ is just that: marketing. Businesses need to employ the same rigorous strategies, planning and measurements to these channels that they use with other traditional channels such as TV, radio, and print. That’s a big operational shift, but it starts with a cognitive one. If the only thing you do today is eliminate the term social media from your organisation’s vernacular and start referring instead to digital channels, you will have made progress for your organisation.
How travel companies use digital channels
Most companies across the travel and hospitality industry have embraced online media to some extent, but they haven’t demonstrated sophisticated use of digital channels. Companies’ biggest misstep? They’ve tried to be just as ‘social’ as consumers. For consumers, these channels are social. For companies, they have to be all business. That means finding the place where their marketing strategies intersect with the ways consumers use these channels – ways that are not only social, but also different from how they use TV, radio, or print. What have travel companies been doing online? A lot of ‘social listening’ to observe brand mentions by consumers in the hope they’ll glean nuggets of useful information. That is worthwhile to do, but not the only way a business should interact with digital channels. Some companies use these channels to engage consumers as a forum for feedback. One-third of consumers say they’ve left a comment or sent a message to a travel brand’s social media page, and half of all frequent leisure travellers (defined as those survey respondents who took at least six trips in the previous year) do.
Some companies use this kind of outreach to provide more customised services; for example, Hilton has extended its Twitter-based @HiltonSuggests concierge service to anyone travelling – regardless of whether they are staying at a Hilton property.
Travellers can ask about restaurants, activities, tours, or other suggestions and a local expert will tweet back. Socially, this is innovative. But it can be challenging to tie these specific behaviours to a direct uptick in sales or brand awareness.
Other companies use digital channels for giveaways or contests. About one-third of all consumers, and half of all frequent travellers, report seeing these offerings. These promotions can engage the consumer base, but the key is to ensure these actions align with other key business goals instead of standing outside them. For example, consumers can enter many of these contests simply by ‘liking’ or ‘following’ the brand. Companies spend time and money to run these contests – and hand out rewards with real market value in exchange for loyalty that may be fleeting. Fortunately, there are other measurable ways to engage travel audiences online.
That’s more than a semantic shift. The name an organisation gives something influences the way its employees think of it and the ways they use it. These channels are indeed social – but only for the consumers. For the businesses that use the channels to chase business outcomes, ‘social’ is a misnomer. If that sounds like doubletalk, consider the parallels: People who watch TV ads don’t call themselves “target demos,” and people who push carts around grocery stores don’t say they’re on a “shopper journey.” It’s okay to use a different frame of reference. In fact, it’s essential that businesses do so.
If the shift is more than semantic, where does it lead? How should you behave differently? First, you need to let go of the consumer-centric view of digital channels. ‘Likes’, ‘follows’ and ‘shares’, have limited real-world value unless you take additional steps to derive value from the relationships they represent. Second, you need to be more discriminating about the consumer connections you make online. Digital channels seduce marketers with the ability to reach “all the people” – but do you cast your net that wide with TV, radio, or print? Of course you don’t. Targeting is the key, and when it comes to the ability to target down to the individual level, digital channels blow other media out of the water. Third, you have to be careful about the way you build digital marketing into the structure of your organisation. If you set it apart in a distinct department, it will be a lot harder to tie digital metrics to business metrics.
The shift from the ‘social’ to ‘digital’ carries the implication that these channels are much more than PR outlets. They need to be integrated into a company’s overall marketing and operations strategy. That’s partly because they provide similar access to consumers. And it’s partly because they provide a great deal more – like immediate feedback and a wealth of information about consumers, as a mass and as individuals.
Recommendation 1: Use business metrics, not social ones
Fans, likes, and shares aren’t actionable enough
It’s probably a safe bet to assume that no travel company tells investors its main objective for the next year should center on increasing the number of followers on social media. Yet by diligently collecting consumer likes and followers, this is exactly what businesses have been doing. They have been investing in performance metrics that don’t tie back to traditional performance indicators. Measuring the number of “likes” is not meaningful on its own unless it can be connected to a larger business goal.
Instead, these companies need to hold their digital activities to the same standards of measurable return they apply to everything else they do.
Traditionally, most travel companies seek to drive more business by increasing awareness, consideration, trial, and retention of current and potential customers. With the right approach, digital can transform these efforts. Companies can also use digital channels to improve metrics in the key areas of awareness, sales, and retention:
Recognise the unique benefits each channel offers – and use them correctly
‘Digital’ isn’t one uniform channel. It’s a category of distinct networks, and each digital channel offers different capabilities travel marketers can use to activate a different business metric. Whether a business is trying to disseminate information, build networks, or inspire buying behaviour, the strength of a given digital channel relies on the number of people that can be reached, the quality of that audience according to time-tested marketing criteria, and the ability to directly engage people.
That amounts to a company using its marketing plan as the basis for deciding how (and whether) to use each available digital channel for the specific strengths it offers, then use that channel to communicate messaging that aligns with the company’s strategy. When technology gives you the power to find the people who matter most to your business, you use that power. Or you watch someone else use it to beat you. For example, the New Zealand tourism board wanted to use Facebook to drive efficient traffic to its website, newzealand.com. The board wanted to be efficient with its spending, but also wanted to make sure it was attracting targeted audiences who are genuinely interested in a trip to New Zealand. To expose potential customers to the idea of a New Zealand trip, the board ran a logout campaign (in which a longer video plays once someone leaves the site), then followed up by targeting those people with specific ads that reminded them to go to New Zealand. For the first month, the digital channel campaign was the number-one traffic driver to the tourism site. Web traffic increased 50 per cent, and the cost per arriving visitor was 72 per cent lower than with other sources.
Best Western used digital channels to drive more booking revenue of business travelers and increase the success of its annual spring campaign. By launching a comprehensive digital campaign across multiple advertising platforms, the chain was able to target people who identified as business travelers with a unique “Be a Travel Hero” campaign that tied into a digital app the company consumers could use to share their dream vacations with friends and family. The approach to consumers was targeted, but the digital tools available were widely varied. By using the right mix, Best Western was able to drive significant revenue growth from this campaign. And because of the data-driven nature of digital, it was also able to track its spending and attribute the success to the correct channels.
Overall, the company reported an increase of more than 20 per cent in revenue over the previous year’s spring promotion, and an eight-figure increase in sales revenue. It ended up being the number-one spring promotion in Best Western’s history in terms of increased sales.
Every digital media channel is optimised for a particular goal. If that goal doesn’t align with any of the company’s goals, the company should deprioritise that network. No media department would buy space in every magazine or time on every radio station just because it could. Between the research that informs it and the quick-response technologies that drive it, digital channel marketing has an even greater potential than traditional media to enable well-thought-out omni-channel plans. By focusing on their overall omnichannel strategies, companies can adapt to changing technologies and digital capabilities as needed.
Recommendation 2: A waste of a lovely view
It isn’t the number of eyeballs— it’s finding the right eyeballs.
A vast potential to know and target the people you want. If you run a travel company, digital media gives you access to billions of consumers all over the world – some of whom are looking to spend money right now, in the very moment of their interaction with you. But which ones?
Almost all digital channels collect basic demographic information about their users, along with data like age, gender, geography. Many consumers reveal much more, however, including relationship status, past travel locations, education and work history, brand preferences, leisure preferences, and income. And then there’s the information they don’t have to choose to share – the information about location, search histories, and buying habits that the internet catalogs regardless of whether they share it.
There are fewer limits to what some consumers are willing to share online. The data is there. The question is whether travel marketers will use it. “Being able to target advertising to consumers based on such specific data is much more effective than guessing which ZIP codes your target market lives in,” says Blake Chandlee, vice president of global partnerships for Facebook. “Historically, the industry never had the scale of mass media along with the ability to personalise that scale in the way social media does,” he adds.
Ability to target
Collecting information on consumers is one step. Using it to target to very specific audiences is the catalyst that sets digital channels apart from other marketing methods. By targeting the precise consumer cohorts their marketing strategies demand, companies can be more efficient with their spending and dedicate more resources to consumers who will actually generate revenue for the company. This is where social becomes digital – and where friendly eyeballs turn into measurable business value.
Digital channel marketing may be ‘just marketing’, but it’s very finely targetable marketing. Consider the different ways you can slice and measure a digital audience compared with traditional media capabilities. In one example, the travel site BestDay.com used Facebook’s Custom Audiences tool to reach its sales targets. By using Custom Audiences, the company could reach people who had visited its website, but had not completed their purchases. Targeting audiences and sending key messages based on behavior helped the company increase sales at a low cost per acquisition.
Is there a model for combining highly detailed consumer data from different sources to drive marketing? Every company can have its own recipe. But here’s how it might look for a typical travel company:
Digital offers other unique benefits that travel companies can use to their advantage: Geo-tagging, past reviews, check-ins, and conversations. When they see where a consumer has visited and are aware of their travel patterns, brands can understand those patterns and preferences of individuals and groups and use that information to gain valuable consumer insights. This allows for even more direct targeting that can tie to revenue capture, conversion, and customer acquisition. When Scandinavian Airlines used the geotargeting capabilities of digital channels, it was able to improve the return on its ad spend by a factor of 15–20 and gain valuable new customers.
Because different campaigns or initiatives can have different business goals, travel companies can use the targeting capabilities of social media to reach different audiences for different initiatives, and they can tailor messages to specific audience segments. New back-end technologies enable companies to establish business rules that trigger communication based on specific travel patterns from a wide variety of sources. A consumer may receive a targeted message based on his or her location, review frequency and tone, or check-ins. Try that with television and print.
Recommendation 3: Be deliberate about whose job this is
It matters where digital “lives” in your organisation
Does your travel-related enterprise have ‘a social guy’ or perhaps a ‘digital team’? Perhaps it shouldn’t. Digital teams can’t succeed if they operate separately from the rest of the company. If you’re trying to forge a link between digital metrics and business success, the digital operations need to happen right alongside the operational activities you measure everything against. That can’t happen if digital marketing lives in its own little box on the org chart: Companies should think of it as a strategic tool by which all functions can benefit. A successful setup is one that allows digital channels to cut across and support operations, technology, and marketing.
That doesn’t mean there’s a standard template for structuring a company’s digital channel marketing efforts. Ideally all parts of the company will touch that realm, but it might be ‘headquartered’ in marketing or under a ‘chief digital officer’. It might even take the form of a wide-ranging ‘center of excellence’ that touches many departments and reports straight to the top. No two setups are alike, and the way your company solves the problem may be unique enough to count as a ‘secret sauce’ that drives competitive advantage.
Digital channel strategy starts with deciding where digital responsibility lives within the organisation. Looking across all businesses, not only those in travel, a 2013 study conducted by the MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte LLP found 58 per cent of companies have appointed an individual to oversee their organisations’ social business initiatives.
At face value, that looks like a commitment. But if you appoint one person to oversee digital media, does it end up being a silo? What if you appoint an entire department, and concentrate digital media responsibility there? True engagement with digital channels happens when it occurs across an organisation.
The people tasked with using digital media should be ‘channel-agonistic’ -champions of the company’s business goals and whatever will achieve them, not champions of Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn. Much like a mechanic places equal value on a wrench, screwdriver, or caliper according to the need – and much like a brand team sits across all of marketing.
Traditionally, most people have thought of digital media as a public relations or marketing medium. That’s a limited view that leaves value on the table. Instead, travel companies can apply digital channels to support other parts of the business. Whenever a company evaluates its strategic agenda, it should consider all the ways digital channels can help. That determination drives the structure of a company’s digital efforts.
What stands in the way is policy, not technology. For example, most travel companies don’t give their departments the power to remediate problems they observe online. They can triage and redirect, but they have limited resources to actually resolve the situations and strengthen their brands in the eyes of consumers. They have ‘social-focused’ employees who help consumers feel like their needs are being heard. But there’s a wide gulf between “we hear you” and “it’s taken care of.” Companies that harness these digital channels and empower employees to use them can build a competitive advantage in the way they cater to their consumers’ desires.
Stephen Colbert once went to a commercial break by telling his viewing audience, “Don’t touch that dial… and if your TV has a dial, you need a new TV.” In the same spirit, does your company need a new understanding of the ways it should use digital media as a hard-core marketing tool? More than 50 per cent of travel executives in a Deloitte survey said they believe their companies are behind the competition with respect to digital media presence.
As travel companies move from ‘social media’ to a more nuanced understanding of digital channels, the possibilities are endless. But they’ll remain only possibilities until those companies consider the ways their consumers behave online and offline, before, during, and after their travel experiences. Measure the business outcomes, not the social aspects. Use the targeting ability that makes digital so powerful. And be smart about where digital marketing lives within your organisation. There’s a lot of work behind those three steps – but there’s a lot of wasted effort in ignoring them.
Digital media isn’t new anymore, but its reach and potential continues to evolve rapidly. The more quickly companies can adapt to these new muscles and integrate them with core business strategies, the sooner they can transform their digital outreach from an expense to an investment.