Today’s travelers have a world of opportunity available to them at the touch of a button. Their social media streams are filled with images and opportunities to visit places both near and far. In this “choose- your-own adventure” landscape, travelers may want to book a weekend with extended family or indulge in a week-long cooking class at Julia Child’s former home in the South of France.
The way world travels today, has changed. In this mobile-first world, consumers want to be in control. They’re likely to start research via a smartphone and complete the task later on a laptop — maybe. They want to compare flights, hotels, and excursions on OTA’s, websites, and social media on whatever device is at hand.
This comparison stage can last days or weeks with dozens of touchpoints. Google tells us that search intent narrows once flights are booked. Once the destination is chosen, then it’s natural to look for tours, restaurants, and other activities.
Anything is possible and it all offers online travel companies plenty of opportunity to offer customers personalized and relevant content in this fast-paced, mobile-first world.
However, those opportunities also bring a set of challenges for travel brands.
Some of those challenges include:
- Legacy systems with data silos make it difficult to understand customer behavior and create a seamless transition
- Personalizing relevant content across devices
- Optimizing the time content is sent to stimulate an action
- Using data to understand (and predict) a customer’s behavior
- Lack of marketing attribution
- How to incorporate machine learning and AI into actionable insights
With a lack of clear data visualization, actionable analytics, and little channel integration, it’s no wonder so many online travel companies are losing out on customers.
Your customers are using email, SMS, websites, and social media. They want their interactions to be intuitive and easy for them. Yet, marketing silos give off a disjointed, clunky, one-size-fits-all feel that doesn’t align with the way travel customers use the web.
They browse destinations and hotels, read articles, view photos, and even shop for clothing related to their destination. Such behavior leaves dozens of breadcrumbs along the way, and in many ways, changes the customer lifecycle for online travel businesses.
In order to harness these opportunities, it’s important to a) understand the user lifecycle and b) have the tools to use this information.
The solution is smart automated marketing. It should feel personalized and based on individual preferences and behavior patterns. Marketing automation using machine learning and AI offers such always-on, real-time marketing through multiple channels.
In the following sections, you’ll see how marrying the customer journey with well-timed marketing automation, improves the customer experience and makes for more loyal customers.
Lifecycle of an online travel business customer
When you understand what the customer wants, how they want it, and you have the technology to meet their needs, then it’s much easier to fulfill their expectations. Part of that insight comes from understanding the user lifecycle. Also called the customer journey, you can break it into four distinct phases:
1. Awareness and Acquisition
Are you showing up in the places where your customers are looking? How can you take more control of this stage of the customer lifecycle and how can you use it to connect with and encourage your prospective customers to do business with you and refer you to others?
Once you have their attention, how can you use data to create dynamic personalized and timely content? The travel business is competitive and customers aren’t known for their loyalty. Yet, by capturing customer data and using it to create a hyper-personalized automated response, businesses can increase their bookings.
For example, if someone searches airline itineraries but doesn’t book, do you have a system that “taps” them again with relevant content within minutes? One company found that implementing such automation increased its engagement by 115%.
If you had strong, data-driven customer profiles and dynamic, personalized content, do you think it would be easier for your prospects to become customers? It is possible to create a clear path to sale for your customers which makes it easier to forecast your numbers. Smart marketing automation makes it easier to find, track, and engage with your customers based on their habits and preferences.
Boost your Customer Lifetime Revenue (CLV) by retaining your hard-won customers. As you know, customer acquisition is costly – 5-7 times more expensive than re-engaging your previous customers.
Establish data-driven KPI’s to send personalized and relevant messages at the right frequency. Smart automation improves push notifications and email deliverability via automation
Stage 1: Awareness and Acquisition
The travel industry is a $5.28 trillion-dollar business. (According to 2017 numbers shared by industry publication TravelWeek.)
Just as consumers expect to pick and choose their entertainment via streaming services like Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify, they also expect to pick and choose their travel. Everything from preferred flight times and destinations to activities tailored to their interests.
If you’re an airline, OTA, or another part of the online travel business, then you know how fragmented the industry has become in the past decade and you know that without strong data management, it’s difficult to personalize and automate emails and notifications.
There are three trends in travel that online travel agencies, airlines, tour operators, and rental companies can capitalize on.
Once hallmarks of elite travel, machine learning and artificial intelligence now make these accessible to every online business business. It’s all about collecting customer data and building the marketing platform to use it.
Skift shared results from Adobe’s North American 2018 Summit, “The survey confirmed that younger travelers view personalized experiences as an expectation when choosing their favorite travel brands. “Millennials in the 25 to 34-year-old demographic are less likely to be impressed versus having an expectation around travel experiences,” said Julie Hoffmann, Adobe’s head of industry strategy for travel. “These global travelers are setting the bar as they move into the primary travel demographic over the next 10 years.”
The first step is making the customer journey feel seamless. Whether they first “meet” your brand via social media, your website, or OTA, brands that master cross channel marketing have an advantage.
For example, according to econsultancy, one travel customer had 850 touchpoints over a three-month mark. She looked at maps, airlines, restaurants, and more with 24% of these touchpoints via mobile.
Some of those touchpoints were likely top of funnel content like blog posts, photos, and video. All requirements for today’s content-hungry public for building awareness and opportunities for acquisition.
She is also likely to look at content via multiple channels and with multiple devices. Legacy systems tend to operate in data silos. Separate data points for email, website, and social make it difficult to create a 360 degree of the customer.
Of course, that brings us to the customer. Who is she? What matters to her? What type of content does she want and when?
Take the case of a theoretical traveler named Lucy.
Lucy is a 35-year-old professional who has decided to take a luxury getaway to Tulum, Mexico. Part of the growing number of solo female travelers, Lucy wants to enjoy the flavor of Tulum and have a relaxing getaway. While there; she wants to take a few yoga classes, eat well, and visit the nearby Mayan ruins.
She doesn’t want to take a pre-packaged tour but she’s not opposed to meeting up with like-minded people for a meal or two while there. She wants to stay in an independent boutique hotel with a good spa and yoga classes. She wants a view of the ocean and restaurants within walking distance.
Her priorities include convenience and luxury. She spends two months researching options before finally consulting with a travel advisor that she met via social media (and through a friend’s recommendation.)
In the next section, we’ll come back to our theoretical traveler and demonstrate ways you can use technology to meet each of her objectives and capture the sale.
For now, let’s return to the idea of the sales funnel or customer lifecycle.
In this case, Lucy decides to take herself on a trip. She chooses Tulum because she knows several people who’ve been there and it’s an easy, direct flight from Philadelphia where she lives.
She knows it’s famous for beaches, good food, and wellness activities because her Instagram feed is full of pictures from the area.
Lucy’s initial interest represents the awareness stage. Once she knows about a place, combine that with the desire for a tropical, mid-winter getaway that’s easy to reach from her area and it’s no wonder that her “aha” moment may think, “Tulum.”
She starts browsing flights on her smartphone. But she doesn’t buy yet. With the right technology in place however, you don’t have to lose her. Instead, you can retarget Lucy.
With machine learning and AI, Lucy’s actions online go beyond tracking how long she spends on a site and what pages she views. It marries that data with her demographics and location and compares it to other people with similar characteristics and interests. That way, the content she’s served is considered the best match.
While creating customer profiles are not new ideas, they’re more essential than ever due to today’s fragmented market.
The more data points, the better the personalization. The more cross-channel marketing, the more seamless the experience is for Lucy. Personalization and cross channel communication leads to good customer service.
From discovery via app stores (a primary way of getting found) to customer targeting and retargeting there are many ways to attract new customers. Then, as users become aware of your brand, you want to help them take the next steps which is encouraging them to download your app and provide their email address.
Of course, prospects can find also find you through organic discovery which is usually a combination of smart SEO and content marketing strategies combined with visible banners and on-page incentive to download an app.
In all about providing your prospect with the information they’re looking for through their preferred channels.
Statista tells us that mobile is expected to nearly triple by 2021. It’s no surprise that millennials (and Gen Z) expect to be able to accomplish most everything on their smartphones. That’s behavior only going to increase in the coming years so it makes sense that having a mobile first strategy is a strategic move in the buyer journey.
Other strategies for awareness and acquisition include influencer marketing, PR, and email marketing.
Websites and apps optimized with machine learning and AI can craft dynamic responses that send relevant, and timely messages to users based on their actions shorten the sales cycle. From testing colors, layout, messaging, timing of delivery, these “evolutionary algorithms” make for sophisticated marketing that makes your future customers feel recognized and valued.
It’s this type of a customer-centric, multipronged approach that incorporates machine learning and AI that will help online travel businesses can lower their acquisition costs.
Which brings us to engagement.
Stage 2: Engagement
According to Deloitte’s U.S. Consumer 2019 U.S. Travel and Hospitality Outlook, “It will be an exciting time in 2019 for carriers to drive creatively around revenue management. Technology and techniques are evolving quickly—with some travel suppliers already leveraging new pricing engines to update fares as quickly as every 15 seconds.
But for all its potential, dynamic pricing is not a simple plug-and-play solution. For many carriers, reaching this level of sophistication requires structural change in data management processes and integration with legacy and siloed operating functions such as sales, marketing, and operations. For example, many airlines need to build real-time integration between CRM and revenue management systems.”
Email Engagement Lesson From Hello Travel
Hello Travel sells holiday packages that usually include flights, hotels, and include discounts. Their challenge was they were manually handling their email campaigns. They didn’t have an automated system for customer segmentation and while they knew that sending preference based emails would likely drive business, they didn’t have a system to do it efficiently.
By implementing a logical, automated, systematic follow up email campaign, HelloTravel boosted their click rates by 115%.
It starts with a prospect in the beginning stages of browsing a travel package but not booking. However, you did capture the prospect’s email address which means you can send an automated follow up just 30 minutes later based on his preferences.
It works like this. The customer is browsing travel packages, gave email address but didn’t book.
30 minutes later, he receives an email with travel packages to the destination the prospect was browsing. The result? A 115% boost in click rate and 25% increase in open rates.