With every new year, there’s often a sense of “where did the last one go?”
The march of technology enables us to time-shift in many ways, and the pandemic has only increased a distorted feeling of time as it accelerates many long-term trends.
2021 saw a return to travel – if not “normalcy” – in many respects. But the recent omicron variant and related restrictions remind us that any return to pre-pandemic state of affairs is elusive.
We started off the “Roaring 20s” with a belief that three paradigms would resonate in this decade: embracing customer empathy, viewing the conversion funnel as a sphere and activating inspiration everywhere.
Looking back, empathy in marketing is now an imperative for obvious reasons. Fluid border restrictions and coronavirus surges disintegrated the linear booking funnel, further morphing it into a sphere. Inspiration is indeed everywhere, but prior to 2020 few of us would have thought the Johns Hopkins University global coronavirus tracking map would be used to figure out where to go.
We were directionally accurate with those paradigm shifts. But we didn’t foresee a now obvious shift that echoed throughout 2020: the need to stay flexible and fluid. Despite human nature’s eternal search for stability, the old adage “the only constant is change” is particularly true and relevant for the new year.
With the fog of 2020 and a brighter 2021 behind us, another maxim will serve us well into 2022 and beyond: in uncertain times, we should focus on what we can control and prepare as best we can for whatever new challenge will come our way. For travel marketers, that means doing everything we can to make travel easier for today’s hesitant-yet-eager, flexibility-seeking consumers. Here’s to rollin’ with the new – challenges and opportunities – in ‘22!
The global coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed travel. Just exactly how is debatable. Fortunately, as the world starts to open up again we now have preliminary data to see what’s changed, and what will.
Flexibility now reigns supreme, and travelers want to know their options. Not just any options – what’s right for them, right now.
Relevance remains important, but many travel marketers are still stuck in a merchandising Medieval Age – pushing available offers, arranged neatly on the digital shelf. Top sellers get prominent placement, with a few nods to personalization: places you’ve clicked on, been to or are within driving distance.
That should be enough to capture a share of this unprecedented wave of demand, right?
Not exactly. There’s a revolution in travel happening right now, a tectonic change deeply rooted in a very personal, cultural and psychological shift. The world was pulled like a rug from beneath our feet, leaving us unsettled, unsure.
Uncertainty breeds indecision. Indecision halts action. In e-commerce terms, it kills conversion – and drives a ton of call center interaction, as many travel sellers are reporting.
How do we remove uncertainty and get travelers to book in an ever-changing environment? By implementing a strategy of what I call “FlexIn” – a combination of flexibility and inspiration defined as “the spontaneous generation of desirable, relevant and changeable options.”
Flexibility has been one of the best changes to come to travel recently. The ability to change or cancel a reservation without penalty is the top factor in purchase decisions, according to a recent Expedia presentation at the eTourism Summit 2021. A recent Phocuswright research report says 7 in 10 travelers prioritize flexible booking more than ever. It’s one change many of us hope will remain permanent. For marketers, it’s no longer optional.
Beyond the refundable fares and eased cancellation policies, post-pandemic flexibility now applies to the very core of travel: destinations. Specifically, destination selection.
As border restrictions, vaccine availability and adoption change, so do the list of available destinations. Expedia also reported that on average, travelers are searching for 2 or 3 destinations in a single session.
The typical linear customer journey of selecting a destination, searching for the best price and then booking was already antiquated pre-COVID. The funnel is morphing into a sphere – an irreversible trend accelerated by the pandemic – where travelers will consider (and even book) a number of destinations before settling on one.
The Inspiration Script, Flipped
We humans have an innate desire to explore. Travel brands have tapped into this desire by employing attractive imagery for over 150 years. Ethereal print ads from early U.S. railroad companies lured travelers with images of the western frontier. At the start of the jet age, nostalgic posters of exotic destinations beckoned travelers, in the same way as Instagrammable spots drive today’s wanderlust.
Yet somehow, the notion of inspiring travelers in the digital space has more recently been considered a frivolous pursuit.
Still, there’s a lingering resistance among online travel veterans to embrace inspiration. It’s often considered to be too far from the booking. Marketing efforts should focus further down the funnel.
Another perception is that there’s “not enough traffic to make it worthwhile,” as the CEO of a major metasearch company once told me. This is an inherent chicken/egg problem, where big companies may be reluctant to promote inspiration in a meaningful way because they believe there’s not enough demand for it.
Not according to Google. They estimate that 1 in 3 travelers do not have a destination in mind when first thinking about a trip. Ironically, the ever-increasing cost of lower-funnel keywords has also pushed brands to engage travelers earlier in the purchase process. Inspiration is the way.
Brands Flexing Inspiration
Savvy sellers are responding to the flexible destination demands of travelers. CheapTickets was among the first OTAs to implement their Vacation Value Finder (powered by TripTuner, natch).
Brands like United Airlines are getting in on the action, too with more flexible search and exploration tools (though a map crowded with labels doesn’t exactly inspire).
Regardless of who’s doing what – the best way to identify unmet demand is to test for it yourself. In our experience with partners, every inspiration A/B test has proven its merit. Apparently, the world’s largest travel company by market capitalization agrees.
Why is a separate inspiration function or Call To Action required? It could be added to the typical flight or hotel search (enter destination, dates and travelers). But all too often current search functions lack the spontaneity and curiosity that triggers the imagination. The results themselves need to be inspirational (e.g with alluring images) as well as relevant.
Properly deployed, FlexIn piques a traveler’s curiosity and creates a sense of ownership, of being the author of one’s journey. This is MY trip. While many ideas come from within, they’re often prompted by an external stimulus (like a conversation, social media post, or email). Without a way of channeling that inspiration, your brand simply won’t get its fair share of the rolling wave of post-pandemic pent-up demand.
The ability to spontaneously generate desirable, relevant and changeable options – which you now know as FlexIn – can future-proof your business in an ever-changing world of increasing choice and complexity.
To learn how you can convert flexible inspiration, get in touch and…stayTTuned.
Today is the 10th anniversary of our launch, so like all ambitious startups we tackled the seemingly insurmountable task of condensing 10 years into 62 seconds. Fasten your seatbelts, put your tray tables up and come along on a fantastic voyage of appreciation for all your inspiration and support!
Summer months often have us thinking of beach time, but the unprecedented level of pent-up demand wrought by the coronavirus has many of us wanting to getaway, anywhere. Now.
Travel restrictions, entry requirements and vaccination rates continue to change, with demand surging in particular regions. Priceline reports that 92% of Americans will travel in 2021. U.S. airports are indeed filled once again with summer crowds, as TSA Checkpoint throughput is consistently at or above the 2 million travelers mark – about 3x what it was last year, and about 75% of what it was in 2019.
According to CNBC, 56% of Europeans intend to travel this summer. Flight bookings soared in the UK when returning quarantine requirements were eased recently (Okay they’re not part of Europe anymore – but you get the point).
The start-and-stop nature of travel these days has changed typical booking seasons. Many colleagues and partners are reporting that typical seasonality has been eroded by a rolling wave of demand, as more and more travelers are able to move more freely within their own countries and around the world – depending on the region, of course. Asia for example, has seen new restrictions on travel as the more contagious, less-deadly delta coronavirus variant spreads.
We’ve also heard about booking windows morphing into a barbell shape, where most travel is concentrated in both close-in and further out due to the uncertainty around changing travel restrictions, requirements and the safety situation in a given destination. This (and the steadily increasing wave of bookings) can be seen in the wide gap between short and longer term bookings in the US data from Adara’s traveler trends tracker.
In this new, more fluid and dynamic context, travel marketers are wise to adapt to these demand patterns by keeping an eye on the restrictions from both an origin and destination perspective. Just as a wave splits into smaller waves when hitting rocks along the shore, so too will demand continue to flow where restrictions have been eased. Campaigns and messaging needs to be ready for immediate deployment, tailored for how travelers are feeling now.
We’ve helped our partners catch this rolling wave of demand through the merchandising of relevant destinations and experiences that are resonating with travelers now – like vigorous trail hikes or languid nights soaking up the fresh air of a state park. TripTuner was built from start to respond to changing preferences. Our custom versions enable partners to stay in tune with those tastes in real-time – and leverage that data for better personalization.
Wanna make some waves and rise with the tide of growing travel demand? Hit us up! 🏄♂️
Travel’s recovery is at various stages globally, but the trend towards more authentic, off-the-beaten-path destinations, experiences and activities is universal. Or is it?
Earlier we shared how travelers are gravitating towards more remote (and particularly outdoors) destinations, activities and beaches. Much of the news around travel trends and some big travel startup funding reports focus on outdoor experiences. We hear about it on webinars, in posts and conversations from industry colleagues – to the point where it’s an accepted truism.
But I’m a bit of a contrarian, so just for kicks we checked to see if the remote outdoors zeitgeist was truly universal. And it is. Kinda.
Your Social Distance May Vary
We looked at the demand for urban vs. remote destinations across the TripTuner platform, and compared it to pre-COVID levels. Breaking down the desire for more remote destinations by the top four US metropolitan areas, we can clearly see that not everyone shares the same mojo to roll solo.
The teal dots show COVID-era preferences, with white dots indicating 2019 preferences. Chicagoans had the strongest post-COVID desire to go remote (note the delta between the blue vs white dot above), while Houston’s change was less than half of that – likely because they were already more apt to do so (their white dot). New York and LA also saw significant increases of 28% and 32%, respectively.
We also looked at the demand for popular vs. hidden gem activities across the TripTuner platform, and compared it to pre-COVID levels. There was a clear overall trend towards less popular activities, but it varied across the four major US metros.
Here’s how it played out: – LA travelers are now 26% more desirous of hidden gem activities – New Yorkers were next at 23% – Houston came in at 18% and Chicago just 12%
Interestingly, Chicagoans are an outlier here. While they clearly prefer more remote destinations, they are less inclined to go off-the-beaten path when it comes to activities. The other markets are more or less aligned with remote destination and activity preference levels.
Which Way To The (Uncrowded) Beach?
Beach preferences jibed with the crowd-avoidance vibe. The change in pre- vs post-COVID preferences varied as with destinations and activities.
Here again however, Chicagoans stood out in having a much higher preference for secluded beaches than hidden gem activities. Perhaps the novelty of Oak Street Beach has worn off for locals?
Your Audience May Vary
What else does this data tell us? That despite a glut of views on what the “new normal” (sorry not sorry to use that worn phrase, it’s relevant) looks like for travel, we still need to dig into the numbers and see if it makes sense for our audience and what they want.
Ideally, you can do this on an individual 1:1 level (we can help with that) by leveraging your own first-party data (more on its importance here). But as much this pandemic has changed us, it’s more critical as ever to do the math – to question your assumptions and check that they are backed by real, relevant data.
Enough with the numbers. Now let me go dream about my next remote getaway destination.
At first glance, this infographic may not be surprising. The general consensus among travel experts these days is that people are opting for less crowded experiences as a result of the pandemic. But when you start to look for data to back this up, it’s largely based on surveys or anecdotal evidence and quotes. We wanted to see what actual travelers were doing vs. saying
So we dug into the TripTuner Taste Lab. The Taste Lab is comprised of unique preference data pulled from the precise actions of users on preference slider inputs across the TripTuner platform. It’s the output of a patented process, in which the twin attributes of each slider measure the relative preference between two criteria (you can play around with it here).
In this case, we looked at the relative preference for social distancing among U.S. travelers across three categories: destinations (remote vs. urban), beaches (secluded vs. lively) and activities (hidden gems vs. popular). The base timeframe starts with the designation of a pandemic in February 2020 and runs until the first reports of a successful vaccine in November. For a pre-pandemic comparison, we took the same timeframe from 2019.
Where’s the Remote (Destination)?
As expected, Taste Lab data shows travelers prefer less crowded destinations, beaches and activities across the board. But it wasn’t the same for each type of travel experience. For destinations, in 2020 travelers were on average 22% more inclined to choose a remote destination.
This may not seem significant, however if you look at the position of the average slider preferences it shows a flip from a pre-pandemic bias towards urban locations to more remote. Of course, individual tastes will vary (and we can capture that on an individual level) but the overall sentiment shifted significantly. Remote destinations are on average, the new default.
Beach Towel Territory Battles
You know those pesky travelers who claim their territory with a beach towel sometime before you go to sleep and finish breakfast? Those battles are primed to continue, but along a different front. Instead of staking claim to a spot closest to the action, beachgoers are choosing secluded spots by 33% more than they did pre-pandemic. Despite being outdoors, distance still matters for travelers looking for their next beach vacation.
Authentic Activities at-a-Distance
When looking for activities, the general thinking is that most travelers will flock to the “must-see” experiences in a given location (looking at you, Times Square). But post-pandemic, travelers are 24% more likely to select a “hidden gem” (let’s run it back, Oiji). We’ve seen how many trends have been accelerated by COVID-19, so this too may not be surprising given the general shift toward more authentic, local experiences. Still, like the growing taste for remote destinations and secluded beaches, these changes represent a major shift in traveler activity preferences.
Given the pandemic’s relative lack of booking and historical preference data, it’s imperative for travel marketers to stay closely attuned to how travelers are feeling right now, in the moment. A major shift may only be a headline away. Implementing a way to gather first-party preference data now is the best way to future-proof against the next major disruption to travel – before it becomes cliché like social distancing. To find out how, give us a holler.
Making the most of a difficult situation – a.k.a. making lemonade – has been a mantra of mine since founding my own company during the last recession and weathering a barrage of critical challenges, the current pandemic being just the latest.
But what if nobody’s buying lemonade? COVID-19 brought travel to a halt. So why commit resources now that don’t drive immediate revenue?
It’s an excellent question. It makes total sense to cut non-revenue driving initiatives in a crisis. But only – as I’ve previously said – if it doesn’t affect the long-term viability of your business.
Pushing offers when travel is risky could come off as tone-deaf. At the same time, businesses need to stay relevant with customers. One way is to go through this difficult period together, by showing customer empathy: “We know you can’t or don’t want to travel right now, but here’s a way to satisfy that wanderlust.”
Virtual travel could very well be today’s lemonade. But does it make sense to invest in such initiatives when they may not lead to immediate bookings? We explored these questions and more in a recent AI Events webinar on virtual travel (you can view the recording here).
Surveys of the 300+ registered attendees showed it’s no longer just a niche – 52% of respondents included virtual travel experiences as a part of marketing strategy even before COVID-19.
A Polarizing Paradox
Like many issues today, marketing travel presents a polarizing paradox. We want bookings to return, but can’t do that until people travel again. We’d like to stimulate demand, but don’t have the resources or desire to do that until things pick up. Initiatives must deliver revenue.
After recently claiming that virtual travel’s time has come, I heard from more than a few skeptics. It’s not surprising. A survey from our webinar showed only 42% of respondents planned to employ virtual travel techniques – and 44% were not sure.
As a former Online Travel Agency (OTA) executive, I get it. I have a natural bias against anything that gets in the way of a booking. Removing friction and making it easier to buy is a key objective of any e-commerce company.
When 360-degree virtual tours of hotel rooms first hit the scene over a decade ago, product managers bristled at how it may slow down page load speeds. Merchandisers complained it would distract and cause would-be buyers to exit the purchase funnel. Anything making the user experience visually richer was deemed unnecessary fluff. At the time, I agreed.
But consumer buying patterns have changed. The customer purchase journey as envisaged as the marketing funnel has morphed into a sphere, where the inspiration to purchase can happen anywhere and the “distance” to completing a booking is relatively consistent and short, regardless of the starting point.
The surface of the sphere is constantly changing, like the earth’s atmosphere. Trigger points – what I like to call Moments of Inspiration – can happen if the right conditions are present. Like many trends, the pandemic has accelerated the morphing of the funnel into a sphere.
Inspire Now, For Bookings Later
Travelers have become more opportunistic in today’s rapidly changing environment of shifting regulations, patchwork responses and varying rates of COVID-19’s spread. During a period of relative calm, where the origin and destination are both deemed to be ahead of the curve or recovering, a family who’s been in lockdown for months may pack up the car and escape to the great outdoors. The more intrepid may even fly, motivated by low fares after careful weighing of the pros and cons.
In an environment where nobody’s buying, demand generation takes precedence. When even that becomes difficult, it’s a battle for survival, to stay present in the minds of consumers who are quite literally looking to survive, too. It’s an acid test for a brand’s reputation.
Disappearing from the conversation only ensures failure, yet overt pre-pandemic style offers are tone-deaf. Virtual travel techniques – which I define as conveying the experience without a physical presence – offer a way to tap into the pent-up escapism of quarantined travelers in a guilt-free, low-risk manner, while generating valuable first-party preference data and leads that can convert now and later.
A Call To Action
The main criticism of virtual travel is that it does not lead to bookings. Engagement stats have always been there, but they are usually included with the caveat that the consumer is not in the buying mindset, they’re still “just browsing.” Historically, the main virtual travel tools – 360 video and virtual tours – didn’t even have a “book now” or similar call to action.
By comparison, even the oldest travel TV ad included the prompt to “call your agent.” Virtual travel techniques missed the boat early on, but are now catching up.
Simply adding a book now button to a virtual tour isn’t enough, though. The notoriously fickle booking habits of the online traveler cause him or her to bounce around a number of sites before booking. Delivery mechanisms need to look at user behavior more holistically and be able to adapt to a travelers’ mood and mindset. At TripTuner, we were able to overcome that challenge with the Florida Beach Finder project by allowing travelers to fine-tune their preferences.
Another example is the Bahamas Island Finder. Originally intended as an inspiration tool to help travelers explore and discover their ideal island, it has a persistent BOOK NOW button for each island that generates direct, measurable leads for nearly half of its users. Travelers can immerse themselves in a virtual experience, yet still have the option to book at their discretion.
Re-Calibrate Your Metrics
Even with a call to action, it’s important to make sure that booking clicks – and any other actions within your virtual travel tools – are trackable. As we saw during the webinar, 56% of respondents said they have no data to support how it translates to future revenue.
This is understandable. Even the most sophisticated e-commerce marketers still rely upon direct, or last-click attribution: tracking bookings that come directly from a specific action or link. As mentioned earlier, the haphazard nature of online travel bookings can make it difficult to track the customer journey. One solution is to simply track bookings that have also included your virtual travel experience in a given session (setting a cookie to the duration of your booking window) or by a particular user.
If the current pandemic has proved one thing though, it’s that “all bets are off.” An incredibly unpredictable business environment means we need to be prepared for any and all eventualities. This means that traditional KPIs and success metrics may need to be suspended.
Instead of search quantity, a focus on more qualitative user data such as the types of activities, content and destinations can lay the groundwork for more effective campaigns.
In lieu of bookings (which may not recover fully for months), a brand’s connection with customers could be measured by email acquisition, social media followers or earned media.
VISIT FLORIDA’s Beach Finder recently garnered significant earned media attention from Travel + Leisure and others for allowing home-bound travelers to virtually tour their entire coastline – even though it was initially deployed years ago. Making virtual travel investments now can yield long-term benefits beyond the current crisis.
Recipe for Recovery
With the right tracking, virtual travel techniques can reveal rich behavioral and preference data that can further refine your approach and offers, to generate leads and bookings. Apart from this actual lemonade recipe, here’s your key ingredients:
Help travelers escape, virtually (for now) – check out this article for a few ideas and remember – merely amassing a ton of virtual tours or imagery is not enough. Travelers can get overwhelmed, so curation and personalization of that content becomes even more important.
Include a Call To Action – not a flashing price offer, more like “roam, if you want to…for just $X.” Adventurous, risk-taking souls will self-select and by doing it subtly you won’t put off more cautious travelers.
Right-size Your ROI – bookings are important to all travel companies, but when there are none, it’s time to re-think what success looks like in the near and long term – beyond the generic “back to normal pre-COVID levels.”
Recently, TripTuner was awarded another patent – the ultimate proof of a product’s uniqueness. But the real test happens when people use it. You quickly see if you’ve got something special.
I was lucky to witness some real-time reactions the other day while presenting to a local high school’s entrepreneurship class. “Who likes to travel?” I asked. All hands go up. “OK, think of your dream destination – but don’t tell anyone.”
Next, I asked for volunteers to take the “TripTuner Test.” Mary jumped up to the keyboard and adjusted the sliders as we watched her matching results populate.
“Now tell us where you want to go most,” I asked. “Bora Bora,” she replied. (Well, I did ask them to dream).
Like a circus promoter I call out “let’s see what the first result is!” Rangiroa was in the first slot. They were not impressed. Until I told them that it’s a sister island to Bora Bora in French Polynesia. “No way!” Mary calls out.
“But wait!” I scrolled to the next image – “there it is, Bora Bora!” The kids were blown away.
Shout out to Dany13 for the fab Rangiroa photo!
Andrea came up next. Her destination? Mozambique. (They’re an adventurous lot). Her top result after adjusting the sliders? Benguera Island…in Mozambique. “Whoa!” – she couldn’t believe it.
TripTuner found their favorite places without knowing anything about them. The students hadn’t signed up. They weren’t cookied or tracked and weren’t logged into Facebook. There was no way to know what destination they had in mind (now THAT’s privacy-friendly personalization).
Sharing founder’s insights with the EHS entrepreneurship class.
How do we find their dream destinations? Sure, we have proprietary algorithms blah blah blah. But there isn’t one specific technical thing we did to make the experience special. It’s the result of looking at the overall process from the traveler’s perspective, and keeping it simple. I call it #outovating. No matter how many patents we have, creating that inspiring feeling for travelers is what matters most to us.
2020. It’s how we describe perfect vision. A clean, round number that comes around every 10 years. It calls out for change. But vague descriptions of wanting to do more or less of something won’t do it justice. 2020 needs a clear vision as a springboard into the new decade. Here’s ours:
I wrote about this before, but it’s a concept worth repeating, clarifying and discussing. Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen a shift from approaching customers as “prospects” to “followers” and even better, “advocates.” The modern industrial age stipulated that product quality will help one’s business stand out from the rest while driving repeat business. As manufacturing gave way to services, customer satisfaction grew as a way to cement loyalty.
But as the information economy evolved, the critical element of human interaction disappeared. We went from personal service to FAQs, Knowledge Bases and Contact forms. Companies seemed to be keeping customers at arm’s length as they strove to gain scale efficiently. Try finding the help section on Amazon. It’s the last option, at the very bottom of the page.
Amazon’s help menu, with our notes on what customers may read into it.
In some respects, that’s OK. The mostly mobile, always-on world changed how we communicate. We may not want to talk to an agent when we can get what we need via live chat or text. For those who are always “crazy busy,” the perceived quickening of life’s pace may not allow time for exchanging pleasantries and small talk. Just get me what I need, now.
Resolving a customer’s issue quickly and on their terms does not necessarily win you loyalty, however. It’s a minimum requirement. A ticket to play in today’s marketplace.
Marketing success in 2020 and beyond requires establishing an emotional connection with consumers – something that’s very hard to do digitally. It requires customer empathy: “listening” to an individual’s needs or desires in the moment, based on their terms and mindset. This can be dramatically different from the targeting signals, persona or profile your company may have derived from their past behavior.
One successful e-commerce venture – Zappos – did this, ironically via the old-fashioned method of a toll-free customer service phone line. It’s their way of establishing a “personal emotional connection” as founder Tony Hsieh put it. When Amazon bought them for $1.2 Billion, Hsieh resisted the pressure to abandon this approach. Whereas most companies think of customer service as a generic operating expense, he saw it as marketing and has kept it to this day.
How can we engender customer empathy digitally? It’s a complex effort that requires a clear, unified overall approach across the many interactions and micro-moments that consumers have with our brand – whether online or offline. These interactions are opportunities to convey customer empathy by demonstrating what one’s brand stands for and believes. At TripTuner, we do that by putting the consumer in control of their preferences to discover content that is relevant to them, in the moment.
The ramifications of this for marketers – particularly in a world where increased privacy regulations will make traditional targeting more difficult – are significant. It will require abandoning and un-learning years of “pushing customers down the funnel” to a purchase. Pushing! That’s not too customer empathetic, right?
This new paradigm will require frameworks to understand, account for and respond to the myriad interactions and combinations thereof that inspire a consumer to make a purchase. It’s non-linear and messy, but so is life. So there’s an added incentive for you to get it right 🙂
Inspiration is Everywhere
IF we agree that e-commerce will be increasingly frictionless – that consumers can purchase anything, anywhere at any time – THEN don’t we also have to accept the fact that the inspiration for doing so can also happen at any time, anywhere? Instagram has become a key part of travel inspiration, to the point where someone scrolling through their feed can see a photo of a place and then switch over to book a flight on their phone while sitting through a boring meeting.
The challenge for marketers in this environment is to create ways to insert contextually-relevant brand messages into consumers’ thousands of daily digital (or physical) interactions – while providing a path to purchase, without being too commercial. That’s quite a task, but one that is worth pursuing and one I believe will be solved this decade, if not sooner. It’s time to raise up into the Soaring 20s – let’s get to work!
Today’s technology enables us to make purchasing decisions more quickly than ever before. There’s an overwhelming amount of product options at our fingertips, ready for immediate purchase. Looking up product information, reviews and price comparisons can be done in seconds. The consumer’s journey from ideation to purchase – typically thought of in stages – has never been shorter.
Many e-commerce marketers however, continue to view the customer journey as a linear path to a purchase – often referred to as a conversion funnel. The funnel mirrors the increasingly smaller amount of traffic in each stage of the online buying process. Traffic enters the wide top of the funnel and narrows as traffic drops off at each successive stage, from the upper funnel on down to the mid and lower funnel. The narrow bottom of the funnel reflects how only about 2 out of every 100 people entering an e-commerce website make a purchase.
Using this funnel metaphor is helpful for optimizing the online purchase path, particularly for websites. It can uncover problem areas where traffic may be bailing out due to poor user experience, design, lack of information or other reason. But as digital traffic and activation continues to move beyond the desktop, the funnel framework becomes irrelevant. It’s time to say goodbye to the funnel, and hello to the sphere.
The Sphere is Here
Why a sphere? Because it best explains how consumer purchasing behavior is evolving. Buying impulses come from anywhere – online, offline, directly or indirectly. The vast surface of the sphere represents the expansive range of a potential customer’s physical location or state of mind. The sparks that lead to an action along that surface mark the beginning of today’s customer journey. I call these “Moments of Inspiration” or MOI.
The ability to make purchases from anywhere, such as on a mobile device means that consumers can hyperspace to a purchase as soon as they get a notion. The path to purchase is equally short wherever a person is “located” along the surface of the sphere.
Not gonna lie – viewing the customer journey as a sphere burdens marketers with the impossible task of being top of mind and present everywhere. It’s a lofty goal – but it leads to more realistic, effective marketing strategies than trying to funnel customers down a pre-defined path. This is a major paradigm shift from the tactical optimization mindset that focuses on pushing traffic and removing barriers in a linear process of distinct stages.
Success with the sphere requires a broader effort to connect with customers in a non-sequential manner around their ever-evolving set of core beliefs, attitudes and preferences (something I refer to as the Kaleidoscope Effect, which we’ll tackle in a future post). Such connection requires a focus on customer empathy – meeting people where they are, on their terms – another aspect represented by the surface of the sphere.
We (Marketers and Consumers) Are The World
Now that we’ve established our theory, let’s use a more recognizable sphere – Earth – as a way of understanding how this new paradigm of consumer purchasing behavior maps to the funnel stages to which we’ve grown accustomed.
For starters, take the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s an ever-changing swirl of currents, winds and weather patterns. As the outer layer of our marketing sphere, they are the perfect metaphor for fickle consumer tastes and trends. Just as we check out the forecast before heading out the door each day, so to must we keep in mind the ever-changing trends that are shaping consumer tastes. That helps establish a rapport with consumers, but it doesn’t move the needle on activation. For that, we’ll need to have a more compelling, relevant message that reflects an individual’s particular mood which too, may change like the weather.
Journey to the Center of the Sphere
The initial idea or inspiration for a particular purchase must break through the Earth’s crust. Think of it as an individual’s built-in armor against the thousands of irrelevant marketing message one receives daily. Understanding the terrain of our sphere is critical to knowing whether an individual is more free-thinking like an ocean, or stubborn like a mountain range. Cracking this code requires an increasingly sophisticated level of personalization that relies less on past behavior patterns, and more on how an individual is feeling in that moment (a.k.a. the current weather conditions).
If the inspirational impulse such as a relevant offer is strong enough, then a consumer will move into the upper funnel (the Earth’s mantle). It’s width in the diagram above represents the myriad options one encounters after an initial idea – let’s say a desire to travel to Greece. The interest is there but there are still many things to figure out. Based on further information or research, the individual may move around a bit and settle on a completely different destination or perhaps just needs more time to figure out when to go, or with whom.
In the mid-funnel (or outer core of the Earth in our diagram), travelers may have finally settled on a destination but are now presented with a number of booking options. Here again, we find increasing complexity and the freedom to veer from a direct path. But with more focused research on price, quality and other factors it’s a shorter journey towards the center, or booking.
Perhaps most surprising of all, the Sphere recognizes that the booking doesn’t end with a single purchase. There’s still room for more non-linear activity. Today’s consumers demand flexibility – think free cancellation of hotel rooms or free return shipping for consumer goods. In this more fluid view of the booking phase, there may be duplicate hotel bookings for the same trip, just to have options. As more modes of affordable transportation arise, it may make sense to book a “throwaway” flight or bus or train segment as a placeholder to lock in a low fare even if it may not be used (if this sounds somewhat like a confession, it is 🙂
Spherical Strategies for Commercial Chaos
Now that we’ve gone deep into the core of our Sphere, we can see how difficult it can be to connect with volatile consumer behavior. Our first reaction may be to try to take control of this commercial chaos. Deploying one of today’s many AI-based predictive modeling tools can certainly provide more insight about consumers, and help guide them to offers.
The problem is that such solutions are often based on past behavior. At best, they’re a rear view mirror rather than a guiding star. They may be able to identify patterns in constructing a more personalized view of a customer, but they do not necessarily enable us to connect with an individual’s passions. For travel marketers in particular, it’s problematic because travel is not an everyday activity, so the data points for a given person are relatively limited.
In lieu of the ability to truly personalize, marketers often create different personas to identify target segments. These personas may even have their own purchasing journey mapped out. But as we’ll see, such personas are static representations. If we’re trying to connect with a person’s current state of mind and inspire them to travel, we need to provide fresh, relevant ideas about where they want to be. We need to connect with their current aspirations, recognizing they may be in flux as they move across the surface of our sphere.
One way we capture a customer’s current mood at TripTuner is by enabling the real-time input of nuanced user preferences using our distinctive sliders. Here’s an example of how we’ve leveraged that to activate inspiration for QATAR AIRWAYS.
Hopefully this post will spark some conversation and thoughts of your own. At the very least, keep in mind these three key reasons why the sphere is the new funnel:
Inspiration can happen anywhere. The traditional marketing funnel assumes customers are already shopping. The sphere captures those Moments Of Inspiration (MOI) when they decide to shop.
The shopping process is not linear. We can loosely define stages in a buying process, but it is neither sequential nor tidy. The path from inspiration to purchase is messy, difficult and short (shout out to Hobbes).
Engage consumers on their terms. Building a funnel won’t make them come. Meet consumers wherever they are on the surface of our sphere, physically or emotionally by connecting with their passions via relevant messages and offers.
If you’d like to learn more about applying the sphere paradigm to your online marketing, hit us up.