Making Lemonade: Can Virtual Travel Drive Bookings?

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“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” 

Thanks Toa Heftiba for the could-be lemonade photo…

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.

Poll survey graphics courtesy of AirlineInformation.org

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:

  1. 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.  
  1. 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.
  1. 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.”

As I said at the end of the AI Events recording, “In crisis, there’s opportunity.”  Here’s to a big batch of “lemonade…that cool, refreshing drink” – for everyone.

Stay tuned, stay safe, be well.

Tedd

3 Key Marketing Paradigms for 2020 and Beyond

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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:

Customer Empathy

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 how customers may read it.

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. 

Sphere Is The New Funnel

This was covered in great detail in a previous blog post and on stage at the Phocuswright conference.  So I won’t go much further into it other than to say that the “consumer journey” (as Ad Age Digital pointed out) isn’t a journey at all.  There is no “path to purchase” anymore because you don’t need more than a mobile phone to make a purchase, anywhere at any time.  

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?

Graphic showing the digital marketing funnel as a sphere.

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!

Stay tuned,

Tedd

Sphere Is The New Funnel: Re-Thinking The Customer Journey

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.

Funnel Funeral

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.

Sphere Summary

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.

Till next time,  Stay Tuned!

– Tedd

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catch Us if You Can in October! CPH SFO TPA

Join our Founder & CEO Tedd Evers as he brings a decidedly contrarian take on things with talks at these leading travel conferences:

eTail Nordic – Copenhagen – 2-3 October

It’s a very interesting time for those in the Nordic markets.  It’s trite to say “Winter is coming,” but even though Amazon has not entered (yet), e-commerce retailers are thinking hard about how brands can survive and thrive in a changing marketplace landscape.  Tedd will chair day 2 of this e-commerce conference, moderating interesting panels on maintaining brand identity and how to ensure marketing messages are heard in a communication-weary world…and maybe squeeze in some time to check out one of Europe’s coolest cities.

eTourism Summit – San Francisco – 7-9 October

It’s time to re-think personas.  Cultural and societal norms are fragmenting at breakneck speed.  Traditional, monolithic identities are shattering, morphing into kaleidoscopic forms amid an explosion of individual expression.  Is your digital marketing framework ready?  Join Tedd and other leading destination marketers to learn about “The Kaleidoscope Effect” and much more.  Sometimes the best way to beat jet lag is to overcompensate with a longer flight in the opposite direction.  See you in SFO.

Mega Event Worldwide – St. Petersburg, FL – 29-31 October

Leading annual event for the global Airline & Travel industry dedicated to maximizing revenues from Loyalty Programs, Ancillary Revenue Generation and Co-Branded Credit Card Programs.  This year’s theme is “Engage, Experience & Execute” and Tedd will be co-presenting a customer experience case study just before heading home for Halloween so his teenage daughter can ignore him.  Yeah!