WebBRANDING: The Power of Your Web Site in Leisure Travel Decision-Making

By Gary C. Sain
We are all keenly aware of the power of the Internet as it relates to travel shopping and travel buying. According to Forrester Research, US leisure online travel revenue will increase to $63.60B in 2005, up $10.0B from LY and is forecasted to hit $74.4B next year. An impressive increase of over $20.0B in just two years! Travel purchases online now rank just behind books, music and videos. According to a current Nielsen/NetRatings study, Internet penetration has reached 75% of US households. In addition, a recent comScore report states that 40% of those users actively use travel sites.Per the 2005 YPB&R/Yankelovich National Travel MONITORsm, 47% of leisure travelers booked a travel reservation online, up from 38% two years ago. More specifically, 75% booked a hotel reservation and 65% booked an airline reservation. In addition, leisure travelers will visit approximately four sites before they make a reservation. It should come to no surprise that 70% of leisure travelers want to check fares and rates. In addition, they want to:

                            Check availabilities…........................................65%

                            Decide where to stay…......................................62%

                            Find places to go…...........................................60%

                            Plan things to do and see…................................57%

                            Read visitors critiques or reviews….....................39%

                            Read journalists critiques or reviews…..................26%

Clearly, leisure travelers have become more comfortable with the Internet and now use it as a proven information gatherer. As travel marketers, we must realize our Web sites are the most convenient and accessible means for leisure travelers to learn about us…our story, the products and services we provide, our brand promise and our value proposition. Travel companies spend millions of dollars on advertising in order to influence the buying decisions of consumers. In fact, the call to action in most marketing communications directs the consumer to the respective Web site for more information. Your Web site is the first contact with your visitor and future customer in establishing a one-to-one relationship.

Today more than ever, consumers go directly to the Internet to validate their interest and gain more insight into a specific travel product/service. Overall marketing communications certainly create the motivation for leisure travelers to learn more. However, unless the Web site tells a compelling story in support of the marketing communications, the consumer may feel betrayed and confused. Branding is about building relationships first and foremost. One-to-one relationship building starts with your Web site and continues through every customer touch point within your enterprise.

Not surprisingly, the 2005 YPB&R/Yankelovich National Travel MONITORsm states today’s leisure traveler places a high interest in comparison shopping and rates. We believe this is a critical issue for travel marketers to address. If the brands value proposition is not clear or nonexistent, consumers will always buy price first. The perception of “sameness” and “one size fits all” is highly evident in the travel industry. Creating a discernible difference through effective storytelling and making it easy for your customers to do business with you, can distinguish your brand from all others. Your Web site needs to effectively communicate and demonstrate your core value proposition. Pricing is important; however, perceived value is far more compelling. Your online brand experience will determine if the user becomes a buyer or a looker. Your Web site is the first stop in building brand clarity.

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We believe travel marketers should place a disproportionate share of their marketing dollars, management time and intellectual capabilities on establishing a brand relationship online. We call it WebBRANDING. It’s about being relational, not just transactional.

We recommend five marketing strategies to help you WebBRAND…


BE A COMPELLING STORYTELLER

First and foremost, you need to think of your Web site as a brand experience for your visitors. It is not just a static site for information and content. How you tell your story online is just as important as the content on your site. Your Web site is your brand.

Every travel brand has a story. However, it may not be clear to many what it is. Senior management may not have full clarity on their brand story. Secondly, it may not be effectively communicated at every customer touch point. Consistent storytelling is critical to effective brand positioning. “Baking” your story into your Web site is an important element in creating brand charisma.

Your Web site should create a distinguishable brand experience for your visitors. Storytelling helps your visitor connect to your brand emotionally and intellectually. Your brand becomes much more memorable due to your story. It should also create the perception that there is no other product or service quite like yours.  The rise of broadband usage certainly provides an excellent opportunity to tell your story in a much more compelling way by incorporating more high impact visuals, rich media and interactive storytelling.

A couple of suggestions…

? Migrate the appropriate elements of your brand to Web-based efforts while leveraging the qualities of the technology to create your campaigns. Just as you would not try to place a 2- page spread in a 30-sec TV spot, you must consider how best to get your message across using this medium.

? A great narrative offers you the ability to craft the perfect image in the visitor’s mind. The narrative, however, must be written with the Internet shopper in mind; very rarely does a surfer read all of the copy on a page. Much more scanning is done online, so the copy should be broken into smaller chunks with descriptive text and more descriptive headers.

? The tonality of your story is just as important as content. Think of a great storyteller. How they bring the story to life is what makes the story memorable and engaging. The same is true on your Web site. When your visitors log onto your Web site, what story is being told and how engaging is it?

MAKE IT EASY TO DO BUSINESS
A major consumer trend from the 2005 YPB&R/Yankelovich National Travel MONITORsm is the lack of time consumers have in their daily lives. In fact, six in ten state they wished they had more time and seven in ten indicate they have too much stress in their lives. This speaks to the importance of making it easy for consumers to do business with you. Certainly, your product/service shouldn’t add more time or stress in their shopping or buying process. In fact, you should strive to be an energy provider and not an energy sapper.

Your Web site should reflect the simplicity of your product/service. Remember, we are selling travel experiences, not rockets to the moon. However, maybe some day! Making it easy should be a fundamental building block for your Web site. However, think like a consumer, not like a travel marketing professional. Architect the site, keeping the most unsophisticated customer in mind. Technology can make a huge difference in making it easy for your customer to do business with you. It’s all about what works easily and efficiently for your site visitors. It’s about them, not you. You should follow the rule of three clicks…no more than three clicks for the user to get what they need. Also, considering the interest leisure travelers have for price shopping several sites, it certainly makes sense to keep the content on your Web site up-to-date and to make it easy to navigate.

A few recommendations…

? Make navigation easy and friendly. Provide all relevant information to educate your visitor about who you are and your product offerings. Make the content consistent. Create a learning experience online.

? Focus on user-centric design to enable leisure travelers to accept your offer in the least amount of time.

? Web surfers do not mind clicking through several pages as long as each page offers more specific and detailed information the user has requested. Keeping this in mind, the information should be ordered in a way that the visitor can accomplish the task quickly and with the least amount of delay.
? Provide consumers the opportunity to purchase in the manner most comfortable for them…whether it is clicking on the purchase button or calling you directly.

BE AN INFORMATION GATHERER

You should never stop learning about your customers. In fact, the more you know, the better equipped you will be to market one-to-one. One size does not fit all. Personalization and customization in travel is the new mantra. Leisure travelers want it their way. It’s all about them, not the travel brands that serve them. According to the 2005 YPB&R/Yankelovich National Travel MONITORsm, six in ten leisure travelers state they will pay more for customized services. They clearly want to be treated as individuals, not MSA statistics.

Your Web site provides an excellent opportunity to engage your visitor in a dialogue. Through permission marketing, your Web site can be a gatherer of information which can then be used to better understand the behavior of your visitors, customers and future customers. Every interaction with your customer is an opportunity to gain an additional insight about them. Through technology, these insights can be used to customize and personalize travel options for your customers. This provides you the added advantage of communicating one-to-one with your customers in a much more relevant and memorable way.

A few suggestions… 

? Provide several kinds of newsletters, offers and special events on your Web site. This allows you the opportunity to keep in constant touch with your customers and them with you thru permission marketing. 

? Offer insight that only you can provide. Who knows more about the product/service that you provide other than you? Allow your visitors to sign up and obtain “insider information.”

? Provide your customer the opportunity to update their profile. The more insight you can gain on the travel attitudes and habits of your customers, the more relevant the offerings can be to them. The more relevant the offerings, the higher the percentage of conversion.


CREATE A TWO-WAY DIALOGUE

Extending the brand relationship with your customers through email communications is certainly a proven marketing strategy. However, we seem to focus on the barriers of e-mail. According to a DoubleClick 2004 Consumer Email Survey, travel marketers are more fixated on CAN-SPAM compliance, opt-in opportunities and filters that Internet service providers/e-mail services set up to shield their users from illicit communications. Although this is important, travel marketers should be equally as focused on the “junk mail box” in the mind of the consumer. Getting delivered is only the first step. Getting opened and action taken is the real prize for the travel marketer.

It starts with a clear benefit with your email: time or money saved, or some other way the reader’s life will be better. Think in terms of specifics rather than generic lines. “Save big on cruising” is not as good as “Save 50% off.” However, be truthful. Being too clever may erode credibility and trustworthiness. According to DoubleClick’s report, 95% of respondents consider any message as spam that “attempts to trick me.”

Some suggestions:

? Timing is everything.  In general, try to e-mail where it is the most appropriate for the recipient. Be aware of time zones. Keep in mind the holiday calendar and avoid these dates. Same for social, religious, school holidays or long weekends. Remember, test which works best for your customers.

? Frequency is the key. The right frequency depends on a number of things…your audience, the product/service and the time of year. A rule of thumb is e-mailing monthly as a minimum, and probably no more than two or three times a month outside of holiday times. Also, consider offering a reduced e-mail frequency rather than having customers unsubscribe from your list. Ask them how often they would like to hear from you. Finally, keep your site fresh. Provide something new on a consistent basis to maintain interest in the site.

? When participating in this dialogue, be cautious not to make the requirements on the user too onerous. Temper the need for information with what is being offered to the consumer. Do not require too much information for a simple offer. With privacy concerns due to recent security lapses, you want your visitors to have the utmost confidence in your brand and policies.

INSPECT WHAT YOU EXPECT

Most importantly, inspect what you expect. Your Web site should be reflective of your commitment to making it the best it can be. Think of your advertising. Whether it is a full page ad in Travel & Leisure or a: 30 TV commercial on the Travel Channel, you wouldn’t think of running it unless all stakeholders painstakingly have reviewed it. Your Web site is no different. It is your TV commercial. Only difference, your Web site is running 24 x 7 and can provide you valuable data on your site’s visitors. It is the most cost-effective marketing tool in your arsenal. However, if your content is not up-to-date, you may be turning visitors off. If your site is updated daily and indicated as such, the visitor is much more open to trusting your brand. Consumers are savvy enough to realize if the Web site isn’t right…why would the experience be any better? Your brand promise is being delivered through your Web site on a daily basis to thousands of consumers. All the more reason to be personally involved and ensure it is correct.

The travel marketer’s job is to influence buying decisions.  As importantly, delivering the brand promise is paramount to building brand retention and loyalty. Today’s empowered consumer will unlikely provide you with another opportunity to make it right. They simply go elsewhere. Your Web site is your brand. It positions to the visitor this is “who I am.” If the photos are unclear, the pricing outdated, or the story unclear, you will be perceived as a travel marketer who does not care. Not caring is a formula for brand abandonment.

We recommend you take a much more proactive posture with your Web site. If your Web site is managed by staff members or an outside entity, we would encourage you to be actively involved with your site. As you do, look through the lens of your customer and not as a marketing professional. As the brand champion for your enterprise, if you don’t take the viewpoint of your customer, who will?

A few recommendations…

? Visit your Web site each and every day. Ensure content and information is up-to-date, pricing especially.  This should be embraced by the senior management team as well. Maximizing brand clarity and creating brand charisma is the responsibility of the C Team…CEO, COO, CMO, CFO, etc.

? Compare your Web site to those of your key competitors. Identify opportunities and weaknesses. Learn from others. This should be done weekly. Change is constant online and one needs to be up-to-date with market shifts.

? Shop online like a leisure traveler. Better yet, elicit the help of friends and family. Have them shop online for you. Gain insights from people you trust. Solicit feedback on a regular basis. Reward great input as deemed appropriate.

? Last and most importantly, place an increased amount of your resources focused on your Web site. It is by far your most compelling marketing tool. It is your brand to the world.

Thank you!
YPB&R offers 360? marketing communication solutions to the travel industry. Please visit us at www.ypbr.com
. For a complimentary consultation on how we can maximize your marketing effectiveness and increase the return on your marketing investment, please contact Gary C. Sain, CMO/Partner at 407-875-1111 or [email protected].
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