Google’s 5 stage plan to engage travel customers

Wednesday, 18 September 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Shabiya Ali Ahlam A Google expert presented last week in Colombo effective ways of using web technology to engage customers in the areas of travel and tourism. A frequent visitor to Sri Lanka, Google Industry Specialist Emerging Markets Southeast Asia Simon March spoke about travel and technology while delivering the keynote at an event titled ‘Enabling Tourism 2.0 and Beyond,’ which was held on 12 September 2013. Addressing a fully-packed audience which consisted of CEOs, CIOs, CMOs and decision makers in the travel trade, March focused his speech on the elements that help make a great travel experience. Questioning what people value most in travelling, March said that by being a heavy traveller himself and working at Google for the past seven years, the answer to that are ‘moments’. “It is not the number of times one has been to a location that matters. It is not about the quantity. It is the highlights and moments that people value. It is the individual moments that are personal that matter most,” he said. Pointing out challenges presented by the adaption of web technology, March opined that demanding customers is the one that tops the list. He justified this by stating that now customers have the expectation of using web technology to manage their lives, thus making travel easier for them. “This expectation has increased so much that customers favour brands that allow this and reject those that don’t,” added March. March noted increased access to information as the second challenge. Having more sources and reviews to read, it is difficult for a destination or a travel company to stand out. According to him, in addition to the intense competition, it has become harder to reach across traditional and mass media since the attention of customers are towards multiple screens that are much more fractured. Despite challenges that accompany web technology, opportunities also prevail in that sphere which helps to reach the right audience at the right time. While the opportunities doesn’t stop at that, it also allows in making better data driven decisions which helps to grow bigger and scale faster. However, when looking at traditional media and if comfortable with it, March stated that one might question whether or not it is important to embrace online at all. To emphasise the potential of having an online presence, March presented the ‘purchase funnel’ for travel customers. Breaking it down to five stages, which are ‘dreaming’, ‘planning’, ‘booking’, ‘experiencing’, and ‘sharing’, he said the technology varies but revolves around these stages. “Online and web technology have their parts at each stage of the process. It provides people the inspiration and allows them to learn more. It provides them with information that helps them to decide before booking. Throughout the buying process, there is a greater and consistent dispersal for online throughout the purchase funnel,” he noted while presenting the stages on how to win customer with the ‘moments’ that matter to them. Dreaming Although the most important for a number of reasons, it is the most overlooked stage according to March. While ‘dreaming’ is how most people spend their time, he pointed out that even the most average travellers are ‘not’ constantly researching about travel. This being the first opportunity to influence the decision of the customer, March explored if digital really influences people’s decision. Presenting a study on APAC internet users to test this notion, findings revealed that their interest in brands changed tremendously after using digital media. “Search and digital media influences our decisions greatly. Therefore it is important to have a presence where the customers are browsing the web. But it is not just digital media and websites that are influential, social media is increasingly influential for travellers as well,” stated March. He noted that while 89% of leisure travellers and 93% of business travellers watch videos online, 45% end up making a booking online, which makes online videos highly influential. To better communicate the importance of this stage March took the example of Singapore Tourist Board (STB) which Google worked with using online videos to a great extent. The STB had produced a series of videos that showcases Singapore with the intention of elevating the country as a tourist destination. This was done by uploading video ads on YouTube. March stated that when people went on YouTube to watch funny cat videos, before it started the STB videos would be played. To ensure that the viewers were engaged, Google gave them the option of skipping the video within the first five seconds. The three week campaign drove 20.5 million impressions. 2.3 million paid engaged views, 30,000 follow-up views, and 70,000 clicks to the destination site. In addition to this, 200,000 viewers had watched all the videos in the series. “The opportunity web technology can offer is amazing. Digital media influences how customers perceives brands, it gives the opportunity to influence customers while they are browsing. To get maximum benefit from this avenue, online video can be leveraged as a platform to engage customers,” he said. Planning With 83% of leisure travellers and 76% of business travellers planning their trip online, internet is an essential part of the process, stated March. Venturing into what these users actually do when planning online, March observed that a lot of research goes into planning a perfect trip. He noted that 24 days is the average journey length before a purchase, 143 minutes is the average time spent on searching, and 21.6 sites are visited by an average travel customer. Moreover, an average of 55 searches is made throughout the process. “When we talk about moments that matter, the moments where they (customers) search are those that matter. And these are the opportunities to influence the customer’s decisions,” asserted March. He stated that this can be done by being present when the customer is searching for their trip. “We know they are looking at travel content. If so, then we need to look at travel sites. When it comes to search, many might be familiar with Google as a search engine where search terms are entered to get relevant search results. Search terms are a profound demonstration of interest and intent. So for a customer that is searching for hotels in Sri Lanka, it is a great opportunity to reach them at the exact moment that matters. But if search is a profound demonstration on intention and intent, then it is also stands that search is a very instructive in understanding the audiences,” he explained. For companies to gain access to such insight, March recommended the tool ‘Google Trends’. This tool, offered for free, allows in looking at search items trends. Why is it useful? According to March this tool helps to understand the audience who are most interested in a country. “By having this piece of information, the search terms used by customers can be incorporated to directly instruct search campaign,” he said However, just knowing when and from where a potential customer is searching is not enough. March said it is equally important to know how they are searching and which platform is used for the search. He presented that in 2012 alone, 38% of leisure travellers and 57% of business travellers accessed travel information through their mobile. “So it’s not only about just having an online presence. A multi-screen strategy is needed,” he emphasised. Elaborating further he said that although 49% research on smart phones and 58% on tabs resulted in a travel booking, only one in four bookings took place in the device where the search started. “This tells us that the booking experience were not so good in these devises. Also looking at it as a point of getting bookings, opportunities are missed out because customers are increasing using mobile to book online,” said March. “Majority of the travellers use the internet to plan their trip to make the most of the available source. Using websites and search engines as a platform allows in reaching potential customers at the moment they are most interested in an offer. Developing a multi-screen strategy and leveraging third party platforms is important to engage with customers at a wider scale,” he advised. Booking To achieve booking, which is the ultimate goal of marketing efforts, a great site experience is essential said March. He pointed out that studies have shown 40% of browsers would abandon a website that would take over three seconds to load and 79% shoppers who are dissatisfied with a website won’t use it again. In this context, March stressed that a delay of one second in loading a website is equal to 16% decrease in customer satisfaction. The damage doesn’t stop there since 44% of customers who are dissatisfied with an online experience will not let it go but will spread the message across. While this stresses the necessity of delivering a great site experience, March elaborated on how this can be achieved. He recommended starting by creating an informative interface. He stated that a reason why websites don’t work is because it is created by a ‘hippo’, which is the opinion of a high tech person. “The high tech person does not always have the best opinion. The best way to get about this is to ask your customers,” he said. March added that to go beyond this, one needs to look at web analytics as well. Web analytics is essentially an analysis of the behaviour of a browser in a website. It is observed that out of 70% of the people who reach the booking stage, only 38% were merged. To understand behavioural patterns better, he encouraged companies to use this tool as it helps to enhance the opportunity in driving conversion. As it is important to optimise the booking experience, the number one agent for not completing a transaction in a mobile device is that it takes too many steps to enter the information. “You should ask yourself that if your customer was free falling at 30,000 feet, will he be able to complete a transaction using your mobile booking platform. Customers have very little patience with a mobile devise. So ask yourself, does your booking platform pass the free fall test,” he told participants. Experiencing Stating that this stage takes into account the physical experience itself, March said:”I have one proposition to make in this section and that is, at every stage of a purchasing journey it is important to have the experience. Throughout the purchasing process it is easy to lose a customer due to bad experience. Typically, a good experience at every stage is the ideal way of maintaining and wining a customer.” Sharing Another area that has changed quite a bit as of late is the sharing of experience, said March. While it is common for people to share their stories with photographs after a travel experience he stated that in digital technology one cannot talk about sharing without talking about social media. March pointed out that 60% of travellers are affected by online opinion and an average traveller consults 11.2 social sources prior to purchase. In addition to this, 17% of travel purchase is influenced by social media. March highlighted that a few companies engage their customers in conversations in a way that is relevant to them to get a response. While it is true that a ‘share’ or ‘like’ cannot be achieved for every statement made, it is important to respond well to customers, he said. Taking the Marriot Hotel chain as an example, March said the organisation goes to the extent of personalising their responses so they can solve the individual problems of their customers. “Sharing is important at every stage of a customer journey. Engage customers as partners by bringing brands to life. Encourage customers to share their experiences as it is an essential part of their enjoyment. The key to each stage is personalisation and relevance,” advised March. Pix by Daminda Harsha Perera