Has the Travel Industry Missed the Content Marketing Boat?

Travel and leisure should be the stuff of content marketers’ dreams — environments rich with images and stories. It’s the shimmering sun over a Spanish plaza, 500 men and women scrambling to form a human spire. It’s the blue waters over coral shallows, and somewhere in there is your fistful of $200 million in sunken treasure.

la-trb-offbeat-hierapolis-pamukkale-photos-001Or maybe it’s simply a run along fresh alpine powder, the silence of the mountains and the shush of skis. The point is, when it comes to telling stories that drive business, travel practically does the job for you, right?

Not so fast.

“Since five-to-six years ago, innovation is stuck in the travel business,” says Eric Ingrand, vice president of Content Marketing at EnVeritas Group. “So is usage of content.”

Numbers help tell the story of what being “stuck” might mean.

In a 2014 report by Linkdex/State of Digital, the Thomas Cook Group pegs the travel industry’s average conversion rate — when it comes to site visitors and the “look-to-book” ratio — at about 0.3 percent (compared to an average 3 percent conversion rate reported for e-commerce and retail sites in 2013).

TCG suggests that deploying better content across sites can help change that. Even adding ask/answer material to a page, for example, pushed up conversion ratios by 150 percent , according to their studies. Imagine what a compelling story would do.

But conversion doesn’t tell the whole story, especially in an industry where the sales funnel is extremely long. According to MSN Travel’s section of the report, some 68 percent of travelers taking a four-hour trip preface their journeys by logging an average of 42 hours consuming travel-related content online.

Telling great stories, it seems, would be a key strategy for brands trying to tap into some of that time, and use it wisely.

Points of departure: how online travel got review tunnel vision

In the travel industry, online reviews have rule the day for over a decade.

From Expedia to TripAdvisor to blogger outreach, travel marketers invested in the review game early on. But then, “user-generated content became the focus and the fear, at the same time, for most travel providers,” says Ingrand, because negative reviews can flood the Web as easily as good ones.

“Some took this as an opportunity and learned how to use reviews and ratings, and some had more difficulty,” he says. “The result was a relationship of love and hate with UGC.”

The result may also have been tunnel vision, as an obsession with reviews distracted travel brands from telling their own stories.

But not in every case. Some brands have evolved to create original stories that supplement — and perhaps influence — user-generated reviews.

Mid-journey: cases for the power of great travel content

Without a doubt, how much a travel brand invests in content largely depends on the role they play in the purchase process.

“Priceline likely doesn’t need a deep content strategy to persuade and entice potential travelers to select one destination over another,” says Rebecca Lieb, analyst at Altimeter Group. “These are bottom-of-the-funnel buyers. They know where they’re going, and they want to get there, and be there, as cheaply as possible.”

“But another online travel service, Travelocity, has a very deep content strategy with their Roaming Gnome,” Lieb continues. “There’s a blog, videos, images, a spokes-gnome who tweets … a very robust content and advertising strategy indeed.”

Travelocity’s gnome has held strong throughout the years. From 2004 to the present, he’s been a significant part of the company’s image and content strategy.

Whether consumers are trying to track him down in the “Where’s My Gnome?” competition, or using social-media to encourage him to visit their cities during his 10-week, 30,000-mile itinerary, the Travelocity gnome resonates. He’s helped Travelocity tally up more than 30,000 Twitter followers, and he’s front and center to the more than 280,000 people who’ve clicked “Like” on Travelocity’s Facebook page.

But compelling travel content doesn’t need a mobile mascot. It can originate at the destinations themselves; local tourism departments are often in a powerful position from which to tell great stories at the source.

Take Tourism Queensland, for example. They recently brought back a successful D&AD award-winning competition, The Best Job in the World. In it, the best video pitch for the job earns one winner a paid stint on an island along the Great Barrier Reef. There, they blog, film, photograph, and explore the stories that they find while diving, swimming, discovering wildlife, and hanging out on beaches.

Ben Southall, the winner of the inaugural competition in 2009, had a true adventure on Hamilton Island. Near the end of his stay, a deadly Irukandji jelly fish stung him. Hey, if you want hard-to-ignore, compulsively sharable stories, then life-threatening scenarios are certainly one way to go.

For TQ, the effect was quantifiable. By the end of that campaign, they had garnered some eight million unique visits to the event’s website, by IAB’s measure. The average time spent onsite by a visitor was 8.25 minutes. For a story that cost approximately $1.2 million to make, according to SapientNitro Asia Pacific (the agency involved), The Best Job in the World generated at least $100 million in PR value for the company. In fact, Lieb suggests the total PR value might have been even more — as much as $200 million.

That’s not a bad case for travel/leisure content. Not a bad case at all.

The ultimate question: Where to go next?

So, if many other brands are feeling “stuck” when it comes to producing innovative travel/leisure content, what do Travelocity and Tourism Queensland’s campaigns tell us about paving a way forward?

It’s that user-generated content — love-hate relationships and tunnel vision aside — is still a key part of the mix. By harnessing the power of UCG on a local scale, content creators and brands can even compete with the glossy, double-truck photo spreads and expensive reporters planted at top-funded travel magazines and blogs.

“The travel and leisure industry is by definition heavily local in nature, which lends itself beautifully to UGC,” says Lieb. “This can take a tremendous burden off the marketers in terms of content creation. Instead, they can … become platforms for curation, discussion, and display of experiences.”

Any brand can play in this space. Community-level details and personal stories provide an untapped well around which brands can build their compelling platforms. You don’t even have to get stung by a jellyfish.

One way to produce UCG on a local level is for content creators — travelers and residents with a passion for words, video, and photography who are based close to a marketable destination — to team up with brands for that chance to delve into deeper, local “secrets” of a place.

It’s an easy win for brands to become community publishers of vibrant and unique experiences: A blogger who takes you to that wine spot way back in the byways of Venice, where the locals gather for their late-afternoon ombre (tiny glass of wine); the videographer who knows the sun-dappled nooks of a summer river in Aspen, perfect for casting flies. One brand that’s been up to this recently is Timbers Resorts — their blog often emphasizes community narratives and local explorations attendant to their properties. (Full disclosure: I have written for Timbers.)

The tools are there. The opportunity is there. If the travel industry wants to inspire some consumers to seize the day, it’s high time they do it themselves.

Contently arms brands with the tools and talent to become great content creators. Learn more.

Image by Cory Gurman

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