At the recent TravelCom conference in New York, I was surprised how little attention was paid to online marketing. Though general search marketing certainly got its fair share of attention, and a few big portals exhibited, other facets of online marketing were underrepresented. Given the travel industry's size and scope online, it seemed odd to see only the random email marketing or interactive agency in attendance. Odder still was the general lack of attention to interactive, apart from to search. Where was the "Travel and Online Advertising" workshop or the panel on "Affiliate Marketing Best Practices for the Travel Industry"?
Most interesting was the industry's discontent with travel metasearch engines. On the "Meta & Content Aggregators Panel," rivalry was very evident. In a lively and sometimes testy debate, panelists Brian Barth, CEO of SideStep, and Steve Hafner, cofounder and CEO of Kayak duked it out for supremacy, while facing down questions such as, "Aren't Google and Yahoo enough?"
Travel-specific metasearch engines, or comparison shopping engines, including SideStep, Mobissimo, Travelzoo, and Kayak, claim to attract 4 of 10 travel buyers and expect these figures to grow. Nevertheless, in a conference room full of travel companies, only about half currently employ metasearch as a marketing tactic. Why? Metasearch engines are generating ire from the same advertisers they're trying to attract, advertisers already concerned about their industry's commoditization.
Travel metasearch (and travel aggregators in general) suffer from a Catch-22: content begets traffic and traffic begets advertisers, but how do you get comprehensive content when some players won't pay to be included? Panelist Svetlozar Nestorov, cofounder and president of technology for Mobissimo, concurred: "I agree. Results are pretty lame." Yet if a metasearch engine populates its site with content from non-advertisers, what's the incentive for an existing advertiser to continue, particularly if the free content offers better pricing than the paid advertiser does?
Most metasearch sites acknowledge this is a problem. They seek to satisfy the dearth of content via strategic partners while generating ad revenue outside of airlines.
When asked about brand loyalty/dilution and what metasearch engines do to help protect the brands they want to attract as advertisers, no one's answer really satisfied. Smarter Living's sites allow consumers to search by brand, then drill down. Yet Barth didn't deny SideStep is also pursuing customers who don't care about a brand name: "We're going after the consumer who makes value-based decisions."
Advertisers on the next panel, "Buyers of Search," had much to say in response to the issues raised in the metasearch panel. Panelists represented Travelocity.com, Cedant Car Rental Group, Spirit Airlines, and Priceline.com. Clearly, there's no resounding metasearch buy-in. There remain larger concerns about brand dilution and search in general, such as search engines allowing third parties to bid on brand name keywords.
Search continues to represent an increasing portion of total Internet marketing spend (Cendant is spending two to three times more on search than it did several years ago; Priceline.com "loves all search"). Search accounts for some 15 percent of all four panelists' site traffic. They view search as a way to reduce distribution and customer acquisition costs, as well as to help build awareness and get their messages out. There was a word of caution: track and measure your search conversions in a substantial way. If you don't, "you're just making Google and Overture richer."
Here's what advertisers want to see from search engines:
Content definitely reigns supreme. All advertisers want to see more content such as user reviews, supplier reliability, and editorial guides to better attract (and sell) visitors.
Though the travel business may be on the rebound, plenty more work can be done to make the Internet a better travel advertising and brand-building platform.
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A ClickZ expert columnist since 2005, Hollis Thomases (@hollisthomases) is president and founder of Maryland-based WebAdvantage.net, an online marketing company that provides results-centric, strategic Internet marketing services, including online media planning, SEO, PPC campaign management, social media marketing, and Internet consulting. Author of Twitter Marketing: An Hour a Day and an award-winning entrepreneur, Hollis is the Maryland 2007 SBA Small Business Person of the Year. Hollis speaks extensively on online marketing, having presented for ClickZ, the American Marketing Association, SES, The Newsletter and Electronic Publishers Association, The Kelsey Group, and the Vocus Worldwide User Forum. WebAdvantage.net's client list has included Nokia USA, Nature Made Vitamins, Johns Hopkins University, ENDO Pharmaceuticals, K'NEX Construction Toys, and Visit Baltimore. The agency was recognized as a "Small Giant" by the Greater Baltimore Tech Council and was chosen as a "Best Place for Business Women to Work" by "Smart Woman Magazine."
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