Round-Trip Marketing

I like to travel. Even in the post-September 11 world of random security checks and Soviet-style lines, getting out on the road makes me happy. As a fairly frequent flier (although I’m sure my annual miles pale in comparison to some of the true road warriors) I’ve been exposed to the marketing blandishments of every travel provider still extant. While these companies do many things very well, the travel industry as a whole still leaves some room for improvement. And every marketer can learn from his missteps.

Let’s start with the reservation process itself. As an admitted frequent-flier-mile junkie, I always book my own tickets at the airline Web sites to get the bonus miles they award for self-service. (Sorry all you giant travel hubs out there.) I’m driven to the airlines’ sites by weekly emails that tout their latest and greatest fares. In almost all cases, these emails are a joy to behold. They are well formatted, lively, informative, and honestly do offer great deals. In other words, they hook me with a good pitch. Score one point for customer relationship management (CRM).

Actually booking the tickets at the airline Web sites is also a relatively straightforward procedure. The airlines have learned that if they want travelers to book their own tickets, they’ve got to make the reservation process simple. Though the incentives of bonus frequent-flier miles and cheaper fares may persuade travelers to endure some challenges in the booking process, the airlines are smart enough to realize that any undue hardship will simply drive the potential traveler right back into the hands of the travel agents. Another point for CRM.

But when it comes to the post-purchase experience, something seems to go awry. Instead of getting the smart and crisp emails that drove me to the site in the first place, I invariably get a stoic all-text email with my reservation confirmation tossed in among legal disclaimers and other dross. Poor formatting, minimal branding, and a return address that could easily be confused for spam are the traveler’s reward for buying that ticket. It’s as though you’re simply an afterthought now that they’ve got your money. Most unwise.

Why is all the time and effort being spent on the pitch and little or nothing being spent on the follow through? The confirmation email is the perfect opportunity for a company to put its best foot forward one more time. Indeed, most travelers save these emails. Merely spewing out information willy-nilly serves no one’s interests.

By no means are the airlines the only guilty parties here. The lodging business should take heed as well. Although the big hotel chains send out equally alluring email offers, their confirmations are often just as drab and confusing.

It almost makes you wonder if the same people are doing all this work. Surely, the same minds that create such tempting email offers must be thoroughly divorced from the confirmation process. It’s hard to believe they would sit still for such waste.

Try to imagine all this in an offline context. Suppose the reservation agent at an airline or hotel was invariably friendly and helpful. Then, upon arriving at the gate or resort, the weary traveler was greeted with the equivalent of an “Oh, it’s you. Here’s your ticket. See ya around.” That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s perilously close to the truth. Marketers should never assume that the rules of offline conduct do not apply in the online world.

Any kind of confirmation or order acknowledgement is another occasion for good marketing. Consumers want this information — indeed, they need it. You, as the company, are being invited in again for another visit. Any self-respecting marketer would leap at that chance.

How hard could it be to slap on a logo and put the whole thing in HTML? Maybe even throw in some additional offers or provide links to your travel partners. Far be it from me to do someone else’s marketing job, but when I see an email that is devoid of both marketing and aesthetics, I tend to worry.

So what lessons can we draw from these examples? Put simply, connecting with the consumer is a cycle, not a one-shot deal. It cannot be enough to merely lure the prospect with seductive offers in snazzy emails. The same care and effort must be employed at the back end. After all, the endgame here is to create a lasting relationship with the consumer. That’s what customer lifetime value is all about.

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