NB: This is a guest article by Lee Brignell-Cash, managing director at FusePump.
Travel companies face an increasingly complex digital market, as ecommerce continues to evolve at a rapid and exciting pace.
But how can data feeds help the travel industry promote products and services online and, more importantly, exploit a diverse array of digital marketing applications?
Digital marketing now embraces a wide range of online channels and applications. Established options such as affiliate, email and pay per click (PPC) search marketing have diversified and become more sophisticated.
Meanwhile, comparison shopping engines (CSEs), dynamic advertising (widgets, interactive banners), Facebook Commerce (f-commerce) and mobile commerce (m-commerce) are of growing importance to travel operators looking to promote what they offer online.
For consumers, the internet has become a primary research tool, enabling them to search for products using very specific â€˜long tailâ€™ search terms.
They also look online for the best deals, use their mobile phones to check prices when they are out and about and are more likely to look up a brand if a friend has recommended it.
The rate of change makes it hard for travel operators to keep pace, yet it is crucial that they have the tools and technology at their disposal to engage with the consumer regardless of the touch-point in play.
Product data feeds provide the means for distributing product information throughout the increasingly fragmented and competitive digital marketing landscape.
The data feeds contain product information such as availability, description/promotional text, pricing and images.
When built and managed properly, data feeds allow applications and websites to be quickly populated with rich and accurate product data and ensure that online consumers can easily find exactly what they are looking for.
However, data feed technology is not that well understood by the industry. Building and regularly updating feeds is resource-intensive, especially if the travel agent manages a large online inventory and markets their products through a wide range of partners.
Meanwhile, third-party agencies and affiliate partners need the tools and support to quickly filter and tailor data feeds to their specific needs.
They also need to convert product-level information into more dynamic and engaging consumer-facing content if they are to successfully drive conversion rates and sales.
The travel industry goes online, mobile and social
Advances in mobile and web technology, the power of social media and a tough economy have altered the way in which consumers engage with brands online and are driving a substantial increase in the number of consumer touch points.
The travel industry is responding by adopting a multichannel approach, building-out their e-commerce capabilities, seeking wider distribution of their products and services and new ways to engage and interact with consumers.
The multichannel challenge
The scale of innovation has opened a significant gap between the in-house resources of travel companies and the needs of the third-party applications and websites they employ to drive wider distribution of their products and services.
growing number of commercial applications now use data feeds, but only a minority of companies today are using them to their full potential.
In addition to the challenge of distributing product data feeds and updating them regularly, travel operators must also provide their partners with the tools and knowledge to exploit the feed to its full potential and the controls necessary for ensuring consistency in ad/brand messaging, as well as presenting engaging, relevant content and special offers.
Unfortunately all too often, it is left to a third party to extract from the feed the information in the format they need to convert it into consumer-facing content.
Feeding product marketing innovation
By extracting product data directly from the front end of the travel companyâ€™s e-commerce website, it is possible to create an accurate feed comprising rich product information encompassing the companyâ€™s entire inventory.
This feed can then be used to power a number of online marketing applications.
Tools are then necessary to trim the feed at a granular level to meet the specific requirements of the third-party application, as well as to build â€˜creativeâ€™ such as banners and widgets and provide deep links back to the travel operatorâ€™s site. Lastminute.com for example uses a FeedCreator tool that enables its affiliates partners to segment the feed in any way they want â€“ e.g. hotels under Â£50, or hotels in a specific city, and so on.
This allows them to display the relevant product information on their site quickly, easily and accurately.
A WidgetCreator tool enables customers to interact with the banner advert displayed on the affiliateâ€™s site, the customer can choose specific products, and it will then dynamically populate the fields.
In some cases, the commercial application will be of sufficient scale to warrant a tailored data feed direct from the company. With others, such as long tail niche market affiliates, it is much simpler to make these tools available via a central hub/portal.
Thomas Cook, for example, created a hub to provide affiliate partners and advertisers with access to the latest information on its products, pricing and availability as well as online marketing tools that simplify the creation of advertising widgets, deep-links and adverts for publishers and advertisers, while providing Thomas Cook with greater control over its Affiliate Partner Programme.
Either way, data feed technology and tools create a single platform of distribution upon which both the company and its partners are able to innovate and rely upon.
Email service provider (ESP) ExactTarget for example, combines multiple types of data sourced via enterprise web analytics â€“ such as transactional, profile, CRM, and behavioural â€“ to build highly-targeted direct digital campaigns.
When combined with a companyâ€™s data feed that is rich in product-level information, ExactTarget is able to personalise each direct marketing communication based on the types of offers the consumer has looked at previously, villa holidays in Cyprus for example, combining this with current similar offers.
Behavioural retargeting is a relatively new area as well. Criteo is a major player in the retargeting space and enables online travel companies to re-engage with potential customers who have left their website using dynamic banners containing the most relevant product-specific recommendations.
These are generated in real-time for each individual, with the level of personalisation and conversion rate directly influenced by the quality of the companyâ€™s product feed. “Category bidding” allows the travel company to optimise and set a cost-per-click (CPC) threshold for each product category based on margin and profit goals.
Categorisation is defined by the advertiser and managed within the product feed, translating into ad creative where for example different holidays displayed in the same ad can have different CPCs, depending on how they are categorised.
Entering new channels and delivering results
Mobile and social media remain nascent opportunities, but product feeds are helping the industry make inroads into these channels too.
Rather than focusing on rebuilding a conventional browsing or navigational experience, mobile-friendly formats can be created directly from a data feed using filters and categories to present the exact product information and images the consumer is looking for.
However, data feeds can be just as effective in simplifying the mobile browsing experience by presenting product information trimmed from the data feed. Regardless of whether the mobile website includes m-commerce functionality, the key factor is that product information reaches the consumer properly presented and rendered in mobile browsers.
Similarly, advertising widgets can be created using data feeds and embedded within social media sites just as easily as with any other affiliate site. In a social media site such as Facebook, for example, the widget can be posted to a wall and if â€˜likedâ€™ by someone, automatically â€˜sharedâ€™ to their friendâ€™s wall, thus ensuring a viral media effect.
The important aspect here is to ensure that a deep link generator tool is also used to drive traffic back to the travel operatorâ€™s site in order for the transaction to be completed. In some cases, the booking can be placed in the travel operatorâ€™s online basket ready for purchase.
This avoids any commission being applied by the social media site for hosting the actual transaction, and ensures the travel company also has the opportunity for re-targeting applications.
The commercial applications of data feed technology are already delivering impressive results in terms of driving incremental revenue for many of the largest and well-known travel brands.
Club Med for example has seen a huge uplift in sales from the agencies using their data feeds. On average, they achieved a 40% increase in sales year on year.
For those that have not yet bridged the gap, it is important to consider data feeds as a “chicken and egg” scenario.
Innovative applications only become possible once the product data feed has been built, thus the question travel companies need to be asking themselves is whether they are prepared to invest in order to take advantage of emerging online channels.
NB: This is a guest article by Lee Brignell-Cash, managing director at FusePump.