The travel marketing funnel is broken
Solis argues that a new cohort of consumers has appeared on the scene, and the traditional marketing funnel doesn’t work well anymore as a conceptual tool for planning campaigns and allocating budgets.
He says a new group of digitally connected consumers is rising, united by a common behavior of being hyper-connected through social media and mobile devices. He argues that these consumers research products and brands differently, and that reaching these prospects requires a shift in marketing strategy.
To find out the relevance of his ideas for the travel industry, I caught up with Solis while he was visiting his contacts at World Independent Hotel Promotion (WIHP) in London last week.
Who’s getting travel marketing right?
Most travel marketing is uninspired and uninspiring. But some companies get the core right.
One was the James Bond room. It was totally thematic. The decor from ’70s era 007 films was so amazingly convincing that it made me think that Roger Moore would greet me at the door.
I shared pictures on all of my social media platforms—Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr—and the response was stunning. It was if I had posted a topless pic. It got more than 50 reactions.
So Elegancia is a social business all-star?
To be honest, Elegancia is not doing everything it could possibly be doing in digital marketing.
But it’s doing the core thing right. The core thing is to create a product that people want to talk about.
If you know that today’s connected consumers are going to share things from their trip on social media anyway, you might as well give them experiences worth sharing.
There are other companies out there that are much more aggressive in using social media platforms, and devoting staff time to creating content marketing and to monitoring their brand’s reputation online.
But a lot of that effort isn’t connected in any strategic way to the company’s goals.
You criticize the traditional marketing funnel, which has been taught in business schools for decades, in chapters five and nine of your book. What’s wrong with the funnel?
The traditional marketing funnel is fine as a framework. It helps allocate traditional spend. At the top of the funnel, the prospects are still in the “inspiration” stage and you have one set of campaigns to reach as many of these prospects as possible.
In the middle of the funnel, the prospects you’ve acquired are in the “research” phase, choosing among services. The “transaction” happens at bottom of the funnel, with ‘loyalty” coming out at the end, hopefully leading to repeat business.
One problem is the funnel isn’t as effective a guide to understanding today’s connected consumers.
For instance, connected consumers are less influenced by the big broadcast and print campaigns traditionally used to capture people at the top of the funnel, and are more influenced by social media recommendations, such as maybe a fun YouTube video someone shares with them.
The main trouble with the funnel happens when marketers think of the metaphor too mechanistically.
These marketers split up the funnel to create programs, then the programs become processes, then they create departments to manage each step in the process, which leads to metrics for measuring the performance for each part of your marketing effort (search, display ads, outdoor ads, social).
Marketers then get locked in to these metrics and have blinders on to anything else. They miss opportunities.
After you’ve stayed at a hotel, the only further contact you have with it usually is a satisfaction survey via e-mail. That’s a lost opportunity for a touch point with the consumer. That’s practically medieval, relative to the creative after-sale marketing efforts of other types of retail.
You need to keep reaching connected consumers at each touch point, and the number of touchpoints your brand interacts with consumers is doubling at a rapid pace. The longer someone spends interacting online with your brand, the more chance your company has to change opinions, glean valuable insights, and convert people into loyal advocates.
But marketers won’t recognize the wake-up call for the missed opportunities like that and take action about them if they’re spending their energy meeting some metric that is supposed to be mechanistically moving customers through the funnel.
You can spend a lot of energy making up internal metrics that require employees to spend time whatever the “new new thing” is, whether it’s a creating a certain number of tweets or social media or creating x number of blog posts, or whatever.
But these metrics may be bogus. It’s better to have a program that is scoring consumers on their “influence” [their capacity to influence others through social networking]. You want highly regarded people becoming your brand ambassadors. The 3 R’s—each, relevance and resonance—matter.
Are you a consultant selling social media management software?
No. Trust me. I’m not selling any software.
One of my core messages is the opposite: It’s not about being up on the latest tech tools, per se. It’s not about buying the latest social reputation management software, per se.
As soon as you start talking about whether your marketing department has customer relationship management software or social media reputation management software, and so on, as soon as you start doing this, by its very vernacular, you’re taking a mechanistic approach.
Elegancia is doing something that isn’t mechanistic. It’s creating an experience a certain type of customer will be moved by and its marketing messages support that experience and appeal to that type of customer. Once you’ve figured out your strategy, you can find the right tool, as my conversation prism illustrates.
How can marketers reach today’s connected consumers?
My research, which is supported by research done by McKinsey and Google’s The Multi Screen World study, and other studies in academia, suggests that there’s a new constellation of customer behaviors emerging.
There’s a new cohort that’s united by interests and behaviors, not age or geography. These people go to different places for information than traditional consumers do, and they put different weight on the importance of certain sources of information than consumers have in the past.
So if you spend your marketing budget on paying designers wearing black turtlenecks to create the splashiest hotel website out there, but your connected customers aren’t relying primarily on your website to form an impression of your brand, then you’ve mis-used your money.
If you instead allocated your budget on initiatives that enable your customers to create shared experiences about your brand online, then you may have created a more positive loop that will make a noticeable effect to your bottom line over time.
Digital technology is creating an ever-growing number of touchpoints where consumers are connecting with companies. The number of touchpoints is doubling every couple of years, and many marketers aren’t coping. Travelers now use their smartphones and tablets throughout their trip, so travel companies have multiple opportunities to communicate with their prospects throughout their journeys.
What’s the alternative to the funnel?
The stages are awareness, consideration, evaluation, purchase, experience, loyalty, and advocacy.
But the key is there isn’t a linear path. How consumers make decisions is much more dynamic.
A related point is that in the center of this ellipsis is an online repository of shared experiences about your brand that, it’s like a big cloud that gets thicker over time, and it accumulates and it becomes indexable by machines, and it starts to define your brand in a second-hand way beyond your direct control.
Having senior-level executives who understand social’s power to amplify messages — positively or negatively — about your brand is critical.
As a top exec at the hotel company IHG has said, we need to get scientific about customer engagement. Right now, data is used to manage the customer transaction. But customer engagement needs to be measured, too.
What are the metrics that marketers can use?
I talk about a new metric called shared experience value (SEV), what people are sharing and how well that aligns to the experience you want people to have and to share. It’s a concept like net promoter score (NPS).
SEV takes the experiences that customers are sharing and allows you to put a score around it. If the SEV score is high, then you know it’s improving your bottom line.
You don’t have to use my metric, though. The point is just be rigorous.
Don’t just count the number of likes your brand’s Facebook page has. Don’t count the number of images you have on your Instagram page. Engagement is measured by takeaway value, sentiment or feelings, and resulting actions following the exchange
And don’t have separate positions for “social” and for “mobile” but have a social spine that runs through your company, or at least your marketing division to start.
How can your analysis help companies decide where to allocate their resources? If the landscape is in so much flux, how can these models be put to use?
One company I’ll send a shout out to is Virgin America.
One of things that I applaud it for is they started as a startup and they started from scratch. And they asked basic questions, like, who likes flying? And how can we improve the flying experience? The technology, the gate area experience, the journey from deciding to buy a ticket through picking up luggage off a carousel.
Its team studied how traditional customers make decisions and how connected customers make decisions, and then they solved around those things. They got the right people to run those campaigns for each customer segment, and they found ways to do scalability and write metrics and what have you.
Its still learning. Its lack of profitability is related to factors beyond its marketing.
But I applaud them not just from a technology or marketing standpoint. But they started convince pilots and flight attendants and representatives to care. And they treat those employees like they’re family. And they take them on off-sites and camps so they can build teams and learn and have good employee morale.
Because when you think of it, one of the most common complaints is that the representatives for an airline or a hotel are just grumpy. They don’t help, and they often subtract from, the customer’s experience. Virgin America combats this problem by hiring well and supporting its staff.
One of my messages is that it’s important to figure out what today’s connected consumers want from your product and how they’re interacting with your brand. Those two things can’t be done mechanistically.
I just heard an elevator pitch from a startup called TripTease. [The startup creates highly shareable images of high-end hotels that capture what travelers might want to say to their friends about their experience in a highly visual way without needing to have photography skills themselves.] I can’t vouch for the product but the philosophy behind it goes to the heart of my book.
Consumers are encouraged to talk about their hotel stays at great properties like the Four Seasons in a sociable way. Social’s baked in to the plan from the start. Again, I can’t speak to the product, but just the elevator pitch. That said, it gets at a way of thinking about these issues.
Sean O’Neill is a New Jersey-based reporter for Tnooz. He is also a daily contributor of consumer news to LonelyPlanet.com.
He used to work for BBC Travel, BudgetTravel.com, and Kiplinger's, and used to live in London, New York City, and Washington, DC.