brian solis marketing

The travel marketing funnel is broken

One of the leading voices on digital marketing today is Brian Solis, an Altimeter Group analyst and author of WTF: What’s the Future of Business?.

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.

I just came from Paris, where I stayed at Seven Hotel, which is part of Elegancia Hotels. I stayed in two different rooms during the course of the week.

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.

hotel seven 007 james bond

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.

brian solis marketing

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?

At Altimeter, we use the image of an ellipsis instead of a funnel. It’s a continuous loop, basically. With connected consumers it’s done mostly very publicly.

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.

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Sean O'Neill

About the Writer :: Sean O'Neill

Sean O’Neill had roles as a reporter and editor-in-chief at Tnooz between July 2012 and January 2017.



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  1. RMSorg

    I can’t say this enough but I follow (or try to anyways) all of Brian Solis interviews and article because you always, always learn something new about this connected consumer methodology that he has.. What he says makes sense today and is getting us thinking about tomorrow as well!!

    Excellent article and interview with valuable information shared by Brian here!


  2. Daniel McKean

    Today’s connected consumer is consuming content across a multitude of mediums. Whether the touch points are from traditional marketing or from social media, consumers are choosing to engage with companies and brands by individual information consumption preferences which dictate how, when (and if) they engage. The traditional sales funnel model may not be completely broken, but it certainly has to evolve in today’s online world.

    In my view the key takeaway from Brian’s interview is that Brand entities need to understand that the engagement and repeat engagement is key. It is only then as Brian says, “the more chance [your] company has to change opinions, glean valuable insights, and convert people into loyal advocates.” Simply executing and measuring performance KPIs without measuring growing influence is a recipe for failure. And being able to identify key influencers in social media for greater reach, relevance and resonance is probably the biggest critical barrier where many Brands continue to struggle.

    Solis has it right by stating it is “important to figure out what today’s connected consumers want from your product and how they’re interacting with your brand.” It is only then that a Brand will truly be in tune with today’s connected consumer.

  3. John Reiss

    Millward Brown Digital (formerly Compete and Dynamic Logic) live on the online path-to-purchase space and help travel brands understand their industry, competitors, and share. Examples of our general insights can be found here:

  4. Rodney

    Brilliant article Sean. Its a conversation that we’re having with anyone who is ready to listen. Brian is always terrific at articulating things clearly.

    While I agree that the funnel is no longer a good model, people do still go through stages in a process. The exact process may be disrupted somewhat (eg travelers may choose a hotel or an experience before flights) but there’s still stages. For me, the key thing that’s changed is how marketers affect different levels of the funnel. Its no longer through brand advertising. That’s the challenge, because the branding process is what the travel industry is largely structured around.

    Brian is dead right that to affect the funnel you need to be remarkable when you touch consumers so that people tell stories about you. We’re huge advocates of NPS (or similar).


  5. Martin Soler WIHP

    For years word of mouth has been the best marketing. We all learned it in marketing books and it was proven time and time again. A few years ago at WIHP we set out to check if that was still the case. We surveyed about 10,000 people that booked on hotel websites to figure out if things had changed. They havent, today almost a quarter of direct booking come from word of mouth.
    The connected generation arent different people, they just have more tools to make word of mouth go further and faster.

    Tripadvisor and word of mouth cover almost half of all direct hotel bookings. Considering that direct bookings are the most valuable segment in hotel revenues.

    And if the experience is designed for sharing that increases even more. With a proper design we find that almost 25% of guests share their information even before staying at the hotel.

    In my opinion its no so much about adding widgets and buttons but more about thinking of the guest experience and following that experience adding small details that make sharing and connecting easy and inevitable. Such details like making sure there is free wifi and easy to use so the guest can log in and share their stay or connect to their friends. They are minute but on every step they make for a Gen-C experience. And you may say you have free wifi. But if front desk didnt incite one to post by giving access before guest asked then its friction. And oh yeah, most wifi systems are horrible, keep logging one out etc.

    If every element of the process is carefulle designed to do its purpose and do it extremely well the whole will work great. The problems start when people try to make one thing serve multiple purposes that one cant do anything right. And there we all have ways to go to improve.

    • Wolfgang

      Very well said indeed, especially the comment about Trip Advisor. Trip Advisor IS the new word of mouth, unimaginable only two decades ago.

      Basically it still boils down to the ‘same old thing’: Providing a satisfactory and memorable guest or visitor experience and build from there..

      What this article is really emphasizing is, how to get people to ‘talk’ about our product, no matter what platform they use to do so, but there is also an underlying cavaet in this world of instant sharing: Any slack will be noticed and spread immediately too.

  6. Ryan

    I think Brian outlines a lot of good reasons as to why the connected consumer has changed the way marketing as an “industry” has to perform. I also agree that as with most of traditional marketing (I learned at university) a refresh to the our curriculum is needed. *pre and post university* The linear lines of the funnel are gone, as Brian alluded to. A more spherical process of the connected consumer is looped.

    Social Media and Marketing together are much more conversational based than the marketing of old. The connected consumer has much stronger pull from his social contacts and their opinions, as well as a way to voice said opinions to the brands that used to be in a one-way conversation only with their customers.

    Here is the simplest of takeaways from this piece: “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.”

    ^move this to the top of your To-Do list and you’ll be two steps ahead of the majority of businesses and marketers alike.

  7. Philippe Vaurs

    I would like to thank you for this excellent article. I was honored to meet Brian Solis while he was visiting Paris and to have a very interesting conversation.
    About Elegancia Hotels, we have always been working on sharing experience with our guests, and our philosophy is based, above all, on creating emotion, much more than classic marketing methods.
    In that regard, I’m proud that Elegancia Hotels was mentioned as a reference.
    I share Brian Solis point of view, as I consider him with a lot of respect, both for his innovative ideas and for his digital strategies advice.
    I hope to have the opportunity, in the very near future, to go beyond words and to put some of them into practice, for my future projects.

    Philippe Vaurs – CEO of Elegancia Hotels, Paris.

  8. Chris Abraham

    This is a very interesting article and I must admit that I don’t spend enough time reading Brian’s words — I did buy his latest book for my Kindle and will be reading it this weekend. As a social media marketing guy and a digital PR guy and a native Generation C, I know how I respond to others online and how I am branded and I tend to make extrapolations and assumptions based on my world and also, I’ll admit, based on my response and behavior.

    It comes down to the fact that being pretty isn’t enough for social media success and that no matter how breathtaking your property is or how generous your services, you’ll easily become just another pretty face if you don’t stand out from the crowd, if you’ll pardon my stacked clichés.

    Everybody’s trying so hard to compete on things such as elegance, service, quality, design, location, or price. Sometimes is only comes down to whether or not someone’s heard of it; and, even that someone doesn’t remember the name of the property or even where it is, something will stick and because Google and the social net is so accessible, very few things are lost forever.

    I wanted to use an example — and it worked. I remembered that there was a hotel room that Peter Shankman stayed in in London that has a James Bond theme. I forgot the name of the hotel and when I did I search I discovered that quite a few London hotels have James Bond-themed rooms (James Bond is the new presidential suite) so what I did is pinged Peter. Within four hours, I received this one line back, “51 Buckingham Gate. A Taj property.” Now I know.

    And I was wrong, too. I remembered it as a James Bond room but it was actually a Car Lovers room devoted to the Jaguar. So, even though I got the details completely wrong, I know who to tap if I want to stay as a property that is all about the Jag, one of the finest automobiles and a gem on Britain’s crown.

    And, were I to come to the means of staying in such a room, this is the room I will book, if only for a night for the experience. But isn’t there a million little boutique hotels in London? And a trillion around-the-world? And, don’t they all offer gem-like rooms with themes — the crazy themed rooms of the Poconos gone high-end.

    And, that was because I ghosted Peter as he arrived at the room, as he stayed there, as he explored the hotel, and when he learned that he was but in a room with a theme — the Jaguar, which I guess is now a Gem in India’s crown, right? — but also his experience of the hotel, his excitement, and upon discovering that he also had access to a proper Jaguar limo for getting around London.

    I may well be living vicariously but I am interested. I pay attention. I am always adding things to my bucket list and I am also often the guy people come to when they want to know where to go, what to do, where to eat, and where to stay in places like DC, Berlin, and Portland.

    Very interesting and there are so many thoughts and ideas spinning in my head after reading this — very exciting and interesting interview.

    • Sean O'Neill

      Sean O'Neill

      Honoured that you’d take the time to write such a fantastic contribution to the discussion. Much obliged, Chris.

  9. Kohen Grogan

    This was a great read Sean and thanks for sharing it. Brian Solis… I absolutely love that you advocate for the change that is so necessary to the industry, nice work!

    The sooner marketers realize that consumers are now in control the better. Social Media has taken off for a simple reason… it is technology applied to communication at a level beyond basic human needs where it gives people a sense of belonging. (You have to love Maslows Hierarchy of needs!)

    It amazes me how many companies are treating accommodation, hospitality and travel as a product and service when they are in fact experiences. Get the little things right and let the experience talk for itself… well other people to talk about it to influence others and encourage return business.

    I recently attended a party in a great venue. From entering the doors the mood was bleak so I decided to ask people how they thought it could be improved (even though the solution was obvious). After working the room I quickly discovered three trending topics. 1. Change the music to suit the audience. 2. Dim the Lights 3. Get the people to congregate in a smaller space rather than spread out over a number of rooms. The solution… simple. Make the changes!

    After putting these suggestions to the host the changes were made and the night went from being one to forget to one to remember with just a few minor changes. The necessary change was so obvious to the guests yet the staff of the venue didn’t pick up on it because they were too busy “running” the business.

    While this is a very basic example it makes the point that the product (a party) the location (venue) are all held ransom to the experience!

    The Virgin America case Brian put forward was great. I remember seeing it in a great documentary called “The Naked Brand” which I highly recommend watching. Here is a link I found to the scene on YouTube

    Love your work Gents, keep it up!

    – Kohen

  10. Travelopod

    Very interesting read. Being a travel company we realize how important it has become to jump on the social media wagon but at the same time its can be fairly simple or super complex to attract fans. We face the challenge each day from big media giants. Reading your article gives me the idea how important it is to create exceptionally compelling products I guess social media will automatically drive itself on the customer reactions.
    Love your blog. Even though its so niche it never gets boring! thanks for sharing !

  11. Psycho

    Nice reading on customer relations and marketing on Tnooz today. I would suggest reading this interview along with this article and then giving a lot of thought to current analytics and marketing strategy.

  12. Martin Soler

    Great article, great viewpoint. The travel industry deserves more professionals like this to help us think outside the box and take a critical view on the existing hotel marketing world. Thanks Sean for the interview, thanks Brian for taking the time to help lift the hotel marketing world into the next generation.

  13. Bob Jones

    I bought WTF for the kindle yesterday and have already devoured half of it. Brilliant read and there’s so much “common sense” to it which the hospitality industry should be using. Technology empowers not just consumers but also providers.

  14. RobertKCole

    Great interview and great insights (full disclosure, I’m an Altimeter research junkie – I read almost everything Li, Lee & Solis author.)

    To echo his most important point, the three essential cornerstones for travel industry success in digital marketing are understanding a) consumer needs & motivations, b) the product experience and how it addresses those needs, and c) how to communicate with and engage those consumers.

    The technology is simply a tool to satisfy those three objectives.

    I continually encounter clients that take a fire-ready-aim approach by wanting to employ a specific technology without tying it back to their core strategies and goals.

    in my experience, it becomes much less about cleverly extracting an additional dollar from a customer and more about developing true loyalty that motivates the customer to desire the product – and even pay a premium because it represents much more than a simple purchase transaction.

    Brian nailed it – it’s really about getting employees, investors and consumers to care about the product. Digital marketing + social media offer some amazing tools to accomplish that. The key is getting the right tools worked into the right processes, in an environment that still might only understand the traditional funnel.

    Well done.

    • RobertKCole

      Oops – Have no idea why I referred to Jeremiah Owyang as “Lee” above – my bad…

      • Sean O'Neill

        Sean O'Neill

        Maybe you were thinking of Charlene Li of Altimeter. 🙂 But no matter — thanks for the great comment!

    • Brian Solis

      Thank you Robert for that great comment. Sean, thank you. It was a pleasure to spend time with you in London. Until next time!

  15. Colin Holden

    Interesting read … though the James Bond hotel can’t be that impressive if the James Bond that comes to mind is Roger Moore!

    • Ve May Bay Ly Hai

      Great article, great viewpoint. The travel industry deserves more professionals like this to help us think outside the box and take a critical view on the existing hotel marketing world. Thanks Sean for the interview, thanks Brian for taking the time to help lift the hotel marketing world into the next generation.


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