The advent and increasing popularity of search engines and social media advertising has transformed how consumers get inspired to travel, and which suppliers (including travel agents) they purchase from.
Developing a successful digital marketing strategy can be vital, especially for agents who do not have an established book of repeat and referral business.
What savvy travel professionals do, through organic search and paid ads, is try to appear in the top results on Search Engine Results Pages (SERP) – the web pages you see when you search for something like “Caribbean all-inclusive resorts.”
SERPs typically contain two types of results: organic (including “unpaid” marketing like website content) and paid listings. Organic listings result from search engine algorithms finding a website’s relevant content – search engine optimization (SEO). Paid ads (identified on a Google SERP by the word “Ad” in a small box next to the advertiser’s URL) are the result of advertisers bidding on “keywords.”
Wordstream, a leading marketing services company, estimates the average cost of a Google AdWords ad at $1-2 per click for Google’s search network. “However, in super-competitive markets (e.g. legal, insurance and accounting), clicks can get much pricier,” Wordstream advises.
Facebook ads can be in the same range, depending on the quality of the ad a travel agent develops, and how they target their audience. On Facebook, “a budget of about $10 a day is a great place to start testing,” said marketing consultant Myrna Arroyo, owner of Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based Pepper Inbound Marketing.
But first, “you need to have a good strategy in place before you throw money at ads. What are you promoting? What's the call to action? Where do the leads go? What's the follow up plan for the leads? How are you going to measure results? If you don't have that figured out before you run an ad, you're probably wasting your money.”
In order to measure success, Arroyo and others recommend Google Analytics or similar tools (e.g. Monster Insights); and for Facebook ads, Facebook pixels, embedded in the site.
On either platform, and whether you choose to pay for advertising, develop extensive content, or leverage a combination of both, marketing should drive consumers to a travel agency’s website, a travel agent’s main customer acquisition asset.
Digital marketing delivers millions for one agent
For Gilbert, Arizona-based Ultimate Travel, online marketing has been the main source of growth to becoming a multi-million-dollar-a-year business. If you Google “all-inclusive resort travel agent,” Ultimate usually appears as the third listing (unpaid), below a paid ad from Travel Leaders, and an organic/unpaid Travel Leaders listing.
That high ranking is the result of a very targeted, persistent investment in both paid search advertising, and website SEO, said Ultimate Travel Co-Owner Geoff Millar. Millar, a former IT executive, combines his tech skills with his wife Sharon’s travel agency management experience, to run an agency that generates 10-20 leads a day through a sophisticated digital marketing program.
The company was launched in 2003, with small experiments in pay-per-click advertising. Over several years, Millar tested and learned what ads and web content attracted new clients. He refined his program and increased his ad spend by tracking how sales leads came to his website and toll-free telephone lines.
Today, Ultimate Travel is spending about $3,500 a month on digital advertising and had to hire a marketing company to manage their program. Millar estimates that Ultimate is now generating $3 million a year in sales from online marketing, and the company needs six independent contractors to keep up with its growth.
Increasing search results without paid ads
Conductor, a marketing services company in New York City, believes travel agents not able to spend on paid ads can still drive success through Google organic searches.
“For small businesses, organic search is a massive opportunity,” said Christine Schrader, Conductor content marketing manager. She noted how for a simple search term like “D.C. Hotel,” a relatively small player, Pod Hotels, appears high on the first SERP.
Earlier this year, Conductor found that small companies owned the top search results for 56 percent of Google searches in nearly 45,000 travel and hospitality terms for U.S.-based locations.
Among the large companies earning the top results for the remaining 44 percent, Trip Advisor had a 9 percent share, followed by Expedia (8 percent). Tied for third were Kayak and Hotels.com (6 percent).
Schrader and others advise travel agents to narrow their website content down to a niche or two, and think about why and how their customers search for the information and services an agent specializes in.
“If you have an answer for that search, build a page for it,” Schrader said. “All of that stuff you do on organic, you have total control of that on your webpage. You can stake a claim there. Google has leaned in with their algorithms to deliver exactly what a client wants, which empowers subject matter experts like niche travel agents.”
If you have no marketing budget and your business is fairly new, “you should focus on creating content (like 1-2 blog posts/videos per week on strategic topics that appeal to your target client) and doing some old-fashioned sales prospecting to generate some initial clients, so that then you'll have a marketing budget,” consultant Arroyo said.
“Content marketing takes time to produce results,” she said. “It may be 3-6 months before you start to generate a good flow of leads. For this reason, I often recommend allocating some initial marketing budget to lead generation ads, which can provide leads immediately while giving your organic content strategy time to work.”
“But you should always be creating content. A piece of good content on your website will generate leads for you forever.”
Millar agrees. “Paid and organic work hand-in-hand,” he said.
A sought-after speaker who has presented his digital marketing philosophy and strategy at major industry conferences, Millar believes that agents do not view digital marketing the way they see other marketing assets, like consumer expos and co-op advertising.
“You can’t look at online marketing as an expense. It’s an investment in creating revenue and profits,” he said.
“Many agencies, especially small ones, are hesitant to make the investment to figure all this out, or to hire a professional to do it for them,” Arroyo said. “I see lots of agents try a bit of advertising, but if they don't see positive results right away they quit before the Facebook algorithm even has time to optimize their ads.”
“It's scary when money is coming out of your bank account, and you won’t see revenue until your commission checks get cashed. I understand the impulse to not follow through. But marketing and advertising need to be part of every agency's budget.”