Mr. Suggs

Sales & Marketing

Online Hotel Marketing Strategy Clinic

By Blake Suggs, Account Director & Integration Specialist, Range Online Media

Maybe it's because Tax Season just ended that I have audits on the brain, but I believe that every campaign can use a good strategy audit every now and again. There are so many different programs and ways to manage a digital marketing strategy these days that it's difficult to know whether or not one is capitalizing on everything that's available. So with this article, I endeavor to take a major hospitality brand and outline where they are strong and where they are weak in order to outline key strategies for keeping and growing business in a period of economic challenges. There is one caveat I would like to highlight up front: this article is not meant to be a comprehensive review of the subject's online strategy, and I did not find huge problems with every channel I researched for this particular brand. In fact, most of the strategy was solid. There are tweaks and opportunities. However, that can benefit any brand; what's great, these are mostly simple fixes that can expand your presence and revenue even when times are tough.

For the purposes of this article, our subject will be an actual top name hotelier, which I will refer to as Brand XX to protect their confidentiality. Brand XX is a top tier hotelier with 300+ properties around the globe. Their property suite displays a heavy domestic U.S. presence as well as resorts in multiple countries and regions. From an online budget perspective, let's assume that Brand XX has $5M+ to spend, in addition to a steady offline (TV-heavy) presence.

First, let's look at the strengths and weaknesses of Brand XX's search strategy. Without getting into too much detail, here are the major strategies Brand XX is employing within their search campaigns that bode well for their online position within the marketplace.

1) Localized Results - region-specific branded queries for Brand XX yield geo-modified ads with specific body text that addresses a particular area's properties and/or its specials. Obviously this is ideal for breaking through the clutter (including many of the OTAs) thrown up by blanket broad match bidders with larger budgets.

2) Frequent Use of Promotions AND Brand-Centric Ad Text - given the market position of Brand XX, their comprehensive use of promotional ad text along with brand-centric ad text is certainly a strong play. By utilizing this mix Brand XX is able to capture both bargain shoppers and brand-loyal customers who might be cross-channel shopping for the best nightly rate. In addition the brand-centric ad text speaks to those price-agnostic searchers that would most likely focus on property/brand attributes when deciding on where to stay.

3) Strong Non-Brand Presence - Rather than blanket general non-brand terms such as "hotels," Brand XX appears to have a strong presence on longer tail non-brand terms. This allows for much more flexibility in regards to specific messaging, but the primary advantage is increased conversion rate at lower CPCs. The latter is accomplished due to the fact that Quality Score is such a huge factor in determining relative traffic cost, especially given the trend of including factors outside of Max Bid and CTR in its calculation.

4) Comprehensive Bidding Strategy - When looking at paid listings on any of the major search engines, it is fairly easy to identify brands that are not taking a granular approach to bidding within their search accounts. The most obvious characteristics of a neglected account typically center on ad positioning - ads typically occupy similar positions on the page no matter what type of query one enters. With Brand XX it is apparent that bidding is being done on a regular basis. Brand XX's terms are change position frequently and appear to vary according to traffic and revenue performance. It may sound elementary, but especially for higher traffic non-brand terms, a simply bidding strategy can do wonders for a particular property's profitability. On a macro level, a clear and concise bidding strategy is key to long-term success. There are few verticals that display competition both as stiff and as dynamic as hospitality.

Now let's look at some areas of opportunity for Brand XX to improve its search strategy.

1) Keyword Insert - Brand XX uses few, if any, keyword inserts within their ad titles. Certainly, for more specific queries, KWI typically drive nice boosts in CTR and, in the end, allows for a greater boost in profitability by virtue of increases in traffic, conversion and Quality Score. That said, KWI is not always appropriate - specifically where ad groups contain misspellings of trademark or non-branded terms for example.

2) Geo-Targeted Ad Text - Aside from geo-modified titles and body copy, some hoteliers choose to geo-target major feeder markets for specific properties or property groups in an effort to further increase the likelihood of a potential customer converting with their brand. This goes beyond simply mentioning the location of the property in your ad text. Testing with offers for specific feeder markets (and saying so in your ad text) can have wonderful results. This is not a strategy that can be applied to every suppliers search campaigns, but Brand XX certainly has the potential to use it to their advantage.

3) Local and Organic Results - Brand XX does not appear to have a strong position within the organic listings or within the organically-generated map listings for geo-modified non-brand queries. Both of these issues should be addressed with a comprehensive local and SEO program. More and more within the organic listings, engines are pulling in content from sources other than simple on-page content. News, press releases and video/image content are important sources as well. These should all be addressed as part of a comprehensive SEO program that also addresses the Local search strategy.

4) Landing Pages - I'd like to go on record saying, that for the purposes of highlighting this point, I did not go around clicking on thousands of Brand XX's paid search listings. I did, however, do some fancy right-clicking to determine where key sets of terms were landing. As a result, Brand XX appears to have quite an opportunity around improving their landing pages. Most of their current LPs lack content, especially as it relates to a specific region. They are simply landing users on a page that, while displaying a very simple booking path, does little to address specifics about the destination. A better fit would be to have users land on a page that not only allows them a short path to conversion, but also displays content specific to the known destination of the traveler.

Outside of search Brand XX is running both display media and major feed programs, such as Yahoo SSP and Yahoo Travel. The strategy behind both of these areas of online is hard to evaluate given the fact I am not managing their online programs. Nevertheless, there are some major strengths to call out specifically for display media.

1) Consistent Display Creative Look and Feel - It is amazing how often I come across a particular brand running multiple executions that have no consistency in terms of display design. It is important that users associate a particular brand with a particular way of communicating. People like consistency, whether they are willing to admit it or not. In any case, Brand XX's display executions ALL utilize similar color sets and graphics, even through the actual content of the ad may be very different. By maintaining a visual voice, Brand XX is creating an image that will make an impact rather than getting lost.

2) Targeting - Brand XX's display media strategy includes a good mix of targeted (both behavioral and contextual) and direct (direct site buys/sponsorships on travel-related sites) types of targeting. Over the last few years, online travel has taken huge leaps into the behavioral/contextual media pool, and while both methods of targeting have their applications, it is very important that suppliers don't forget about more traditional site buys. Brand XX utilizes all types of media in an effort to reach out to multiple audiences at different stages of the buying cycle. Their creative executions vary by audience, thus giving them a leg up on other suppliers who may simply be blanketing the internet with lower CPM ROS and/or RON buys.

In closing I think there are a few high level points to take away from the review of Brand XX:

1) Segment Your Audiences Whether you segment based on location or price segment or both, speaking to your audience in language they care about is important. If I search "affordable Las Vegas hotel," don't serve me an ad with the title "Brand XX Hotel."

2) Test and Learn As my dad always said, it is better to try and fail than to refuse to try at all. Test, test and test again. Not every idea is going succeed; I can almost promise you that most will fail. Despite the gloomy prospects, audiences are changing the way they shop for travel every single day, and if we do not evolve in regards to the "how, why and where" we speak to them, we will lose customers. It's that simple.

3) Use Your Assets to Your Advantage More and more, it's not just about paid versus organic. It's about photos, PR, video, and reviews among other things. None of these by itself will completely change your business, but attacking all of them with vigor will give you an advantage going into the future. Trust me it it's already way beyond just paid and organic in the travel business.

Given that travelers are bargain-minded these days, you must be willing to scrutinize your campaigns and see how you can push them even when budgets aren't available. If you constantly audit your online tactics, you'll inevitably find ways to expand your brand and be on top for when the economy starts swinging again.

After a career in retail management Blake Suggs joined Range Online Media. He quickly began offering his hands-on expertise and strategic insight to clients in the travel, retail and energy sectors. An expert in cross-tactic strategy, he ensures successful integration of multiple campaign channels, including paid search, SEO, feeds, media and conversion optimization techniques. Mr. Suggs' current clients include Wyndham, Charming Shoppes, Reliant Energy, Wingate by Wyndham, Sears Service Live, Hawthorn Suites and Handango. Mr. Suggs can be contacted at 817-509-0348 or blake@rangeonlinemedia.com Extended Bio...

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