Did you know that a typical customer may have several hundreds of digital touch points (or what Google calls micro moments) before they book a hotel and other elements of their trip? How does this customer journey look like? And how are the big travel platform businesses (Booking.com, Expedia, TripAdvisor, Google, Airbnb) accompanying the customer’s journey? What can you learn about the trends and opportunities? These are the questions we are going to look at today.
Last time, we compared the business models of Online Travel Agencies (OTAs), (Booking.com, Expedia and TripAdvisor) with respect to the digital customer journey. Previously, we had looked at their business models more holistically. Today, I am building on this. Join us today for a very data-driven tour of the online travel industry thanks to the plentiful data that Google have shared on this.
Join us for a very data-driven tour of micro moments in the online travel industry thanks to the plentiful data that Google have shared on this.
Micro-moments define the digital customer journey
In her digital customer journey of planning her trip: “Amy had
- 419 digital moments
- in just 2 months.
- She made 34 searches,
- watched 5 videos,
- and made 380 web page visits.
- And 87% of these moments happened on mobile.“
In some of the other studies that Luth and Google have shared, there were between 40-1000 digital moments involved for travel planning and booking. The customer journey these days is far more complex than it may have been in the past (or maybe we are only now getting more reliable data). Who knows how many file-through-print-travel-catalogue-moments people may have had in the past?
Google concludes that:
- People are increasingly using their phones to plan travel.
- They do this in shorter moments but
- across more sessions on their phones
- with an increasing number of purchases on their smartphones.
We are going to look at how platforms can be there in these moments of the customer journey and how it can translate to sales and loyalty.
Stages of the customer journey (per Google)
Google’s framework separates the customer journey into four “phases” consisting of many discrete moments that for travel looks like this:
- I-want-to-get-away (dreaming)
- Time-to-make-a-plan (planning)
- Let’s-book-it (booking)
- Can’t-wait-to-explore moments (experiencing)
Google sees the customer journey as a series of moments (419 in the example above). This involves many searches and websites. It involves researching the available options in one destination but then possibly going back and reconsidering completely different options.
Google suggests to “be there and be useful” in those moments.
1. I-want-to-get-away (dreaming) moments
We all know how this works. We are daydreaming about a trip. This can be a pure dream – i.e. very low intention – or already in anticipation of our time off work approaching. But how we daydream can be quite different for you than for me.
A Google study has asked exactly that question: which channels are people using to get travel inspiration. Here are the results (as per my previous articles, I am staying within the leisure travel category).
One great way to “be there & be useful” in the dreaming phase are videos. If we zoom into the results which type of online sources people use in their early customer journey, i.e. dreaming, video shows up as the most-used source.
Here are some more stats from Think with Google:
- “In any given month, over 100 million of YouTube’s unique visitors are travellers.
- 64% of people who watch travel-related videos do so when thinking about taking a trip.
- And three in five travellers who watch online video use it to narrow down their brand, destination, or activity choices.“
Google points out that only a minority of travel vlogs (video blogs) are created by brands and lists this as an opportunity to improve in this space.
Let’s start with an example how Marriott does this.
This is a great example of content marketing, i.e. providing free content to potential leads. It does not pitch directly for a direct sale but offers valuable content. The purpose (and underlying hypothesis) of content marketing is that will “create sustainable brand loyalty” [Wikipedia].
One of Google’s findings seems to confirm this:
- “67% of travellers are more likely to book with a travel brand that provides relevant information for the destinations they’re interested in.”
And Google states that the opposite also holds true (at least more broadly about not being useful):
- “Only 9% of users will stay on a mobile site or app if it doesn’t satisfy their needs.
- In fact, 66% of consumers will take actions that have some negative impact on their brand, including:
- 40% will be less likely to come back to the mobile site or app.
- 28% will be less likely to purchase products from the company in the future.”
Comparing the travel platform businesses’ travel content
Marriott is obviously not the only one doing something in this space. In fact, all major platforms offer some sort of content for the dreaming / early planning phase:
- Booking.com’s travel guide to the city of Sydney (among many other cities). With minimal effort, Booking.com is presenting their hotel inventory and user generated content differently. They are adding content from their restaurant booking platform OpenTable.com, etc. They have a broad range of inspirational articles with links to city overview pages and hotels. However, the article pages are not very prominently featured on their pages (but on their app – more on this later).
- TripAdvisor: Similar to Booking.com, TripAdvisor has a “Things to do” section where they feature their inventory in a different form. However, there are differences to Booking.com. TripAdvisor has more user generated content, more genuine categories (points of interest, …), events (remember they are selling ad subscriptions to event providers), user generated recommendation guides, an inspirational blog, and lots more.
- Expedia: the Expedia YouTube channel and an “Activities” section (with less content than TripAdvisor as it seems) quite prominently featured (and more content on their app).
- Google: also offers many curated listings (again, Sydney as example) and of course tons of general – yet location-specific – search results. They have things like a tour builder, local guides (which Skift compares to the Yelp Elite program) and lots of other things. Some of these seem to still be in the early phase.
- Airbnb: a great collection of mainly user generated and some Airbnb generated, highly valuable, content on several levels. Their approach is my favourite (from a content perspective – from an app functionality perspective, it’s a tighter race). Remarkably, most of the content is user generated and demonstrates the strength of the platform business model. Here are some links:
- Things to do for featured major cities: a listing of user generated recommendations with a voting system
- Neighbourhoods: Created by Airbnb with great photos of their contracted photographers and small snippets from local hosts (other platforms have similar pages on their apps).
- Experiences: Tons of experiences by location that visitors can book. The content (and offerings) are user generated. It goes through the usual Airbnb feedback system. With the opportunity of making revenue, they have given users a compelling incentive to create great experiences which in turn enhances the value of the Airbnb platform. My comment would be that one should be able to filter/sort for distance from their current location.
- Check out my dedicated article on Airbnb with more details on their business model.
- More hotels are trying to incorporate user generated user guides.
If you have read all my articles on the platform business model, you will not be surprised that most of the user generated content is very good (opposed to what established corporate assume) thanks to the indirect network effects. Of course, this requires appropriate governance to be in place.
From dreaming to planning
Where does the dreaming end? Where does the planning start? The difference is the intent. Dreaming is not concrete, may never turn into action or still be far away. When we are talking about planning, we assume there is a strong intent of moving into action sometime soon.
And it can also be the other way around. Someone just dreaming, may end up booking spontaneously being highly inspired and coming across just the right offer.
What are searches that occur in the dreaming / early planning phase? I have entered into Google “What to do in London ” (note the blank at the end). And Google suggests the following autofills – meaning these are very frequent searches:
- What to do in London [blank]
- for free
- in 4 days
- this weekend
- with kids
- for a day
- in winter <summer>
Try this for yourself with a city of your choice and have a look which of the platforms and hotels advertise or show up organically in the results.
I have tested some of this for a number of major cities in the US and Europe. Among the major platforms, TripAdvisor is the one I see most frequently (and their collection of travel guides). This did not surprise me given it does tie back to their roots of being a planning advisor. But I have also noticed other magazines re-occurring a few times, such as TimeOut.com.
Finding interesting things to do (or not) can make the difference between a “dreamer” turning into a buyer (or looking at other destinations or moving that trip out).
2. Time-to-Make-a-Plan Moments
Next come the “Time-to-Make-a-Plan Moments.” This phase is characterised by intensive research. Now, the internet becomes the predominant planning tool by far.
The first key decision most people take is the destination. With that, the detailed planning can start. Yes, everybody will approach things a bit differently. Some people may book the hotel before they plan the other details. Others might be happy to make sure there are enough hotel options available and leave the actual booking for later. They might decide on the length of the stay once they plan the other details out. It is a highly iterative process,
Here is another example showing the types of searches and touch points involved: Maps, events & activities, restaurants, air, accommodation, car and more. Note, there are 10% of 850 touch points Online Travel Agencies plus another 4% on accommodation. That makes around 120 touch points on the hotel/accommodation alone.
Accordingly, the search terms now change and are more concrete. Google finds search terms as shown below now take hold:
- hotels in [destination],
- car rentals in [destination],
- flights to [destination]
Add to that:
- restaurants in [destination]
- events in [destination]
and it gets more specific:
- “Hotel with an indoor pool” and
- “hotel with jacuzzi in room” are two of the top hotel amenity searches on smartphones.
Travellers are not settled on a brand when they start planning
The opportunity to be there and valuable during the research phase seems substantial. Given up to 85% of travellers are undecided on the lodging brand, there is still more room for the various approaches such as loyalty programs, better online ad targeting, being useful through content marketing, a different positioning, etc.
3. Let’s-Book-It Moments
Some people may book as early as they have decided on their destination (or latest prior embarking on the trip). Others wait until they are at their destination. Here are some attention points for both cases.
Booking prior embarking on the trip
Referring to more Google findings for those who have narrowed down on their destination:
- “People search for things like “[brand name] + [location]” of which almost half of searches like this happen on smartphones.
- Ninety-four percent of leisure travellers switch between devices as they plan or book a trip.
- And 46% of travellers with smartphones say they make their decision on mobile, but then book on another device.
- Nearly two-thirds of leisure travellers double-check prices on a computer after shopping for flights on a smartphone, and more than half make the switch to double-check hotel prices.” (Note: some of these stats date back to 2014 and some of these percentages are likely to have shifted more to mobile in the meantime.)
As I have pointed out last time, this doesn’t mean a home run for the [brand]. They will still need to spend advertising dollars on Google AdWords on their own brand name as otherwise someone else – most likely OTAs – will rank higher (simply because they DO spend those ad dollars).
Another opportunity are same-day bookings which occur on mobile, Here are more data points on this:
- “For example, 85% of non-branded hotel searches on Google related to “today” or “tonight” happen on a smartphone.
- Data from Hotels.com states that 74% of mobile bookings are made for same-day check-in.
- “Near me” searches are the clear mobile-centric winner in the hotel industry.When it comes to mobile-centric hotel searches, the themes leading the way include:
- near me (like “pet friendly hotels near me”)
- cheap (like “cheap hotels in Myrtle Beach”)
- price (like “motel prices”)”
There are many attempts to capitalise on this:
- Booking.com had developed a similar app, called Booking Now, that allowed same-day booking in just two steps. But less than 2 years later it was scrapped without further explanation.
- Apps like Hotel Now, Hotel Tonight, LateRooms, Lastminute Hotels, etc. specialise on same-day bookings making these particularly simple and showing the fierce competition on the intention-harvesting phase.
- There is simply a massive effort from many companies and apps with slightly different approaches to gain market share on the lucrative hotel booking commissions market.
- Red Roof Inn has a particularly intriguing approach: “The company realised that flight cancellations were leaving 90,000 passengers stranded every day, its marketing team developed a way to track flight delays in real time and trigger targeted search ads for the Red Roof Inns near airports. Ads that said, in essence, “Stranded at the airport?Come stay with us!” They committed to those “I-needa-hotel-ASAP” moments and delivered with relevance on what people needed. The result: a remarkable +60% increased revenue”
4. Can’t-Wait-to-Explore Moments
After the purchase, the marketing activities often cease. Here are some revealing findings that offer great opportunities to those who don’t stop interacting with the customer after their purchase:
- “85% of leisure travellers decide on activities only after having arrived at their destination.
- Nearly nine out of 10 travellers expect their travel provider to share relevant information while they are on their trip.
- And 67% of travellers feel more loyal toward a travel company that shares information during their trip that improves their travel experience.”
Many of the platforms have “things to do in …” sections as I have listed above. Here a mini summary link collection:
- Expedia’s activities you can book at your destination (it is still evolving), more on the app.
- Booking.com’s OpenTable platform (limited to restaurant bookings) but much more on their app.
- TripAdvisor’s things to do and restaurants.
- Airbnb: Things to do: a recommendations-by-locals collection, Neighbourhoods a section created by Airbnb and Experiences: local offerings.
- Marriott “experiences” is more like an advanced search filter for their hotels.
- Tourist Brochure: Yes, they still exist and have some role. But there should be opportunities for a digital solution …
There are differences how prominently the different platforms display these offerings. Airbnb shows their “Experiences”and “Restaurants” sections directly on their home page right next to the “Homes” section. This makes these features highly visible and memorable. TripAdvisor and Expedia also have it at their top navigation. Booking.com features it less prominently.
These comments refer to their webpages – I will be saying a few more words about their apps in a moment where all of them are actually already doing more in this space.
Share of intent
How can you measure how you are appearing in the micro moments of the customer journey to travel? Google suggests a simple tool called “share of intent by moment.” You can just take the search terms I have listed for each of the phases and check for yourself how your company or the company you are analysing shows up in those searches (paid and organically).
This would be a quick start. Next, add more search terms that are relevant (you can e.g. use the keyword planner tool within Google Adwords to find out search volumes). Or just enter the first part of a search term and then add a blank and see what Google auto-completes it to. Those terms will be the most frequent continuations.
Now map how “your” company shows up. Or do a systematic approach across a number of the platforms you are interested in.
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What are the trends and opportunities?
This should give you a good feel who focuses on which phase. I am convinced you will find there are lots of opportunities in the early phases in both paid and organic search.
Some will say there is no value in targeting low-intention leads. But it is about return on investments. Competition in the intention-harvesting phase is pretty fierce and ad-costs in Adwords pretty high. Finding good ways to build a relationship in the early-intention phase may give better returns when done well. I believe there is lots of room for creative innovators in that space.
I do fully expect that the various platform will try to be also more present in the dreaming phase.
When you look at the various apps, you will see that they have started to support the cant-wait-to-explore-moments (experiencing) by listing attractions at the destinations. They also support the planning process by enabling to favourite attractions and then to save them, show them on the map and so on. This is highly valuable and surely loyalty-boosting.
Most of the travel platforms have more on-the-go (mobile) functionality than on their webpages. And I am sure they will try to further enhance on this front.
One that I would like to point out in this space is the Google Trips app. It analyses trip data (flights, hotel bookings) from your Gmail inbox and displays all that as trips in this app. It then gives you the opportunity to manage all you reservation items there. But moreover, it gives you suggestions for “things to do” at those locations, suggests day plans, shows you how to “get around” (on arrival: all your options to get from the airport to your hotel, public transport, driving, etc); “food & drinks” etc.
I find this an extremely exciting space to watch. I hope you feel the same way and can transfer some of these ideas and principles to your company or industry and help innovate things further.
I have been citing Think with Google a lot. Here are some very interesting sources that I can ony recommend:
- The 2014 travellers road to decision [pdf]
- Micro moments guide: Your Guide to Winning the Shift to Mobile [pdf] (not travel industry specific)
- Here are over 1000 data points on various topics and industries
I have also two more of my own in-depth articles in this series of travel platform businesses:
- Business models compared: Booking.com, Expedia, TripAdvisor: Elaborates on the three online travel agency business models: (1) Advertising business model: TripAdvisor (2) Agency business model: Booking.com (3) Merchant business model: Expedia.
- Customer journey comparison: TripAdvisor, Booking.com, Expedia, Google: This article ties the customer journey to their business models.