Travel Targeting's Long Learning Curve

With upwards of 90 percent of American adult consumers using the Internet to research travel-related plans and purchases, travel firms theoretically have a raft of data about consumer behavior to leverage. The industry's current challenge, as Greg Saks, director of travel practice for Boston area-based industry research firm Compete explains below, is how to translate that data into deeper customer knowledge.

Behavioral Insider: The travel vertical has tended to be relatively ahead of the curve in adopting many Web innovations. What has been the extent of behavioral targeting deployment by leading travel companies?

Saks: As a research firm, Compete works closely with many clients in the industry, taking a look at the travel research and booking behavior of U.S. consumers on an ongoing basis. [We] collect and analyze data including search querying, browsing, information gathering and purchasing patterns. We certainly see interest and motivation on the part of the industry as a whole to experiment with behavioral targeting ideas. It's become clear to travel marketers that traditional kinds of segmentation will only take them so far.

BI: How is behavioral targeting viewed, say, in relation to other kinds of targeting, like demographic?

Saks: Take demographic targeting. Just because you can bucket together a cluster of 18- to 24-year-olds doesn't tell you much about what kind of travel service they're interested in right now. Is it a flight home to the Midwest, or a post-graduate expedition to Europe, or a flight to a job interviews in a new city?

Don't get me wrong. There's plenty to learn from knowing demographics. It's important to know, for instance, that 18- to 24-year-olds spend much more time on [travel] agency sites doing price comparisons, or that seniors rarely if ever use agencies, preferring to go directly to airlines or hotels. But within a demographic group, there are huge variations-- and to get at those, you need to know more about real-world travel behavior.

BI: How are the big travel firms moving into new dimensions beyond context and demographic?

Saks: One thing that many leaders in the travel industry have been doing is to tie certain keyword queries to specific landing pages within their site, based on specific queries or pattern of queries. For instance, having a page of Boston-related content for someone whose search queries correlate with travelers who've gone on to book hotels in Boston. But that's ultimately pretty basic and doesn't go too far toward encompassing the vision of truly customizable segmentation. Where many see targeting in the industry going next is to leverage data about search queries, and ideally larger patterns of search history, to allow marketers not just to connect searchers to a specific landing page by, say, city of likely interest, but more granularly, to target offers for specific types of travel services, products and offers they are likely to be in-market for in Boston.

BI: Can you speak about specific advertising campaigns deploying this targeting on a wide scale?

Saks: What's perhaps been more interesting than particular advertising initiatives is that Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity and other agencies, as well as some airlines, have focused a lot in the past few years on building out their destination content for maximum personalized targeting of visitors and registered users. Rather than just have customers who query "Honolulu" land on the general site, and then have to find their own way to Hawaii-related content, [travel companies] are building out customized landing Web sites or mini-sites focused on Hawaii.

Airlines can leverage data about their customers' travel research patterns on their sites. The big example so far is probably Ding from Southwest Airlines, the application which visitors to the Southwest Web site can download for free. Based on the customer's registration information, declared preferences and research activity on the site, Ding sends customers specialized offers and customized rate or other promotions. So when the airline discerns a demand lag in certain lanes or regions, they can respond with targeted promos.

So we're clearly seeing a commitment to the principles of behavioral targeting get traction. But these examples largely are still siloed mostly to behavior on one's own Web site, or limited to the one dimension of search activity in the click-through to the marketer's Web site.

BI: What are some other promising deployments by portals or big content sites?

Saks: I can't speak to specifics about what any particular portal or network is planning, but it appears progress is being made in wider targeting of travel ads based on search and browsing history. But clearly the near-term goal of many in the industry is to leverage more information about where visitors to their Web sites have come from and even where they go once they've left the confines of the Web site. Likely that would provide a great deal more rich data about what type of travel services [consumers] most likely want to know about.

BI: Where do you see the industry evolving over the next year?

Saks: There is currently no single platform that can fully leverage the huge amount of data about research and purchase behavior that exists on the Web already, and is growing literally every minute. The good news is that travel companies internally are in a strong learning curve as far as leveraging customer behavior within their sites and building out effective customized targeting platforms. My hope for the next six to 12 months isn't anything revolutionary. What I do see is the industry taking all the knowledge being generated and extending it beyond individual silos.