Published on Wednesday, November 2, 2011

How to succeed online

Expedia Affiliate Network's vice president of product and marketing Benoit Jolin assesses the challenges facing online travel agents and gives some tips on how to overcome them.

Establishing a brand
Branding is a challenge for online retailers across all sectors. While it might seem like a daunting task to create a distinctive look for your site, it is worth considerable effort to get it right.

And, once you’ve made that investment in your brand, you should have the confidence to stick with it – a brand that changes its look too much and too often is no brand at all. You should do your best to keep your brand exclusive – allowing third-party providers to display on your site can have its advantages, but it will increase the risk that your customers will eventually gravitate to them, rather staying loyal to your site. Also, assess how your brand can leverage leading social networks to communicate your core values, engage with your customers and listen to the brand conversation, as well as encourage them to further promote your brand.

Building a loyal customer base
OLTAs share the difficulties of being a middleman with their high-street equivalents–and they cannot make up for that with a smart suit, a warm handshake and cosy premises. Therein lies the danger that OLTAs compete solely on price, and not on value. But it is value, not price, on which loyalty is built.

•    Nearly 80% of customers are put off by poorly-designed websites .
•    Your customers need easy access to customer support, should it be necessary.
•    Visuals – photos and film are a great way to inspire customers.
•    A ‘best rate guarantee’, if you can offer one, is a reassuring thing for a customer to see.
•    Positive customer reviews are reassuring (though you need to have confidence in your inventory!)
•    Ease of choice - not just a big choice. A travel site needs intelligent filters and decision-support tools to guide customers.
•    Speed - 79% of web shoppers will not return to a poorly performing site.

Offering the right deal, at the right time, to the right customer
High street travel agents can offer discounts, deals and packages on the hoof. They can respond quickly to the needs of the market , offering shop-window rates on a day-to-day basis. OLTAs can do that too – they just need good analytics and good merchandising tools. Being able to offer timely, topical deals will substantially boost your ability to turn visits into reservations, and visitors into loyal customers.  And make sure your deals update regularly – not only will that help you entice the roving, deal-hunting shopper, it will boost your search rankings.

Turning site visits into purchases
A solid web analytics strategy (as well as collecting user feedback) can afford a wealth of valuable insights. If you are attracting visitors, but not retaining them on site, or noticing abandonment at any one stage in the purchase process then you must identify why, and make the necessary changes to your customer journey.

And remember, user behaviour has a big influence on how search engines view your site; – if users land on your site, but don’t stay (they ‘bounce’), then this will push your site down the rankings. Good analytics will help you adapt your landing pages according to search intent and, over time, this will push down your acquisition costs and push up your returns.

Making sure your product meets the needs of your customers
Having access to a large, high-quality inventory is key. Aim to have inventory 365 days out, and for same day shoppers – a growing market with the proliferation of mobile devices.

That means, amongst other things, that if a customer’s first-choice hotel is sold out, you are much more likely to be able to offer something comparable, and retain that sale. Good contextual information can be extremely useful in this process, highlighting the benefits of each choice through map overlays, traveller profiles and destination hotspots.

Finally, over 61% of consumers online are willing to book travel via a mobile device . Mobile commerce is here to stay, and your strategy must reflect that.


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