Got cash to blow? Great! Then I have digital marketing to sell you. Everyone is selling it and the hardest part is it is all the more confusing and increasingly expensive.

These observations are that of Colin Brownlee, Owner of Hotel Banana Azul and Strategy Director for Click Ass Marketing.

First it was SEO, then banners ads, blog and flog, Pay Per Click (PPC, SEM, AdWords, Google, Yahoo, etc). Now choose between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and don’t forget to throw email marketing into the mix.

Are you confused? Broke? Frustrated? You have every right to be. I tell you, I have been doing this schtick since one the first PPC companies called Overture back in 1999 (yes, before the war). And even today when I think I have some winning strategies, the game has already started to change and I have to adjust. It would all be so exhausting except that I find it fascinating and challenging.

Over the past 10 years, I have worked extensively in travel & tourism marketing. I have come up with 3 main challenges I see many small and medium-sized businesses face. Below are my observations. If you have anything you would like to add, please… I never profess to know it all.

1) Qualified website traffic and conversion to paying clients have gone through the roof.

Not that long ago, even smaller businesses could slide by on free traffic from Google and free online directories. Slap on a meta tag, write some crappy content, play some dodgy linking games and voila. With your new improved rankings, you were on your way to fame and fortune. This was and is known as SEO (Search Engine Optimization). In interest of having quality results in search engines, these types of practices are history. SEO tricks & tips are too unreliable and the page one results for any remotely competitive travel search terms are sewn up by big brand travel with money to burn.

Years ago when I started in travel marketing, SEO search terms such as “vacations Costa Rica” would produce a collection of independent operators and content of questionable quality. Today, that same search term gives you a group of vultures (, Expedia, Kayak, TripAdvisor, etc.) who stop at nothing to get between you and your customer to collect their exorbitant commissions.

No, SEO efforts are not useless, but you will have to seriously work to get an acceptable level of results. And then if you make it, expect to be constantly challenged by the “vultures” that feel you are stealing their lunch.

Now, the trend is to force these lost, confused tourists into having paid results front and center of all searches. First it was Google AdWords, then Yahoo & Bing, now Facebook and an ever increasing number of internet sites.

In the good old days, you could pick up great traffic for pennies per click. Within a year, Google immediately started with minimum 5 cents and today those same searches can start at $2 per click and easily be over $5 per click. Remember, this click is only a “qualified visitor” to your website. Cost of getting a paid customer (aka conversion) can start at $10 to even 10 times that amount.

And if you have a non-ecommerce site and are just prospecting for leads that you need to close by a salesperson or team, final cost can be brutal.

These challenges are not just in travel market. The same scenario is playing out in most areas of digital marketing. Today, tourism and travel brands are moving towards content and inbound marketing.

For those of you who do not know what Content Marketing is, it’s media produced that is related to the product or service you are selling. Getting people to this content is cheaper and less competitive. While it’s not junk traffic, it is not people who are ready to purchase. They are just in research mode. The trick now is once they are there; how do you get them to remember you when they are finally ready to make a travel purchase decision? Good news is that there are ways to achieve this, but patience and tenacity will be tested.

2) The customer journey is ridiculously long.

Ask yourself when was the first initial spark that inspired you to travel somewhere. A week? A month? A year? Or years? Most people would fall into the last two scenarios.

So now that you are forced to market earlier in the traveler online research, you are constantly under threat of losing people in the search pool to third party sources of information, reviews, distractions and competing offerings. Each person that drops out of the pool means fewer potential clients and fewer conversions.

Content marketing to “build audiences” is fine in theory, but it’s painful to think that many of these people could be months or possibly years away from making a purchase.

However, If you’ve got the resources to create great content and the expertise to use social media, email and retargeting in a strategic, joined-up way, content marketing can definitely work for travel companies.

But there still is another hurdle to face:

3) Purchase frequency and customer retention are low.

These marketing efforts would not be so hard to swallow if they had recurring purchases and normal customer retention like most consumer businesses. Even in the biggest markets, people only travel a few times a year and not usually more than one international trip. Then ask yourself how many people return to the same destination every year. Even for the few companies with loyal customers who repeat book each year, that’s still an extremely low retention rate compared to the up-front acquisition costs to get that customer. In short, this means that even marketing earlier in traveler research for longer periods of lead time, in the end, you can not count on a lot of repeat business.

Put these three factors together and you’ve got an extremely challenging environment for travel marketers, especially those on small budgets.

But won’t worry…

The issues listed above are issues that you just have to deal with. Best is to work with them and not against them.

Starting early in traveler discovery means you have to get your message out loud and clear from the beginning focusing on value. Most people at this point are not ready to book.

If you are on a tight marketing budget, think in terms of capitalizing on the demand rather than trying to generate the demand.

Use content strategically, such as downloadable insider guides, to capture audiences when they begin to research a destination or experience. This works well in early traveler research with relatively low cost per click (CPC) costs, and it gives you a solid lead that you can follow up later during their journey.

Buying digital marketing and keywords when clients are “ready to purchase” is best, but is very expensive and competitive. Digital marketing is much cheaper when the traffic is less purchase-ready and the competition is less intense. Use digital ads earlier in the customer journey, and be smart with email and retargeting to build a relationship with travelers through their travel discovery.

It is important to be patient and not try and force people into bookings with special offers and promotions. They will book when they are ready and they will do it with the company that can show the the best quality and value.

I know this is something that people on tight budgets don’t want to hear, but don’t stick to one marketing channel. Make sure your creative is consistent throughout these channels and continues to focus on value.

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