Since the early 2000s, the rise and popularity of online travel agencies (OTAs) and metasearch engines (MSEs) has largely – and accurately – been attributed to travelers’ growing use of online search and their affinity for convenience and bargains. However, as the landscape of online marketing evolves, there’s an additional factor at play: value.
For a consumer, the value provided by using an aggregator site is abundantly clear. On an OTA or MSE, travelers can typically set their desired price ranges, filter for ideal take-off and landing times, and select from a variety of flexible dates and airport options. And when they gravitate toward their favorite research tool – Google Search – to start planning a trip, OTAs and MSEs rank prominently in search results… putting their value propositions (“Find cheap flights” or “Compare fares and dates”) front and center on travelers’ desktop and mobile screens.
However, many airlines offer consumers the same kinds of search features and flexible-trip options on their branded websites – where they also frequently provide consumers access to a wider selection of ancillaries, alternative booking options, and perhaps a deeper flight inventory than they share with third-party partners.
Yet consumers largely don’t know that because, when they search for “flights to Cabo,” carriers’ branded websites rarely show up on the first-page results – giving carriers almost zero chance of seizing searchers’ attention. Without winning consumer search clicks, carriers have no way to show travelers the enhanced value available to consumers by booking through the direct channel.
Conceding Search Defeat has Had Consequences for Airlines
As use of search-based online booking platforms grew over the last fifteen years, most large airlines essentially conceded the online search realm to the aggregators. The thinking on the part of airlines was, at least in part, a strategic decision: Let the OTAs and MSEs spend their money on expensive search engine optimization and marketing efforts; after all, if a traveler ends up buying from us via an aggregator site, we still win the booking (instead of another airline) on the aggregator’s dime.
Even as third-party commissions and fees have reached mammoth heights – to the tune of $5-$12 per booking against already thin margins – airline executives have leaned on the line of reasoning that OTAs and MSEs are partners enabling them win bookings. It’s an extension of the (increasingly outdated) mindset that when it comes to marketing, the competition is airline versus airline: rather than replicate the marketing strategies of the third-party players, they look to competitor airlines for inspiration, failing to recognize that those carriers are likewise getting bested by the OTAs in search.
When airlines do try to compete with the big aggregators and OTAs, they do so at a significant disadvantage. Given that their entire businesses are built around it, OTAs and MSEs are able to devote significant resources into developing and maintaining the complex infrastructures needed to dominate in online search. Airlines, by contrast, will always be focused on their core competency: transportation.
Playing nice with OTAs and MSEs in the online search sandbox has had consequences for airlines – and not just in commissions and fees.
“Airlines are realizing that overestimating the importance of OTAs’ market share and referrals has had major repercussions,” says Seth Cassel, President of EveryMundo. “Overall, airlines’ willingness to be what the OTAs see as ‘very positive partners’ has hindered their ability to showcase the value of booking through the direct channel – which is key to fostering long-term customer relationships.”
Direct Bookings Equate to Dual Value
Obviously, direct bookings on an airline’s branded website represent the highest value conversions for carriers. Beyond the opportunity created to upsell and cross sell to travelers, there’s greater marketing leverage in the direct channel: once a customer has been directed to an airline’s website, the airline can leverage a variety of different marketing strategies, services, and platforms to extract more data and value from the customer relationship.
But extracting that value from consumers requires airlines to give value to travelers in return – and that means going beyond the inspiration-based, “getaway” content strategies that traditional SEO agencies frequently deploy in the air travel sector.
Delivering real value to consumers requires airlines to provide travelers with the mobile-optimized sites, sophisticated search options and deep inventory selection they’ve come to expect from OTAs and MSEs, and by offering them tools, features and offers exclusive to the direct booking experience. In addition, it requires airlines to earn travelers’ direct clicks by boosting their investment in online search across all of the languages and markets they serve.
Online search can act as a significant, low-cost distribution channel for airlines if they leverage the right tools. “Performance marketing” solutions can help carriers of all sizes to increase their online footprint – laying the groundwork for measurable increases in search-driven customer acquisition and conversions. A SaaS product from EveryMundo, for example, enables carriers to create and disseminate many thousands of high-performance webpages (that adhere to SEO best practices for airlines) for every destination and route that an airline flies – in every language that its customers speak.
Performance marketing can also help airlines “productize” their flight inventories for online search and create more touchpoints for acquiring customer data. Armed with that data, airlines can execute better remarketing and deploy more personalized campaigns to convert customers via the direct channel. EveryMundo helped one carrier to increase new customer acquisition by more than 500%.
Contributing to that increase, of course, was the enhanced value the carrier’s site provided to direct-channel customers – fostering a win-win cycle for both the airline, and its travelers. It’s a trend worth replicating, as more airlines are beginning to recognize.
“Ultimately, as consumers are drawn more to carriers’ sites through search, and start seeing more offerings and fare content on airlines branded sites, they’ll become more brand-loyal and more likely to visit the direct channel first,” says Seth Cassel. “Thankfully, airlines are starting to realize that.
“Carriers already know that the most valuable bookings come from a directly acquired customers,” Cassel continued. “Now, they’re finally ready to play hardball against the OTAs on search to win back those bookings.”