The world is now, indisputably, mobile-first. In 2015, the number of smartphone users worldwide surpassed 2.5 billion.
NB This is a viewpoint by Travis Katz, co-founder and CEO of Gogobot.
In the US nearly 65 percent of media time is now spent on mobile devices while desktop usage has plummeted below 35 percent.
Even more telling: 85 percent of time on mobile devices is spent in mobile applications, not the browser.
This is a seismic change in media consumption, along the order of the original shift from offline to online (yes, it is that big). Yet companies across multiple industries have been glacially slow to switch from a mindset focused on desktop and mobile browsers to prioritizing development of an app-centric business model.
For online travel in particular, the mobile struggle is real.
The most storied players in online travel - the ones who built multi-billion-dollar businesses off the back of search - aren’t keeping pace with the mobile-first traveler. Not even close. In fact, many companies are so far behind that without a radical change in course, they’re unlikely to catch up at all.
That’s of serious concern because while the established order continue to polish their booking funnels, Google - a non-traditional combatant if there ever was one - is moving aggressively into the mobile space. It’s not remotely hyperbolic to say that, unfettered by regulators, Google has the capacity to absolutely crush the travel companies who depend heavily on the web for traffic.
All in the mind
The challenge in mobile is as much about psychology as technology. While the big travel companies built competencies around harvesting demand from search and efficiently running those users through a booking funnel, the challenge in mobile is different. It is less about efficient conversion and more about engaging and retaining users.
Another telling statistic: the average smartphone user has downloaded more than 86 apps but only uses 26.
In other words, when users download your app, it has a 70 percent chance of being abandoned. Few travel apps today make the cut.
Why is this?
Most travel apps suffer both from fragmentation and a lack of stickiness. Think about that fragmentation from the traveler’s point of view. You launch one app initially to search for airfare and a hotel. Maybe you use another to read reviews and another to see where different hotels are located relative to the things you plan to visit.
You’d like to research what to see and do while you are there, which requires downloading and figuring out yet another app. A specific app is then needed for places to eat in destination.
Now we’re up to at least five - all for the same trip.
For the consumer, it’s labor-intensive, fractured, inconvenient, and - let’s face it - pretty annoying.
Add to this a lack of stickiness.
If all your app does is let me search and book a hotel or a flight, it’s a one to two session per year experience. That is not enough to build a relationship or a habit with a mobile user. Without a deeper level of engagement, an app is likely to languish on the forgotten screens of a user’s phone, making re-engaging the user when they are ready to book their next trip that much harder.
As a result, many apps earn the dubious distinction of being both a waste of time for the traveler and a waste of resources for the company that created it. Talk about trying to please everyone and pleasing no one in the process.
Google, of course, has the data to know what travelers are looking for in mobile, and is building accordingly. Taking a cue from Asia - widely recognized as being a generation or so ahead of the US in mobile innovation - Google’s forthcoming travel app brings together a broad range of travel related services into a “super app”, allowing travelers to book a flight or hotel, explore maps and city guides, research things to do, restaurants, and itineraries.
By consolidating all of the fragmented aspects of travel into a single, content-rich app, Google is betting on becoming the one must-have app for travelers, leaving the OTAs and other apps that focus narrowly on booking in their wake.
A handful of other players in the market have recognized the importance of serving the traveler holistically. Airbnb’s Brian Chesky famously pronounced, “Our business isn't [renting] the house. Our business is the entire trip."
Just recently, he offered the world a glimpse of what he meant when the company briefly released an early version of Airbnb Trips to the Google Play store. The concierge-style app moved decisively beyond booking a place to sleep - enabling travelers to research and book restaurants, explore attractions and local hang outs, create personal itineraries, and more.
Similarly, Booking.com made a tentative move toward expanding their offering by launching mobile “City Guides.” At the time I checked it out, major cities were missing obvious main attractions: New York City’s list didn’t include the Met or the Guggenheim and the Museo Picasso was absent from Barcelona.
Although Booking.com’s guides lack the depth and breadth of content to compete with Google for the traveler’s attention, the effort signals a recognition that it needs to incorporate content to engage the traveler throughout the travel experience.
Other travel companies such as Hostelworld and Homeaway have partnered with specialists to enhance their mobile offerings with rich content to help a traveler make the most of their travel experience.
The point? Recognizing that the only way to keep revenue flowing in a mobile-first world is through consistent app use is merely step one. Figuring out precisely how to do that is the real challenge. For travel companies, it means delivering the value that inspires travelers to keep the app on the first or second screen of their phone, not relegated to the small screen hinterlands.
It means timely, relevant and personal content that a user finds both engaging and helpful.
It means moving quickly to build that content machine - at scale - to compete effectively with Google and the significant competitive advantage it has via its Big Data machine. The alternative is to let an entire industry absorb Google’s death blow.
NB1 This is a viewpoint by Travis Katz, co-founder and CEO of Gogobot.
NB2 Image by canjoena/Big Stock