Google has seen the number of user-initiated searches for travel drop for several quarters, according to iProspect, a digital agency.
The era of travelers beginning their travel-related search by "Googling" may have hit a plateau. If so, what's next for travel marketers?
"Native advertising" is one potential option. Facebook, for instance, has built a revenue stream off of native ads, which show up in news feeds on the social network looking much the same as status updates from one's friends.
Google has faced the challenge of how to apply the native ad format to the open and mobile web, where there are dozens of variations of screen size and display type.
Up until now, a brand marketer wanting to run a native ad campaign via DoubleClick, the digital marketing company owned by Google, needed to spend a lot of time creating variations in the creative that could display in different formats, as needed.
The solution from Google — plus Yahoo, and others — is to make the native ads programmatic. Karen Lau, manager of digital marketing for the San Francisco Travel Association, the DMO for San Francisco city and county, puts it this way when describing a campaign her team ran this summer:
"With normal display ads, we would have to build templates and go through a more structured internal creative review process for each piece. With native ads we just provided copy, image and a link, so we were able to bypass that review process and be more nimble and flexible."
San Francisco Travel's summer campaign is an example of the technique. The programmatic native ads were served up by Sojern, the digital ad tech firm, via DoubleClick.
San Francisco Travel attributes an increase of 1,662% in hotel bookings involving stays of three days or more, over a previous direct response campaign using “old" methods. (The attribution model was view-and-click.)
Additionally, Sojern attributed 1,539 flight confirmations and 237 hotel room nights booked by travelers impressed with Sojern served ads.
Importantly, there was a 92% drop in cost-per-acquisition.
Here's the backstory: The DMO set up the campaign to target travelers who are researching a vacation to San Francisco.
The assumption was that the expensiveness of the city is a hurdle in the minds of many potential visitors. So rather than drive travelers too quickly to a booking funnel, the DMO wanted to make a pitch that overcame potential objections first.
The DMO thought it might succeed most in persuading travelers who appear to belong to groups interested in food tourism and similar topics they had created articles and videos about.
San Francisco Travel’s campaign used Sojern’s database of profiles of anonymized people who have performed travel searches to San Francisco and like-destinations, and who were searching for travel around the Labor Day or Columbus Day weekends (because travelers searching for those travel dates have historically had a higher than average likelihood of converting based on historical records).
The DMO gave DoubleClick and Sojern the headlines, logo, image and call to action and DoubleClick's software did the work of displaying them properly to travelers Sojern identified.
The DMO tested different headlines, calls-to-action, and images, starting with eight creatives and narrowing down to the four that performed best.
For details, see the infographic, below.
Growth times for Sojern
Native ads require knowledge about user profiles to be able to serve relevant content, and the rise in this advertising product could give a significant tailwind to Sojern, which says that last year it drove $3 billion in booking revenue for more than 1,000 clients.
Sojern competes with Adara and other performance marketing engines for travel brands, such as by helping destinations place ads throughout the proverbial decision funnel.
Sojern says it has crossed the $100 million-annual revenue run rate threshold. Its profitability allows it the luxury of not having to raise another round. (It has been a few years since its previous $10 million round.)
The company has 235 employees today and it plans to soon open offices in Sydney and Dublin to compliment its existing global network of offices.
Google's cooperation with Sojern, via its DoubleClick arm, suggests that it may be tightening its approach to travel from yet another side, the ad tech/martech side.
As context, Sojern said earlier this week that it is the first marketing service in travel to become a DoubleClick certified marketing partner. Google vets and selects members for approval.
For a couple of years, the Sojern Traveler Platform has synced with DoubleClick's ad technology stack to run campaigns across channels. But the certification means that Sojern can expand its media and acquisition capabilities via the platform.
Sojern VP of marketing Jackie Lamping thinks that programmatic native ads have special relevance to travel as a product. Travel is a complicated product to research, and native ads offer a richer message to help persuade consumers to book.
She says that, in conjunction with targeting consumers that are in-market for specific destinations, native ads can help boost conversion levels that may be leveling off in traditional paid search.