The travel social network Where Are You Now, better known by its acronym WAYN, has stayed the course since 2002, despite criticism.
It now has traffic that other social travel sites would kill for.
While shouting for attention, various social travel sites haven't generated transactions. Only WAYN has emerged from the scrum to stand tall, averaging 3.5 million visitors a month and claiming solid revenues.
WAYN has faced criticism for its e-mail direct marketing, though the company says those criticisms are out of date.
It's also been mocked for its shape-shifting into various incarnations. At one point in 2010, it even made a play as a dating site, which didn't go down well with all users. (Dating is now just a sideline.)
Yet in the face of these troubles, WAYN has been like one of those trick birthday candles that you can't blow out.
Today, partnerships with direct marketing organizations (DMOs) run by national tourism offices figure prominently in its business plan. While WAYN first cut some of these deals years ago, the number of clients signing up and renewing has recently increased.
The London-based company forecasts 20% revenue growth for its fiscal year 2014 ending in September, based on its first quarter run rate. If this prove true, critics may have to retract claims that social travel models can't work.
It also says its business is thriving. In 2010 and 2013 it told journalists that it was profitable. Now it adds:
"WAYN’s revenue model is self sustaining and are in no need of further fundraising at this stage, with January 2014 representing the company’s best performing ad sales month, on record."
Look where it's now
After 2007, many rival "social travel networks" popped up, such as Trippy, Tripping (in its early version), Freeppie, GlobeTrotr, TripTrotting (before it became Wist), etc.
Today only Minube, which generates destination guides based on social tips, claims a larger audience. And it's not actual social network.
WAYN says it is driving significant conversions to sites such as to Jordan's tourism website in part to successful content marketing efforts begun in 2013, with articles like "Wonders of Jordan". The startup says the article was read by more than 20,000 users in the past month.
In 2014, the company will debut a kind of social travel recommendation engine with a related additional revenue model, it tells Tnooz:
"We have interesting offerings we’ll launch that will change the nature of how people discover what they want to do."
The business, which says it has 40 employees, plans to add another 10 in the next 18 months. It currently has five employees at its Cape Town office, two in New York, and the rest are mainly in London and Poland.
More than $11 million was pledged to WAYN in a 2006 Series A. It received a further $5.5 million top-up in 2012.
Investors include Howzat Media, Brent Hoberman, co-founder of lastminute.com, Esprit Capital Advisors, and Scottish Equity Partners (who joined in 2012).
Surviving in social travel
In recent years, many companies, such as Gogobot, have run from the label "social travel" because it has been perceived as not being a viable business model.
But WAYN proudly refers to itself as "the premiere social travel network" and "a bridge between social sites Facebook and TripAdvisor".
A year ago, the company told Tnooz that it aimed to be the social travel comeback kid of 2013, as it launched a Pinterest-style redesign to have greater appeal to users.
To get an update on its progress, Tnooz spoke by phone with co-CEOs Peter Ward and Jerome Touze. (The other co-founder, Mike Lines, is chief technology officer.)
You claim more than 22 million WAYN member accounts have been created, up from nearly 19 million members two years ago. But aren't many of those ghost accounts?
What do you mean by ghost accounts?
I mean, as in, "nobody's home." Like. I'm technically a member of WAYN because I signed up for an account in 2007, but I haven't used it since.
There's a seasonality to interest in travel but draw around 3.5 million active users on average.
To your broader point, yes, there are some accounts that haven’t been active in quite some time.
We have one of the most effective CRM [customer relationship management] engines in the industry. We re-introduce our users to various opportunities to engage, such as campaigns and contest, often via e-mail. We re-activate customers.
What about spam? At times, it has been alleged that some of your site's accounts have been partly co-opted by spammers and one third-party site has yet to remove an "unsatisfactory trustworthiness" rating (thought that seems based on old data).
We have strict anti-scammer and fraud protection and we keep spam accounts to less to 1% of activity, which is an industry benchmark.
Our customer relationship management strategy is in line with industry best practices.
What are your unique visitor numbers?
In 2012, we had 3.5 million monthly uniques on average. Users spent an average of 6 to 7 minutes on our site, which is about three times what's typical for sites like TripAdvisor.
But uniques are lagging metrics. We are more interested in visitor numbers and bounce rates, which better reflect real-time trends.
Last year we received 140 million visits, or about a 15% increase from previous year. Our bounce rate was 21% -- lower than the rates of many famous travel sites.
Users upload 25,000 pictures daily. We have 35 million pictures in total. We're generating 50,000 to 75,000 trips and activities tips a day.
But your users are mostly just poor backpackers, right? Advertisers don't covet that demographic.
We have some of the richest and oldest users of any social travel site, based on Ignite Social Media stats. Quantcast says the same, as does Alexa -- two other third-party traffic monitoring services.
You've pivoted a lot since your founding in 2002.
We've been different things to different people at different times in our history. And that's partly based on survival and also the way the market has shifted.
Dating, for instance, was one of the models that helped for scaling the community and met our needs at the time.
What's been the latest pivot?
We had an epiphany last year. We launched a couple of new offerings. The best known is Stories, which we launched in autumn 2013, drew 2 million visitors.
We're getting ten times more conversions to our marketing partners for ads on pages with Stories content. We've seen these articles appear well in Google organic search and in Facebook sharing.
We have a small team of in-house writers who are writing these articles. We have also beta-launched a "travel writing’ academy", where users are signing up. We help them become budding travel writers.
They get rewarded with social kudos for how their articles perform. It gives them good experience and exposure in helping them with their career ambitions.
So it's a content marketing effort?
We haven't referred to it as "content marketing" but it has been quite successful. We have so many users that we can generate a lot of engagement. That means the articles perform well in organic search, helping bring broader visibility to the site.
Out of the 200 most recently published pieces of content, we have generated 10,000 comments. Some of the example stories are as follows: A review of the Pamplona bull run in Spain that sparked a debate about whether the event was a good or bad thing.
We can also integrate DMO campaigns into the content where the fit is natural. An article on the Friendliest Nations in the World that gave high praise to Puerto Rico drove a lot of views to powerful videos sponsored by the Puerto Rico tourism board, was read 16K times and received 500 comments.
Many travel publishers with famous brand names are struggling with content along the same lines. Why is WAYN going to succeed with Stories like "Top Film Locations of the World" where travel magazines and companies like Travel Channel and AOL have struggled?
We have a very engaged user base. Even if only a fraction of our 22 million members sees content on any given day, that's still a higher audience of naturally predisposed readers than most publisher have.
What's the performance of the Q&A platform that you launched in 2013?
It's growing nicely. We're getting over 100,000 answers to questions per month. We invite users to ask a question about any destination. We get an average of 55 answers per question.
Are there enough people in the world who travel often enough to make a travel-specific social network thrive?
It can be cyclical. A person may use our site intensively for a couple of weeks, and then not use it. Others will use it multiple times a day regularly, and then won't be there for two or three years.
But we've gotten much better about sending people an email, or otherwise reaching them, in a way that brings them back. Once on the site, they'll say to themselves, "I didn’t realize that WAYN is doing all this."
Our bounce rate is only 22%. (The lower the better). Compare that to our peers, and you’ll see that 45% to 65% is more typical. This indicates that people engage more on WAYN, on average.
Are your users all youthful backpackers with no money, logging in from Internet cafes on the Gringo Trail?
Our users are geographically split, with about 4.3 million in India, plus equally large shares in Europe and North America, with the US being our biggest market.
You've been talking about these partnerships with tourism DMOs for some time. Are they paying off?
It's taken time for these deals to gain momentum. South Africa has renewed for several years, and that becomes a model other organizations are interested in.
We provide a way to our users to engage with the DMO content, such as by running contests. In last three years through activity on WAYN, we've generated 255,000 trips to South Africa, telling us that the visibility of the campaign on WAYN influenced their decision to book.
These travelers spend average of $600 in-country (in other words, after airfare), according to our surveys.
Our model provides evidence of engagement, return on investment, when you can see a correlation on the level of trips and on the spend in country.
About 640,000 users have become fans of South Africa on WAYN, but those are all prospects to convert.
Other DMOs have been encouraged by this and other client success stories. Jordan is about to renew for the third time, and so forth. Its own analytics software sees the return on investment.
What was one of the best decisions you've ever made?
We brought our advertising sales inside a few years ago. Given that 90% of our income comes from advertising and marketing partnerships, that was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.
We do premium advertising through display placements and integrated placements, which also feature on WAYN Stories.
We also do remnant advertising, or what our London, New York or South Africa offices don't sell on a direct basis to clients. We work with collaborators like search portals Yahoo, AOL, Mediashift (Travora Network). We're looking for more collaborators like that in emerging markets.
We've been able to more effectively serve tourism clients from the national to the municipality level.
Using the product as market research
For years, WAYN has had to face down much industry doubting about the validity of social travel as a business model. The industry rap against social travel sites has boiled down to three critiques:
They're building something that people don’t want (i.e., Facebook and word-of-mouth recommendations are good enough and require less effort);
not enough consumers travel frequently enough to justify investing time in travel-specific social networks;
and, the marketing spend necessary for customer acquisition is destined to outrun the revenue flow from traffic referrals to third parties, such as commissions from bookings via advertisements and affiliate links, in light of ever-expanding Internet inventory (which is pressuring ad rates down).
WAYN says its success has been founded on relentless product testing with actual customers, the founders maintaining faith in each other, and the company maintaining a focus on solving a specific problem relevant to a broad consumer base.
Perhaps there's a lesson in there worth sharing socially. But the true test will be if revenue grows enough to give the company's investors a nice exit.