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Andrew Patterson talks to Dacey Nicoletti about how the online travel agency Expedia works to stand out in the travel trade

Andrew Patterson talks to Dacey Nicoletti about how the online travel agency Expedia works to stand out in the travel trade

By Andrew Patterson

There are probably few sectors that have benefited more from the growth of online business than the travel trade.

These days, entire holidays can be booked online including flights, accommodation, rental cars, experiences, insurance and even personal tour guides.

One business that has enjoyed significant growth in the midst of this travel boom has been the online travel site Expedia.

Headquartered in the U.S. and with localised websites for 29 countries - including NZ - the business was founded in 1996 by entrepeneurs Rich Barton and Lloyd Frink. Originally part of Microsoft, Expedia was subsequently spun off in 1999 by the software giant in after deciding it wasn’t core to its business.

In turn, Expedia subsequently spun off its Trip Advisor website which has become popular amongst travellers for providing independent assessments of accommodation and a range of other experiences from fellow travellers.

Today, Expedia is listed on the NASDAQ, boasts revenues in excess of $US3.5 billion and has a staff count of more than 13,000 globally. In 2008 it was included in the Forbes top three most admired internet companies in the United States.

A new approach to customer engagement

Using both traditional advertising platforms and an integrated social media strategy, Expedia has recently launched a new campaign highlighting the experiential nature of travel and the way those travel experiences ultimately shape us as individuals.

But in a highly completive sector such as online travel how is Expedia maintaining its own share of the market in an increasingly crowded space?

Dacey Nicoletti, Expedia’s former digital marketing manager for Australia and New Zealand, who will shortly take up a new role with the company based in Vietnam, says that differentiation has been an important part of its new positioning strategy.

“Globally we’re known as the world’s largest online travel agent and for us to be able to differentiate ourselves from airlines, hotels, aggregators, we like to see ourselves as a one-stop-shop where consumers can come and find everything they want for a holiday in the one place.”

“They can compare different hotels, different airlines, car rental companies, activities, they can view user reviews of actual customers that have stayed at the hotels, and be able to book the holiday all in one place with the added support of a 24/7 call centre.”

Standing out from the crowd

Expedia have attempted to follow the classic customer engagement model. Make it as easy as possible for the customer and the business will follow. But standing out from the competition in an increasingly crowded space has become a real challenge so the company recently embarked on a novel strategy to use story telling as a way of allowing the travel experience to be brought to life.

“We understand that every traveller and every reason for travelling is unique. We wanted to be able to turn these into conversations with our users early on in the process in that inspiration stage when as soon as they think about wanting to go on holiday, we’re right in the consideration or choice set.”

“What we also wanted to do was to create conversations with consumers at other passion points or points of essence as to why they travel. So whether it’s for family or food or for a festival or even a fashion show, we want to be able to be seen as being able to provide that individual kind of travel experience for all our users.”

When it comes to the travel sector customers have a wide range of options to consider. But according to Expedia top of mind for most of them is ease of use and having a website that helps them in the planning process.

“While they want a one-stop-shop, our research tells us they’re also looking for a little bit of inspiration which is where social media plays such an important role. We use it for all our blog and video content as ways to give people a daily dose of travel inspiration and that helps to keep travel at the forefront of their mind. What it also does is keep the brand at the forefront of their conversations when talking about travel. It also allows them to get ideas for where they could possibly go next. When they see a beautiful picture of the Maldives on a Monday morning it takes them away, it gives them a little dose of inspiration for about five minutes and keeps that kind of motivation going for travel in the future.”

The changing face of social media

Social media, from a business standpoint, has evolved significantly in the last five years as companies have begun to understand the opportunity it provides to harness the real power of customer engagement.

Nicoletti believes this evolution is leading to a more effective use of social media as a marketing platform in its own right.

“It began in 2008/09 with what I refer to as the age of worship when we saw brands just set up pages as a homage to themselves really as a way for their users to find them on Facebook or on Twitter and to try and create a sense of envy and desire. That’s moved on towards the engagement aspect, which I call the entertainment age where brands are using things like humour, videos and stories in order to engage and create conversations about their brand.”

“Now where I see it’s heading is into the age of the value exchange where consumers want to get involved, they want to be able to get something of value from that Facebook like and brands need to respond to that. For us, that involves giving them helpful advice, giving them blog tips, giving them more video content that’s going to help them along their travel journey of being able to think about where they want to go next for a holiday. And then we want to link that back to the brand proposition, which is obviously to go and book the holiday on our website.”

It’s more than just Facebook likes

But Facebook likes alone don’t cut it these days according to Nicoletti.

“It’s always been a lot more than just Facebook likes, and it takes a little bit of adjustment for a business to understand that a number, like a Facebook fan like, isn’t always going to be the most important thing. After all, a business is a business; it needs to make revenue, and social media needs to prove that that revenue is going to come in.”

“One of the biggest challenges we face at Expedia is understanding where that investment turns into return, and whether social can build upon the steps that allow that user to gradually transition into becoming a lifetime and loyal paying customer.”

Creating a personalised brand experience

It’s a problem many business using social media also face in trying to determine the payback for their investment.

However, for brands such as Expedia it’s about constantly refreshing and building the brand.

“Five years ago we were an unknown brand in New Zealand. We’d just entered the market and we had to start from scratch building a name for ourselves. We were up against the likes of House of Travel, Flight Centre and Webjet and we were really just competing purely on price. We soon realised that that wasn’t going to be the way to attract the best customers because you’d attract a customer, but you couldn’t make them loyal.”

“For us to be able to engage a customer to make them more loyal to us we needed to give them more value, and that value could be in the form of content or an exclusive deal, or it could be the fact that we have superior customer service, or perhaps the fact that we have the best range in hotels. So moving forward, social allows us to project our personality into those little other dimensions of the brand over and above just price and functionality of the website.”

Delivering a personalised experience is the ultimate goal which is a challenge when you’re simply interacting with a website unlike the ability to engage directly in person with a travel agent.

“I think every customer that transacts on the site is personal because it’s about converting that inspiration into an actual booking and then hopefully coming back to our social pages, our social community to share that travel experience they’ve just completed.”

Being unafraid to challenge issues give the brand personality

Expedia isn’t afraid to openly challenge social issues front on such as the father who talks about his experience attending the wedding of his gay daughter which has had more than 2.6 million views on YouTube since its release in October last year.

“For Expedia in the U.S. one of their challenges was really just breaking through the clutter. They have 95% brand awareness, a lot of people know and have tried the product and for them it was really all about standing out and giving the brand a different kind of voice that was going to create a conversation to leverage against something that was very topical at the time.”

“The brand’s challenges really manifested into this story by creating a travel story that was personally unique to that father, but tying it back to the reasons of why we travel, and the passions of why we travel.”

“Expedia, as a brand has always been at the forefront of technology and social media as well as having a personality so I think this was just another step in that process and standing up for something.”

Managing the information flow that results from social media engagement creates a problem all of its own, and according to Nicoletti it quickly becomes addictive.

“We have a centralised dashboard with all our main KPIs including things like conversation flow, share, engagement rates, fan numbers. In addition, we’ve created a funnel that allows us to see what kind of content we’re feeding into that funnel, and whether that funnel is giving us any return on investment in terms of transactions, booking values, room nights. We really try to understand what our customers are responding to and how they’re delivering value to the business.”

“I find myself checking the dashboard on my desktop on an hourly basis, because I guess the currency of social is literally two seconds, so you’ve always got to be on your toes with that aspect of it.”

A long term commitment

As for the future, many social media experts believe we’re only just beginning to understand the power of this medium, suggesting there’s plenty more growth still to come down the track.

“For Expedia social media is a long-term commitment; it’s a long road, it’s not a one-time campaign that you do, and then you walk away from it. It’s really important for us, not just from a brand point of view, but from a customer service point of view in being able to project that brand personality and educating customers about our products.”

“We also use it as a way to let our customers know about what’s happening in the industry, so if there’s a crisis or an earthquake or a volcano eruption, we use it as a way to keep people updated about what’s happening with their flights and accommodation.

“For us it’s not a medium just to sell or to engage; it’s everything that the business encompasses, and it allows us to really project our personality on to that.”

According to Expedia, these days it’s no longer about the stuff you make or the services you provide rather, it’s about the stories you tell that really creates a true point of difference.

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