Next month, SearchStar is hosting a Future of Travel Advertising conference at Google’s London HQ. And we thought we’d anticipate the day of talks and insight with a brief look at some of the big issues affecting digital marketing in travel right now.

If you’re lucky enough to be attending the event, hopefully this will whet your appetite for what’s to come. If you can’t make it along… well, why not? But don’t worry - we’ll make sure to share everything in a post-conference update.

Digital has been such a major for the travel industry since the late-90s and the pace of change shows no sign of slowing. Indeed, continuing shifts in user behaviour mean that travel marketers need to be endlessly innovative just to keep up.

Most recently, lengthening purchase paths are at the centre of this behaviour change. Below we take a closer look at how a trend towards longer purchase paths should influence your digital marketing efforts.

Longer Purchase Paths = More Opportunities to Influence

Analysis from McKinsey has shown that, in the US, the average path to purchase for consumers booking accommodation involves 45 individual touch points across different devices and websites. Even more impressively, the journey from initial research to final purchase lasts an average of 36 days.

Perhaps these figures are hardly surprising. Customers now have unprecedented access to the web, with improved mobile experiences allowing them to conduct research and book whenever and wherever. Moreover, the sheer wealth of booking options, aggregators and agents vying for attention hardly makes the decision-making process quicker or easier for would-be travellers.

While this dithering (for want of a better word) on the part of consumers presents marketers with a challenge – wouldn’t it be so much easier if the whole process was done and dusted in a few clicks? – it also provides a real opportunity to influence behaviour. After all, that’s sort of what advertising is all about.

With consumers taking so long to make decisions, there is ample opportunity to inspire and entice them with your offering. Moreover, the trail of behavioural signals that they leave in their wake makes it possible to segment consumers into different audiences that can be used to make your marketing as relevant and engaging as possible

Longer Purchase Paths = Greater Need for Holistic Measurement

The growing length of the purchase journey means that it is more important than ever to measure and understand the impact that each consumer touchpoint has on the final conversion and the overall value of the customer. This needs to be considered across devices, channels and media types – no mean feat.

The McKinsey analysis revealed a 10% year-on-year increase (Q4 2016-Q1 2017 vs Q4 2017-Q1 2018) in the number of customer journeys that were either mobile only or cross-device, but it’s no secret that final conversion rates on mobile still tend to be lower than on desktop devices.

Accordingly, it’s imperative that travel marketers understand how potential customers are using mobile devices as research tools. Knowing which mobile actions and micro-conversions truly drive valuable business outcomes help to inform subsequent media buying and bidding strategy, and ensures that sufficient budgets are allotted to engaging users on mobile devices.

Of course, the same applies to any upper-funnel activity that is aimed at supporting customer inspiration and research rather than conversion. Matching the right goals and KPIs to the right media should ensure that all your media investment is optimised to deliver an overall business uplift.

Longer Purchase Paths = Greater Need to Focus on Loyal Customers

The longer path to purchase is, arguably, indicative of a greater degree of brand disloyalty among consumers. Or, at the very least, it invites a greater degree of “promiscuity” among travel bookers as they spend more time checking out the various options available to them.

This isn’t to say that the travel brand – or brand loyalty – is dead or dying. Far from it. While there are disloyal consumers, there is a healthy and growing proportion of the travel audience who see brand as highly important.

Looking again at the McKinsey analysis, branded searches in the accommodation sector rose from 34% of the total in 16/17 to 42% of the total in 17/18. This strongly suggests a real consolidation of brands and a signal that, among some consumers, brand is increasingly a part of their decision-making process.

Travel marketers need to be aware of how to identify and engage with these two distinct groups, and strike a healthy balance between them. Too much focus on already loyal users will obviously mean that development of new audiences will be neglected and growth opportunities will be restricted. On the other hand, failure to speak to loyal users risks missing out on “low-hanging fruit” and, of course, losing these hot prospects to other brands.

What matters most is that the two groups aren’t treated equally – they have very different requirements, expectations, perceptions and booking criteria. An effective segmentation strategy will inform the best way to reach and engage each group in a distinct manner, maximising the subsequent impact of your marketing activity.