Digital marketing in the age of coronavirus - what travel brands need to know

By Mitra Sorrells, Phocuswire

As markets around the world reel from the turmoil of the COVID-19 coronavirus, companies of all sizes are feeling the effects - perhaps none more so than those in and adjacent to the travel industry. The crisis is forcing companies to reevaluate many aspects of their financial plans for the foreseeable future and - particularly for those operating in the B2C space - to reassess their digital marketing strategies such as paid search.

After all, does it make sense to pay for traffic if consumers aren’t buying travel?

Analysts are anticipating the impact on publishers: Loop Capital Markets’ Rob Sanderson told Seeking Alpha Tuesday he expects Google parent company Alphabet to suffer a 15% year-over-year decline in travel ad revenue in the first quarter of this year and a 20% drop in Q2.

And multiple media outlets reported on a note from Needham & Company's Laura Martin and Dan Medina on Friday that said the analysts have lowered their Facebook revenue and earnings-per-share estimates in part because ad revenue is down in travel, retail, consumer packaged goods and entertainment, which together represent 30 to 45% of the company’s total revenue.


Digital marketing strategy has always required a mix of art and science, and the difficulties - and pressure - to get that mix right is heightened in times of uncertainty such as during the coronavirus outbreak.

According to Craig Paddock, director of search at travel and hospitality marketing firm MMGY Global, most clients are only “moderately reducing paid search budgets with the expectation of being able to spend those dollars better at a later date.” The exception to that, he says, are international paid search efforts for United States-based clients, which are being paused.

One of the factors impacting the decision to keep campaigns going: MMGY’s data indicates consumers are, in fact, still buying travel.

“If you were to read the front page of the newspaper today you would think absolutely nobody is booking hotel rooms. We are not seeing that yet,” Paddock says.

For the two-week period of February 25 through March 9, while website traffic for MMGY’s clients dropped about 14% from anticipated levels, Paddock says conversion rates were only down a few points.

But to say this is a rapidly changing environment is an understatement, and Paddock says the traffic decline in the past three days has been closer to 20% - meaning the impact is becoming more pronounced.

One audience that may have the most potential for conversion right now for hotel marketers is people within a driving distance.

“[Marketers should] create appealing offers for people that might have had vacations out of town to get them to take the vacation in that driving distance range,” says Erik Newton, vice president of marketing at Milestone, a digital marketing agency that works in multiple verticals, including hospitality.

“The paid search will allow you to do that type of hyper-targeting, and combining that with messaging and offers that are appealing to local people could be an opportunity.”

Paddock agrees and says MMGY has been creating “staycation” landing pages for clients that did not already have them.

On the flight side, Sojern reports travel intent, as measured by searches on airline websites, online travel agencies and metasearch, has varied widely by region and whether travel restrictions are in place.

During the period from about mid-January through the first week of March, as compared to 2019, flight searches to China and East and Southeast Asian countries took a sharp drop in late January. In recent weeks, however, searches to Southeast Asia, China and Australia and New Zealand have shown an uptick, while the trend is still downward for flight searches to Western Europe and the U.S. - although less dramatically in the case of the latter.

“That pool of consumers that are expressing intent may definitely shrink, however the value of those consumers exponentially goes up as far as the advertiser is concerned,” says Parag Vohra, vice president of the Americas at Sojern.

For digital marketers, this may mean having to spend more from an incremental standpoint to get that business. And it puts even higher value on a great online experience.

“If you talk to me on any given day, I will say that your website experience is like your retail storefront. It should be good quality, it should have a smooth path to purchase, the shopping capability should be robust and there should be ease of conversion. This is a standard best practice,” Vohra says.

“Having said that, that standard best practice goes from being a best practice to becoming absolutely critical in an emergency. If you take care of this in peace time you are better prepared for war time."

On the topic of broader brand advertising, Vohra says it’s important for companies to maintain their recall in the minds of consumers, but travel marketers need to stay vigilant about brand safety – not pausing ads completely but ensuring they are placed in context and not on sites dealing with the outbreak.

What can also become more important, says Newton, are creative strategies to create differentiation while still holding price – for example a hotel bundling room service – or creating added value for loyalty members.

“Maybe it’s accelerated member status. This is something we’ve seen the airlines do – book and fly in this time, get double miles the rest of the year,” Newton says.

“Do hotels have an opportunity to come up with an idea that allows them to use that currency essentially that they have to attract people to book and stay?”

Another bit of advice from experts regarding digital marketing strategies during a crisis is fairly elementary: Provide clear, up-to-date information on how your company is dealing with the impacts of the virus.

“Our first recommendation is to update your FAQs. It’s really obvious, but so important to be fresh and current maybe every couple of days. What’s the status? What are people asking when they call? What fears can you allay up front in writing and make them findable in search on your website,” Newton says.

“FAQs are a particularly good way to do content marketing and to do organic [marketing].”