Leveraging Vertical Search to Go Direct

By Jeff Navach Vice President of Marketing, MediaAlpha | November 06, 2016

Hotels find themselves in an uphill battle as they seek to increase loyalty to their own brands and recapture market share from OTAs. Many hotels are increasingly embracing digital advertising, recognizing it as a critical channel to acquire consumers directly and compete more effectively with OTAs. But as hotels expand their digital marketing presence and ramp up advertising budgets, they would do well to consider some creative approaches that can help level the playing field and turn the tide in their favor.

One emerging approach is targeting high-intent, bottom of the funnel consumers through vertical search media. Many OTAs have utilized vertical search media themselves as an important customer acquisition channel, acquiring many of the same consumers they send to the brands this way. Which basically means hotels already see vertical search consumers. They just happen to arrive through intermediaries with higher acquisition costs and lower profit margins.

Today’s creative hotel marketers have begun turning to vertical search media themselves to more effectively target direct consumers and increase the efficiency of their marketing spending.

What is Vertical Search?

Broadly defined, a vertical search is any online search focused on a specific topic, industry or product. Vertical search examples include product searches on Amazon (nearly 50% of all online product searches now originate on amazon.com), a search for auto insurance quotes, or shopping for hotels on metasearch or niche travel websites. You can think of a vertical search as a more granular and targeted search than a typical keyword search conducted on a search engine.

There are hundreds of travel sites, ranging from large travel destinations to niche destination travel sites that exist to help consumers evaluate travel choices and make purchase decisions. When consumers visit these sites, they’re sending a strong message that they know what they want and have an above average likelihood of making a purchase soon.
Search marketing helped revolutionize advertising by flipping the model on its head and enabling consumers inform brands on their intent and interests. In essence, Google and others figured out how to connect brands with customers while they were looking for what the brand was selling. But looking for something doesn’t necessarily mean being willing to buy it. Search advertising is very effective in engaging customers in the middle of the sales funnel who are typically researching or engaged in longer cycle buying decisions.

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Social Media: Engagement is Key

There are currently 2.3 billion active users of social media networks and savvy hotel operators have incorporated social media into their marketing mix. There are a few Goliath channels on which one must have a presence (Facebook & Twitter) but there are also several newer upstart channels (Instagram, Snapchat &WeChat, for example) that merit consideration. With its 1.86 billion users, Facebook is a dominant platform where operators can drive brand awareness, facilitate bookings, offer incentives and collect sought-after reviews. Twitter's 284 million users generate 500 million tweets per day, and operators can use its platform for lead generation, building loyalty, and guest interaction. Instagram was originally a small photo-sharing site but it has blown up into a massive photo and video channel. The site can be used to post photos of the hotel property, as well as creating Instagram Stories - personal videos that disappear from the channel after 24 hours. In this regard, Instagram and Snapchat are now in direct competition. WeChat is a Chinese company whose aim is to be the App for Everything - instant messaging, social media, shopping and payment services - all in a single platform. In addition to these channels, blogging continues to be a popular method to establish leadership, enhance reputations, and engage with customers in a direct and personal way. The key to effective use of all social media is to find out where your customers are and then, to the fullest extent possible, engage with them on a personal level. This engagement is what creates a personal connection and sustains brand loyalty. The February Hotel Business Review will explore these issues and examine how some hotels are successfully integrating social media into their operations.