In the beginning there were travel agents: people we had to talk to about booking our next holiday. Back then we knew what we wanted and a travel agent could help us to get anywhere as long as we had a valid credit card.
Fast forward a decade or more and today’s ‘connected’ world means instant gratification for the ‘always on’ traveler who can explore, locate, compare, search, bargain, and pay from the convenience of their mobile phone. Holiday makers can book a trip to the most remote places on earth while sitting on a train – that is when they are not uploading holiday photos to Instagram, or tweeting an airline for losing their beloved guitar.
In this scenario, how do airline brands know if they have met their customers’ expectations at each touchpoint - from the moment travelers are inspired to take a trip, to the point of sharing their experiences (good and bad) with friends and family?
In the summer of 2014, we carried out research to uncover the factors that influence the decision journey of travelers in Hong Kong, including the motivations and inspirations behind their air ticket purchase decisions. We monitored their decision journey both qualitatively and quantitatively to understand the online and offline brand touchpoints and how people used different devices along the way.
Understanding what triggers the shift between devices as travelers look and book for flights
Whether it’s a smartphone, tablet or PC being used, our research shows that the majority of the travelers (65%) used three devices in the process of buying an airline ticket, indicating a strong interaction between those devices. But consumers don’t distinguish between touchpoints or devices so does it matter which device was used for the actual transaction? In the future it will be even more difficult to define the point at which the ‘transaction’ took place, as payment will happen anywhere. The key challenge therefore is to understand what triggers the shift between touchpoints so that brands can plan and react around them.
This has implications for how airline brands think about the decision journey
Every element of the brand’s offline experience should be reflected online (and be device neutral). For example, a TV ad promoting a business class experience is further pushed online – a brand partnership allowing travelers to choose their seats based on their LinkedIn connections would create a fantastic engagement with their products and services. Similarly, an airline operator that allows its passengers to ‘take over’ its Twitter account for a period of time to share experiences and stories about the brand would be tapping into the major consumer trend that is ‘curated consumption’.
With almost two thirds of travelers using three mobile devices in their decision journey, this study highlights the huge opportunity for travel brands to further engage with consumers. We would encourage brands to use the high-quality rich content like video and images creatively, experimenting with different approaches. One incentive is that with so few travel brands doing this at all and even fewer doing it well, now is the time to use intelligence on the decision journey to maximize campaigns. Knowing where attention needs to be paid – which consumer segment to focus on and which format to use to reach them – is crucial to influencing purchase decisions.
Almost all (96%) travelers conduct research both online and offline
As the line between the modes of research becomes blurred, it is the quality of the content that customers are exposed to that will impact their decision making. Anyone who has searched for flights online will most likely have found themselves targeted with travel-related ads weeks afterwards. Targeting someone who has just returned from their honeymoon with cut-price flights to the Maldives isn’t the most efficient ad spend. We know that it’s not easy to communicate with relevant messages all the time, as brands can only know ‘a bit’ about consumers and that is the bit that they make available to us. While today’s brands can reach out to consumers using a wide variety of touchpoints and by telling great stories, each and every interaction has to be a perfect match with the consumer’s mindset at that specific time and touchpoint. And that is why offering cheap flights to returning honeymooners may not have the desired effect.
Five hours of research before buying a ticket
With more ‘open data’ available to both brands and consumers, the decisions made by both will be influenced. Consumers now have access to a wide variety of airline statistics and aviation information as well as passenger reviews. Our study suggests that – in some way –consumers engage with airline brands for approximately five hours before making any kind of decision. They visit an average of 22 different websites that they will navigate to and from on average 81 times (these figures are even higher if the purchase has taken place online). This provides a unique opportunity for brands to ‘join in’ with consumers and ultimately to influence their purchase decisions. While in the research mode, travelers are looking for new experiences, an escape or, perhaps, the most convenient value deals. The challenge here for brands is to find the ‘perfect match’ for what the consumer is looking for and to enthuse, educate or encourage prospects to consider their brand over the competition.
Connected consumers, armed with more than two devices, will continue to check in at an airport to download their boarding pass, to check in via Facebook, to share their travel exploits via GPS, and to upload a photo of their meal to their ‘taste graph’. By understanding consumer behavior, brands can meet travelers constantly changing needs and expectations and stay ahead of the competition well into the future.