Where to start with your affiliate travel campaign
The challenge, and the opportunity
In recent times, affiliate marketing has only increased in complexity. There are more options, more contacts to manage and more data at our fingertips than ever before. It’s an exciting time, but it can also be challenging in terms of managing the crux of what’s really important to deliver a successful travel affiliate campaign.
It’s worth noting from the start, that although this post does have a particular focus on the travel sector, it does not mean that you should disregard it if you work in another sector. These principles can be applied to ensure success in most cases, so let’s get stuck in.
Seven steps to a successful travel affiliate campaign
- Don’t just stick to sales objectives
- Partner up & talk to publishers
- Plan ahead
- Don’t flog a dead horse
- Budget & reward your publishers fairly
- This isn’t a science
- Learn, adapt and optimise
Don’t just stick to sales objectives
Historically, affiliate marketing has always been measured on ROI and was very revenue focused, however, over the years, this focus has changed and developed.
Discount sites and cashback used to rule the roost, but, over the last several years that has drastically changed, with brands moving away from discounts and using the channel more creatively to meet other business objectives, with the travel sector being no exception.Intrepid Travel, an adventure travel client here at Silverbean, utilise the affiliate channel to meet numerous objectives. The key focus remains increasing sales and revenue, but to also engage further with the travel niche and content-based affiliates. This allows Intrepid to engage with new customers, as their existing customer base are already generally loyal to the brand due to the high quality of their trips.
Typically, content affiliates fall earlier in the customer user journey, and this is often where potential customers are introduced to a brand, and where brands can ensure they achieve long-term results.
Utilising content affiliates is particularly important within the travel sector, given the research that people undertake in the lead-up to booking and the power of informed word-of-mouth. Working with these types of affiliates will help uplift your overall travel affiliate campaign performance. You need to keep in mind that you may not see sales directly from these affiliates, but they are a source of new customer acquisition and you will see more conversions by your incentive-based affiliates.Lead generation is another possibility via the affiliate channel, with many affiliates open to running competitions and sharing any data gathered for future marketing purposes. There is also the array of email affiliates that can be used to target potential customers, using segmented databases that fit your customer demographic. Again, with travel having such a long lead time, this is an excellent idea to be able to market directly to people you know are interested in what you have to offer.
Partner up & talk to publishers
Publishers are the most important part of your affiliate program and determine how successful you will be in achieving your goals and objectives via the channel. It is important to work with a good and wide mix of affiliates, especially in the travel sector, as holidays are a considered purchase and it is far more complicated than to merely assume that the cheapest wins.
“Discovery can happen at any time.” – Econsultancy
Historically, the buyer journey has been a linear process, but, even back in 2014, Econsultancy were reporting the massive change in how people purchase products or services, due to the rise of social media and technological advancements. This has only become more apparent and true in the 5 years since that article was published.
Affiliates were always seen as ‘converters’ and therefore sat at the very bottom of the funnel, but, as things have changed and progressed, so has affiliate marketing. The shift towards content-based marketing has also filtered into the affiliate world, which is no surprise.
People no longer want to be told what to buy, or be subjected to mass marketing techniques. They want to work with useful and inspiring brands, and then if they can get a discount too, great.
Making sure you hit as many touch points as possible in the channel is integral to a fruitful travel affiliate campaign.
Planning ahead may sound obvious, but it is often very overlooked and handled last minute. Know your marketing plan as far ahead as physically possible and then share these plans with your affiliates, certainly your key affiliates.
With the shift towards content driven strategies, it is even more important to look ahead, as producing high-quality, informative content takes time to compile and review.
Long gone are the days of relying on last minute voucher codes and flash sales at 4:30pm on a Friday. Those sorts of quick win activities are to supplement a broader strategy.
When planning your wider marketing strategy, build the affiliate channel into this. Affiliate marketing is a great channel for targeting specifics and working outside of your general marketing activities. This works particularly well with travel, as the affiliate channel can be used to highlight specific trips. You may have a destination or trip type that struggles at particular times of the year – using the affiliate channel, we can work with niche affiliates to put a spotlight on these trips, and, in turn, improve their performance.
As mentioned, lead-time on travel bookings can be a lot longer than your average purchase so planning ahead of peak periods is key. As well as during peak season, there needs to be exposure in the build-up to busy booking periods to aid the customer experience, and ensure there is the information out there within the channel available for research.
Don’t flog a dead horse
The travel market is extremely saturated and competitive with many vendors essentially vying for the same customer, particularly within adventure travel. Therefore, it is imperative to make sure you are doing all of the right things to be successful.
“Consumers need to trust the brand and clearly understand the advantages of booking with that company over another.” – Affiliate Window
In the past, this often meant offering a voucher or making sure your sale offer was better than your competitors. However, as Affiliate Window mentions in their tips for travel affiliate marketing, customers need to trust and value the brand, and clearly understand the advantages of booking with that company over another.
It is no longer about being the cheapest. It is about being useful, providing high quality content and targeted campaigns to make sure you communicate your brand and message in the right way, to the right people, distinguishing yourself from competitors.
A great way to do this is to facilitate trips for trusted influencers in the travel space, building strong lasting relationships with these travel bloggers and creating brand ambassadors. These content-creators generally have huge social followings and the ability to reach and inform potential customers at various different points of the buyer journey.
All too often, travel merchants focus on the “offer” and don’t focus on actually promoting the benefits of booking with them.
Budget & reward your publishers fairly
This is a vital part of the process and should be thought about carefully.
All too often we see digital marketing managers that want to focus on opportunities other than voucher and cashback, but need ROI.
“There is a need for the performance marketing industry to adapt and measure/reward based on other types of actions above and beyond last-click sales.” – Colin Carter, Director of Weather2Travel
As highlighted in Colin Carter’s PerformanceIN article, there needs to be a change of how we reward affiliates across the full user journey. Content publishers are often not rewarded fairly for their part in the buyer’s journey as most people still reward on a last click basis, despite a shift toward multi-click attribution and merchants wanting to work on a content basis.
It is important to understand the full value of an affiliate, as this will make it easier to allocate budget accordingly.
In late January 2019, our client Intrepid ran a content campaign with Travelzoo to help promote Switzerland trips. This was a tenancy opportunity and no sales were generated directly from the affiliate during the campaign.
Traffic was up 140% and Travelzoo drove 91% of all new users that came to the site via the affiliate channel. Adding to this, the article had over 21,910 page views, and, since the campaign, Travelzoo have went on to generate a 1300% increase in sales in comparison to the previous 6 months.
The lesson here? If you were to look exclusively at the campaign period and from a sales perspective only, this campaign could have been assumed to be a flop. However, looking at the overall picture, we can see that this affiliate and campaign will provide positive results for an extended period of time, whilst opening up the Intrepid brand to a plethora of new customers.
This isn’t a science
Step 5 leads on nicely to step 6: do not be afraid to test things.
Stop playing it safe!
Yes, it may be expensive, it may not work, this is not a science, and there is no definitive formula, but try things and try them more than once. Run a campaign with an affiliate, and, if it doesn’t work, analyse it and learn from it. Optimise it a little and run it again to see if results are more positive. You’ll never stop learning.
Obviously, there will be campaigns that make no sense, so don’t just go ahead and try anything, but don’t use ROI as a sole reason to not run a campaign. You don’t know until you try.
All too often advertisers run the same campaigns with the same affiliates. We receive countless emails from the key voucher and cashback sites with the same brands in every week. This is all well and good if you are also spending money on affiliates that sit elsewhere in the user journey, but don’t be afraid to try new things and experiment, otherwise your program will become stagnant.
Learn & optimise
Again, this may seem obvious, but all too often when we look at an affiliate program, we see that the problem is not optimising it and learning from campaigns. This can be numerous things such as commission structures, budget allocation and affiliate mix.
Analyse your data, learn what campaigns are working and what objectives they are fulfilling, and how can you apply these learnings to future campaigns. Do not just run a campaign and then forget to look at the results.
It is so easy to only work closely with the top 5-10 revenue driving affiliates as a means of trying to maximise ROI on tenancy opportunities. However, it is just as important to increase your number of order active affiliates, reduce your reliance on incentive and diversify your revenue sources.
This will make your program far more stable and future proof.
Some of what has been covered in the above may seem completely obvious, but you may be surprised to know that a lot of the above are the things we notice wrong with programs all the time, across more than just the travel sector.
Use this as a checklist of sorts, and whenever you run an affiliate campaign, try and make sure you have all the bases covered, making sure that you’re then giving yourself a good grounding for success.