2020 was a difficult year for all sectors, but this statement rings particularly true for the travel industry. As international travel restrictions were announced during the height of the pandemic, travel-related queries saw an unprecedented plummet worldwide, with a year-on-year decline of more than 40% for air travel queries in 2020.1
Faced with rapidly changing travel regulations and heightened health and safety concerns due to COVID-19, businesses that did not have the necessary tools for agility set in place had little chance of survival. Etihad Airways, like many other airlines, was impacted significantly by the pandemic.
Luckily, the United Arab Emirate’s (UAE) national airline had already begun its transformation towards digital marketing maturity. This allowed the team to effectively face the dynamic shift in consumer behaviour with an agile and scalable marketing strategy.
Using automation to capture volatile demand
Travel restrictions changed unpredictably and flight schedules were cancelled daily. This means that Etihad faced the challenge of adjusting their performance marketing activity to adapt to demand fluctuation, while scaling across countries, languages, and routes.
They began by automating the collection and integration of multiple data sources within BigQuery, Google Cloud’s serverless data warehouse, to gain a holistic view of every stage of the sales funnel. This included advertising data from Google Ads, customer funnel data from their website analytics, as well as other important business signals, such as priority routes. By doing so, they created a universal data feed that gave the capability to control their digital marketing from one single source of truth.
Leveraging inventory to automate Search ads
This made it easier for Etihad to restructure their Search ads by leveraging inventory management in Search Ads 360. Through the inventory management feed, they were able to adapt the creative messaging of millions of ads, adding critical information around flexibility of travel and updates related to COVID-19. Through these ads, Etihad was able to direct customers to the right information on their website, alleviating pressure from other customer care channels.
"Inventory management makes managing search campaigns simpler,” explains Jan Zdarsa, an analytical consultant at Google. “Instead of modifying and uploading dozens of ads, you update one template only, and SA360 will help adjust the ads everywhere without any compromise on personalisation. You can make changes in minutes, not hours or days."
Etihad also adopted an automated bidding approach, calculating the rights bids on a route-level basis and importing the bids from Google Cloud to Search Ads 360. This way they would automatically increase bids on high performing routes once demand surged to a certain destination. And, they would save costs on lower performing routes when demand declined due to unpredictable changes, like newly imposed travel restrictions. This allowed Etihad to quickly capture demand for recovering summer destinations, such as the Maldives.
Providing relevant messages to customers
Once Search activities were fully adjusted to react to extreme volatility, Etihad scaled automation to Display activity. With the help of their media agency, Crossmedia, and creative agency, eg+ Worldwide, they activated automated campaigns using dynamic creatives. They showed offers tailored to customers' needs and preferences, delivering relevant messaging through Display ads to their customers.
With their automated approach, Etihad was able to deliver 45,000 variations of creatives to more than 2,000 audience segments. Remarketing campaigns focused on previous flight searchers who had not completed a booking, while prospecting campaigns were tailored to potential customers in the consideration phase.
In an environment where changes were constant, this fully automated solution enabled Etihad to significantly decrease the time it took to launch campaigns. Customised creatives could be deployed in minutes to capture demand for travel routes where restrictions had eased or borders had reopened. Similarly, if a country closed its borders or resumed lockdown protocol (e.g. the U.K. in the winter of 2020), ads for flights to and from that country were automatically discontinued.
Sebastian Schichtel, managing director at Crossmedia, says: “The comprehensive automation of our Display activities not only allowed us to deliver more relevant messages to our potential customers, but also to significantly increase the overall efficiency and effectiveness of our marketing communications.”
A cost-efficient approach to recovery
Prior to tapping into inventory-managed Search ads, Etihad’s team had manually managed campaigns for their global network of routes across 73 countries in multiple languages. The new automated approach has significantly supported Etihad’s recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic, while maintaining the same performance levels compared to pre-pandemic times.
“These bespoke solutions not only saved hundreds of hours per month of manpower time for Search ads alone, but also made the campaign management and activation process scalable and sustainable,” said Jibin Thomson, digital marketing manager at Etihad.
As for dynamic creatives, Etihad was able to save 90% on creative production costs, while increasing Display return-on-investment by 41%. Most importantly, this helped contribute to a 200% increase in bookings during the summer of 2021 as travel has returned.
“The advances in our internal marketing automation, both from a creative development and media buying perspective, have allowed us to be both more dynamic in the short-term, while focusing on long-term strategic planning,” says Alex Robertson, head of marketing at Etihad.
He views these capabilities as critical foundations as Etihad enters 2022. “By building the right partnerships in 2022, we plan to expand these capabilities across social and video development to ensure our guests are served the most appropriate content throughout the Etihad journey,” Robertson concludes.