How Alaska Airlines leveraged search data to fill empty seats

Owen Bickford August 2019 Search, Travel, Programmatic

For Alaska Airlines, growing routes by 40% in one year and becoming the airline with the most nonstop flights to and from the West Coast meant filling hundreds of new routes that had lower brand recognition. Owen Bickford, paid search program manager, shares the search data strategy that helped the airliner get it done.

After acquiring an airline and adding even more new routes in 2016, we knew we needed a fresh approach to marketing Alaska Airlines to new audiences. Our new combined network, numbering thousands of potential routes, offered a prime opportunity to revisit our marketing strategies with data.

Knowing search volume can be a proxy for customer demand, we partnered with Google to harness flight-specific searches. We wanted to uncover new areas of opportunity for selling empty seats via our paid search campaign efforts. Here’s how we did it.

We unified our search data to better identify growth opportunities

We worked with Google Flights to develop a common dataset to mine for insights. The result was a route coverage dashboard, an amalgam of Google Flights queries and Google Ads data, which we could filter in a multitude of ways. For example, we use the dashboard to identify specific routes where queries are high, but our ad impression and click coverage is low. That helps us decide if we want to invest more in those areas. The dashboard also quickly became a go-to resource for assessing competitive share and coverage gaps. As a result, we’re now able to make strategic shifts in our marketing campaigns to address previously uncovered routes.

The new strategy has garnered nearly 60 hours per year in time savings and fostered collaboration among our teams.

We automated our search campaigns

Armed with these new insights, our paid search team needed a way to manage search campaigns in an optimized way. We started using Search Ad 360’s upgraded inventory management, a tool that lets advertisers feed dynamic data into the platform for the automatic creation of keywords and ads. For us, that means generating highly targeted campaigns aligned with Alaska Airlines’ specific routes, allowing us to easily reallocate search budgets based on capacity and demand. We can now reliably manage paid search spend and respond quickly to changing market dynamics (such as new routes and flight availability) within hours, not days or weeks. The new workflow allowed us to build search coverage across thousands of routes, which drove a 69% increase in revenue and an 8% increase in return on ad spend.

We recognized full business impact to drive collaboration efforts

In addition to driving business results, the new strategy has garnered nearly 60 hours per year in time savings and fostered collaboration among our teams. We’re able to plan advertising at a route level, redistributing and increasing budgets as needed to increase the number of seats filled across our network.

Perhaps what’s most exciting is what we can do next: We’re now exploring how we can feed the tools additional data to better inform the output. And the collaboration enabled by the new workflow means teams such as marketing and revenue management are now synchronized to support routes, a major win for us in breaking down internal silos and better serving our customers.

How one travel brand used search to redirect its route to success