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

Lindsay Saran
/ July 2019 / Search, Travel, Data & Measurement

Reaching travelers today has never been more challenging. People have countless options at their fingertips. And that requires travel marketers to be smarter about their approach to engagement. Case in point: When Celebrity Cruises realized its new website wasn’t delivering the results it had hoped for, it knew it had to rethink its strategy.

Celebrity Cruises partnered with media agency Media Storm to better understand consumers and how to reach them in more innovative and engaging ways. Last year the travel brand doubled down on search marketing and focused on granular audience segments. With the help of machine learning via Google’s bid strategies and a new ability to customize creative for ad groups across thousands of keywords, the cruise brand redirected its route toward success. In fact, for the first half of the year, Celebrity Cruises drove 140% more revenue year over year and saw its conversion rates nearly double, up by 98% year over year.

For a deeper dive into the brand’s game plan, I chatted with Melissa Goodis, associate vice president of media at Celebrity Cruises, and Justin Levine, director of search and social at Media Storm, to learn how they did it and what they learned.

First and foremost, focus on personalized search

Melissa Goodis, associate vice president of media at Celebrity Cruises

The biggest challenge in our industry is finding new cruisers — people who’ve never considered taking a cruise. We launched a website in 2017 with this purpose in mind, but it quickly became clear that it wasn’t performing the way we needed it to. We took a step back and evaluated why. We saw that we needed to reprioritize and refocus our efforts on personalized search so that we could deliver specific content to people, whether they'd cruised with us in the past, were in the market to book a cruise, or were just researching.

Search is the best way to reach potential customers at the start of their purchase journey when we can inspire them.

Search is a bit of a dark art, but if you get it right, it works incredibly well. It’s the best way to reach potential customers at the start of their purchase journey when we can inspire them. That’s a huge part of our industry — inspiring people to embrace life and travel, and inspiring them to let us help them do that.

But in these early stages, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. There are huge differences in how we need to inspire someone who is thinking, “Should I take a vacation?” versus “I want to go to Alaska,” versus “What should I do on my vacation?” This is further complicated by a chaotic purchase path. After that initial inspiration, people don’t go through a set of predetermined steps to purchase. Rather, it’s up to us to be there whenever, wherever.

We use search to help prioritize our audience groups because we can test and iterate much faster than on other channels.

We use search to help prioritize our audience groups, because we can test and iterate much faster than on other channels. We get a lot of engagement through paid search, and we can do A/B and personalization testing with this traffic far faster than we could with other channels. If we’re seeing success with certain audiences and messaging, we can scale quickly. If not, we pivot.

Maximize your search marketing with granular audience segments and automation

Justin Levine, director of search and social at Media Storm

The best way to drive growth, especially within a market as competitive as the cruise industry is to be better than the competition. You must understand your customers better and deliver experiences that are better suited to every customer’s needs. Is someone searching for “vacations in Alaska” and open to being sold on a cruise, or are they searching for a “vacation cruise” where we might serve creative that highlights our unique brand proposition and ship features? Because, let’s face it, everyone has a remarketing strategy and a catchall audience list. So the brands that spend time getting to know their audiences in a deeper way are the ones that will ultimately drive conversions and growth.

To help Celebrity Cruises find its best audiences, we developed an ongoing testing road map that we cycle through tools such as Google Ads, Google Analytics, and Adobe on a weekly basis. We started with audience segments we already knew, but we’ve also developed and tested new segments, such as seasonal events and affinity audiences, in addition to brainstorming integrated lists, ranging from specific ships in the Caribbean to seven- or 30-day test segements. We ended up with a whole lot of very granular and hyperfocused audiences.

Once we identified these audiences, we could look at how to reach them. We quickly discovered there wasn’t just one way to do this. Google Marketing Platform helped us see the purchase journey and derive insights from it. We then used Google tools to optimize bid strategies and enable adaptive remarketing.

Automation was key in making this a success. Leaning into the technology and data meant our strategy wasn’t driven by our own assumptions.

Automation was key in making this a success. Leaning into the technology and data meant our strategy wasn’t driven by our own assumptions. For example, we might have thought one audience would perform better, but if they didn’t, we would have wasted resources. Instead, we could simply allow automation to optimize for the best audiences. In short, our resources are being spent where they had the most impact.

My advice to others? Don’t be afraid to play the long game. Use data to constantly refine your customer audiences. Then test the creative that will have the greatest impact for them. You might uncover an unknown audience that could be extremely profitable if you give them enough time to convert.

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