Over 90% of airline email offers are irrelevant to the customer's lifecycle and lifestyle preferences. Here are three ways airlines can overcome that problem.
Recently, I spoke with a woman on the bus who is a head buyer for a large retailer in Ireland. She travels on average 20 times a year; half of that is for leisure.
I asked how she decides where to visit next in the world; does she receive many email offers from airlines? She said she receives about 4 emails a day from airlines, but never reads them.
Then she remarked “I keep all the emails from Airbnb.” She went on to say that she has received some great recommendations from Airbnb in the past.
From a traveller survey we conducted last year we learned how airlines are struggling to engage customers through email. Only 17% of respondents said that they have received a relevant travel recommendation from an airline.*
This is a serious problem when you consider that 62% of Millennials are more likely to unsubscribe to a travel brand’s email marketing if the content is irrelevant to their needs.
And yet, here was a clear endorsement of Airbnb’s email marketing.
We found on average an airline will send between 5 and 8 emails per month. Each email is personally addressed; each employ a similar structure of seat sales for 2 to 9 destinations, with price as the main feature and at least three direct call-to-action.**
Aside from generic seasonal events like Father’s Day or the beginning of summer, during a 90 day period we could not find a single relevant recommendation in the content.
Relevance is determined by how a brand speaks specifically to a customer’s behaviour, lifecycle and lifestyle preferences.
Three times we booked travel to a destination and then the following week received an email offer for that exact destination, from the airline with whom we had already booked our flight. Bizarre!
Conservatively, if an airline were to send 1 email per week (52/yr) with the proverbial structure of Sale/Book-Now to the average traveller who takes 4 leisure trips per year, four of those emails will arrive at the correct moment in a customer’s lifecycle: when a customer is ready to book a flight.
For the other 48 weeks, customers are either planning the trip they have already booked or in the inspiration phase for their next trip.
This renders the format of sale/buy-now irrelevant for more than 90% of the year. The customer is not ready to buy, which begs the question: will the customer ever view the brand that continues to push untimely offers as a viable vendor when they are ready to book a flight?
This accounts for the great disconnect between airlines and customers, and sheds some light on the fact that airlines are finding their position at the top of the trip planning funnel (inspiration phase) less secure from encroaching third party providers like Google, Facebook and AirBnB.
1) Understand the Ultimate Motive of Your Customer
Airbnb have recognised that 43% of their customers identify as “explorers.” This means they value context over amenity.
Airbnb have discovered that their service ultimately provides connection to a desired experience in a neighbourhood. This is why Airbnb lead their marketing with neighbourhoods and local experiences and execute by offering a customer timely accommodation based on their engagement.
Have airlines recognised the motive behind the traveller? What experience are they primarily purchasing when they buy a flight?
Is it 8 hours in a fancy tin-can 35 thousand feet above the earth or an experience in-destination?
2) The Power Of Story
Story is more than a good yarn, it’s a framework that positions the customer in relation to the brand and therefore, frames the content and communication of a brand.
Every great story has a hero with a problem, a trusted guide with a plan, a call-to-action and the opportunity for transformation or failure.
Airbnb have identified their customers as the hero who seek a trusted guide (Airbnb) to lead them to authentic experiences in destination.
All of Airbnb’s marketing collateral is embedded in this strategic narrative, which airlines can replicate with ease.
Answer this question: In your marketing, who is the hero and who is the trusted guide?
Hint: the customer should always be the hero.
3) Understand the Context and Lifecycle of the Customer Journey
Airbnb, always lead with fluid marketing between inspiration and helping their customer plan, never with price points. Adding value 48 weeks of the year, positions their brand for the four weeks when customers are ready to purchase.
Inherent in all of Airbnb’s emails are previous touch-points with the brand. Airbnb make recommendations based on the behaviour of the individual and on large samples with similar search history and behavioural traits. This is the same collaborative filtering that Amazon, Spotify and Netflix use.
Amazon have reported that 35% of all revenue comes from personalised email recommendations. (What is 35% of $110 billion? A lot.)
For an industry that is predicated on the journey, notably absent in an airline’s marketing collateral is the customer lifecycle: how a customer moves from inspiration, planning and booking into destination and how marketing should correlate to the phase of the customer.
Most email offers we studied bypass inspiration and planning and read like this:
“Do you want to buy? How about now? You should buy something. Not ready? How about now?”
Airline brands should use the direct call-to-action, but only in a contextual narrative where it is the obvious solution to a customer's behaviour.
Airlines have a large database of email addresses from past customers. The audience is there, and email is still the most effective channel of communication, so the opportunity to add value to customers and position the brand for the next purchase is immense.
Airlines still occupy the top of the trip planning funnel. Airfare is traditionally the first purchase of every trip. This is a powerful point of contact between brand and customer, and an opportunity for airlines to add value “beyond the jetway” and own more of the customer journey.
Becoming a travel publisher has never been easier for airlines. Licensing well written and local destination content is not difficult to source.
However, content is rarely the problem; the lack of curation and timing have rendered great content irrelevant.
Smart Travel Content
One solution is smart travel content: it is locally curated content that is powered by a layer of intelligence that enables an airline to match content to a customer’s personal lifestyle preferences, and deliver it at the optimal moment in a customer’s travel lifecycle.
The content a travel brand publishes is simply a catalyst to better understand the behaviour of the customer and identify where the customer is in the lifecycle. With every engagement a provider should learn how to better segment content for the customer at the next touchpoint?
A personalised recommendation that leads to a great customer experience, positions the brand as a trusted resource for the next lifecycle, and the vendor most likely to win the booking. (Read: How Airlines Can Increase Direct Booking)
In the words of Hugo Burge, CEO of Momondo Group:
"Providing value to the user, whether or not they become a customer, is our goal. Fulfilled and impressed users are a higher priority for us than short-term revenues....if we help them early on in their decision-making journey, we know that they will return."
If airlines take their email marketing cues from their customers, and adopt a process of sales through the context of personalised destination discovery, they will become a valued travel resource for their customers and build a brand travellers trust.
*Survey conducted August 2016
**KLM were a notable exception leading with excellent destination content.