TripAdvisor can boast 490 million unique users – a figure that dwarves the majority of publishers' readerships. Now, the company has begun to invest heavily in this audience's potential to build a competitive, brand-safe media ecosystem: doubling down on programmatic, content creation and sales pitches as its own brand begins to evolve.
Three years ago, TripAdvisor co-founder Stephen Kaufer noticed a trend. A number of restaurants listed on its user-generated review platform were gaining huge exposure and marketing without doing anything at all.
Conversely, the company wasn’t offering them any paid-for product to help maximize that exposure. It was, by all accounts, a missed business opportunity.
The observation led Kaufer to begin his drive to diversify the company away from commerce in the travel booking space. The brand now operates distinct business units powered by its numerous acquisitions: in restaurants, it owns and integrates the digital reservations service Fork, for instance, while its 2014 purchase of Viator bolstered its impact in the experiences sector.
But it was Wall Street that has recently pushed TripAdvisor to diversify away from travel altogether. As its user numbers have grown steadily over the past two decades (Kaufman founded the platform with three others in 2000), analysts began to ask why the company wasn’t treating its 490 million users as an audience other brands could pay to tap into.
“TripAdvisor’s media advertising revenue, at only $153m in 2018, has long under-indexed relative to our large, global audience and significant commerce influence in the $1.7 trillion travel market,” the company stated in its Q2 2019 earnings release.
“Media dollars continue to migrate from traditional channels, like television and printed circulars, to digital. Google and Facebook have been the largest beneficiaries; however, in recent years, advertisers have increasingly sought brand-safe, non-competitive platforms with specific domain expertise and influence in attractive areas ...
"TripAdvisor can give advertisers access to a high-intent, global travel audience, enabling them to target and optimize campaigns and improve ad performance.”
Midway through this year, the company committed to doubling display and platform revenue in the next three to five years.
It had already begun to lay the path to becoming a viable media brand a few months before with the hire of Christine Maguire, a former Condé Nast business ops exec who took on the new role as vice-president of advertising revenue.
Much has been written of Condé Nast’s historically naïve attitude to digital transformation, but when Maguire first came to TripAdvisor she was presented with an even smaller team in charge of both operating and pitching the brand’s media offering.
Programmatic was the logical place to begin building out first, given its ability to make quick gains.
“We've already seen immediate benefits of adding new disciplines, thinking about different [supply-side platforms] and yield formats and models we hadn't looked at before,” said Maguire. “We now self-serve, so all of the long tail that couldn't hit minimums [before] are now going to be able to hit minimums."
That team – which was once a one-desk operation – is now staffed with around a dozen employees. Maguire hopes to increase that number “much more” going into 2020 as TripAdvisor’s standard media buys all shift to programmatic channels.
Reporting into TripAdvisor’s president of ‘Core Experience’, Lindsay Nelson, Maguire is also improving the company direct, often bespoke media offering, too. This is where the brand hopes to see an upswing in revenues as non-endemic brands are brought into the TripAdvisor media ecosystem.
She believes essentially every vertical has the potential to intersect with an audience researching and booking a holiday; nevertheless, this part of the business has been slower to develop in her six months at the brand than the programmatic unit.
“It takes longer to penetrate different markets and then ultimately get into the consideration set for their sales cycle,” she said.
But alongside the “custom, co-branded solutions” pitched to marketers and produced by a growing creative services team, Maguire will diversify that traditional studios offering with “data-driven solutions”, too.
These encompass TripAdvisor Connect on Facebook and Instagram – a product that allows advertisers to tap into TripAdvisor’s social audience as partners – as well as “custom data product marrying data files with third party data sources and predictive models to target the right users at the right time."
All this will be pitched alongside a banner headline: TripAdvisor has a large, engaged audience sitting in a space that is safer for brands such as Facebook and Google. The brand, which has been criticized for its inability to police fake reviews, also published its inaugural transparency report in September, as part of a mission to better communicate what it does to create a fair and brand-safe platform.
Charged with ramping up TripAdvisor’s advertising revenues, Maguire’s team will be given somewhat of a helping hand in 2020 when the company’s own brand gets pushed higher up the funnel for consumer consideration. After bringing on a new agency team of Mother and Havas handling creative and media respectively, the company is planning to jig its repositioning in the market.
Kaufer plans to turn TripAdvisor into a brand “that is ‘known well’ for addressing travelers’ many pain points throughout the travel journey,” he told investors earlier this year. “We will develop an integrated brand strategy and new creative enabling our consumers to see more inspiring, more impactful TripAdvisor branding across an array of mediums.”
This will mark an evolution for the Trip Advisor brand. Up until now its messaging has largely been utilitarian and transactional, encouraging consumers to find the lowest price and book quickly.
“[Chief marketing officers] are seeing the impacts on not being focused on the upper funnel, branding and how you're reaching new consumers at passion points in their life,” said Maguire.
“It's nice that we're doing that, and believe in that, coming from a content company like Condé.”