Automation and AI are not optional in travel

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

Travel is one of the largest ecommerce markets, and brands within it are best placed to take advantage of automation. There are so many players: hotels, airlines, booking platforms, travel agents, comparison sites...

Automation is not a choice; everyone in this sector needs to operate at scale. According to eMarketer, the total digital spend in travel is estimated to reach $8.28bn by 2020 and 50% of brands in travel are now buying ads programmatically.

Everyone loves talking about chatbots and robots in the travel industry, but there are so many other things going on behind the scenes. At its core, automation is about speeding up processes and improving quality at lower cost (McKinsey estimates that automating processes can save airlines 8% to 10% in costs in affected areas).

And automation can be implemented in lots of exciting places.

There’s the use of predictive analytics to personalise according to user preferences, for example Red Roof Inn’s use of weather and flight data to predict flight cancellations to launch a targeted marketing campaign at mobile device users in areas likely to be affected by weather, seeing an increase in business.

There’s also dynamic pricing, which allows brands to optimise pricing based on availability, seasonal trends, market demand and customer behaviour. Airlines can mine data on users’ flying history when they make an inquiry in order to personalise pricing or offer discounts based on their behaviour patterns. Promotional offers make a big difference for travel customers, so for paid search ads we use dynamic ad extensions to automate the addition of promo codes and offers to sitelink copy, to great effect.

In paid search, travel brands have hundreds of accounts, covering different areas and languages. Audiences are on a spectrum from budget travellers, families, business travellers to luxury travellers. They all want different things from their travel experience. And there are obviously very strong peak times: tourism is subject to seasonality as well as socio-political factors. It’s incredibly important to understand travel intent and user behaviour regarding price points, promotions, personal recommendations, social media and season events. Unsurprisingly, the use of Dynamic Search Ads (which are automatically made by Google based on site content) is a lot higher in travel than for most other industries.

Travel brands need scale, flexibility and ease of maintenance. Automation lets us not only achieve that, but do so with a degree of granularity that enables the creation of thousands and thousands of unique ads. For a large booking platform, you could be looking at several dozen countries, hundreds of airlines and thousands of hotels. This translates to millions of keywords.

Among all this, audiences want, and expect, personalisation.

There’s no way around it except by using the right tech to build, bid, sync, report, manage, test, monitor and analyse to save hours of manual work. For a client in travel, we built a custom campaign builder tool that creates paid search campaigns using templates and information from their own feed. Everything from downloading locations from their feed to building keywords, creating tailored ad copy, removing low volume search terms, uploading and posting to Google Ads and porting this structure to Bing Ads can be automated – saving about 650 hours of manual work. After that, campaigns can be maintained with minimal management and with improved results.

Tools can rotate ads to A/B test them, check whether all URLs are pointing to the right places (which can save thousands of pounds), spot unusual behaviour in accounts based on past behaviour and manipulate bids for each hour of each day of the week. Even unexpected things that require emergency human input can be set up seamlessly: the travel sector can be strongly affected by certain news items like terrorist activity, so we’ve developed tools to apply negative keywords over multiple accounts immediately in sync in order to block that traffic right away.

At this stage, a human touch is still necessary to achieve great results with a paid search campaign, in order to add new negative keywords for example. But the positive impact of automation and machine learning on the industry is undeniable.

Travel is changing, and it’s changing a lot. Advertisers need to constantly adapt their data strategies, whether it’s to implement advertising campaigns at scale or for the pressing need to push the limits of personalisation.

The entire customer journey should be automated for better shopping experiences, eg with chatbots and intelligent recommendations. AI is opening the door for new kinds of targeting and personalisation, at scale and with a level of granularity never before seen in the industry.

Who knows where the digital innovation will take travel next? Better places, that’s for sure.

Dan Gilbert, chief executive officer, Brainlabs

This article originally appeared in The Drum Network Travel Special. For more information on how to get involved, please contact tehmeena.latif@thedrum.com

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.

Come on in, it’s free.

This isn’t a paywall. It’s a freewall. We don’t want to get in the way of what you came here for, so this will only take a few seconds.