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How to use the search funnel strategically in hotel marketing

Today, hotels need to be visible and actively influencing the decisions of guests throughout the travel journey, from initial spark of inspiration to the point of final booking.

This often convoluted journey can be understood in terms of a customer’s progression through the search funnel, defined by a series of stages that involve changes in search behavior and buying intent along the path to purchase.

In the following post, we’ll describe what these different stages look like, how travelers behave at each step of their trip planning, and how your hotel can use this information to plan strategic search marketing campaigns for maximum impact.

What is the search funnel?

The search funnel is a visual guide of customer behavior during the journey to conversion. The further (or less relevant) a customer is to you or your product, the higher they are in the funnel.

For example, a person searching for “hotels in Nashville” is higher in the funnel than someone searching for “boutique hotels in Nashville.”

By the same token, “boutique hotels on Music Row” is even further down the funnel than “boutique hotels in Nashville” since the user is indicating not only the type of property they’d like to stay at, but also the specific neighborhood of the city they’re interested in.

Customer behavior within the search funnel

Customer behavior differs significantly through each stage of the funnel. In broad terms, the journey begins with a mindset of curiosity, moves into a stage of conducting specific research, and culminates with a customer who’s ready to buy.

Understanding this shift in mindset, behavior, and buying intent is paramount to ensuring your hotel markets itself effectively at each phase of the funnel.

For the purposes of this article, we’ve split the funnel into three categories: awareness, consideration, and intent. For each stage, we’ll describe what actions your customers are taking and what impact this should have on your search marketing strategy.

Travel booking search funnel

1) The awareness phase

Sitting at the top of the funnel, the “Awareness” phase refers to individuals who aren’t quite sure what they want yet.

This group is your typical window shopper: they’re tentatively carrying out some research without necessarily having a clear idea of what they want, or even when they want it. They might end up making a purchase further down the line, but haven’t got a fixed idea of when that might happen.

Marketing at this stage of the funnel will allow you to reach the widest possible audience. However, your return on ad spend (ROAS) will be lower as only a limited section of this audience will actually end up converting on your site.

Marketing in the awareness phase

Given that people aren’t looking for (or perhaps even aware of) your hotel in the awareness stage, a broad keyword strategy is required.

People will generally be searching on general terms that include a destination (e.g. “hotels in Chicago”). However, competition for terms like these can be fierce and costly. With deep pockets, OTAs frequently end up grabbing the top paid search results spots. To put this into context, more than 55% of clicks go to the first ad position.

As an alternative approach, it can be worth targeting top-of-funnel customers that actually already have an awareness of your hotel. These users may have jumped back to the top of the funnel after carrying out some initial research that didn’t prove fruitful, leading them to restart their search.

In this instance, you can capitalize on these more qualified prospects by targeting them with a well-timed and compelling offer—something that can be achieved using Google Adwords Remarketing Lists for Search Ads (RLSA).

This form of ad shows up when a user has shown a specific search intent, such as searching again for your hotel name, or other specific search terms you choose to target. At Travel Tripper, we’ve found that RLSAs can result in an incredibly impressive 13:1 improvement over non-RLSAs during top-of-funnel campaigns.

By using this approach and combining it with a special deal or discount, you can hook the interest of people using top-of-funnel phrases that better match their search intent

2) The consideration phase

Consumers in this phase are starting to weigh up their options more seriously as they move towards a buying decision. At this point, they’ve decided on their final destination and know the kind of hotel they’re looking for. The keywords they’re using are now far more specific as they narrow down their options.

Search terms might include particular amenities or location highlights such as “hotels in x destination with a pool,” or “oceanfront hotels in x destination.” Other factors including price and descriptor differentiators (e.g. “cheap” vs. “luxury”) may also come into play to further refine the list of hotels that match their needs and preferences.

Marketing in the consideration phase

As consumers move into the “Consideration” stage, you need to bid on specific keywords that ensure your property is visible during advanced search queries.

Tools like Google AdWords keyword planner provide a great resource to identify the terms people are using. But alongside this approach, review sites can offer a goldmine of hyper-specific data.

By sifting through past feedback, you’ll be able to see the amenities your current guests are raving about. Patterns in the words they use to describe your property such as “family-friendly” or “great central location” can also identify how your property is perceived in the minds of your typical guest.

These kind of phrases can then be incorporated into long-tail keywords that chime with the perks and qualities people most associate with the experience you offer. While using more niche and specific keywords will reduce your addressable market, you’ll also be marketing at more qualified prospects who are more likely to end up converting.

3) The intent phase

The ‘Intent’ phase is all about selling. Your prospects have carried out their research and they’re ready to make their final purchase. They already know your hotel exists and they’ve probably visited your website on numerous occasions. As a result, they’ll be more likely to book with you when they see a search ad for your property.

Marketing at this lower end of the funnel represents the most efficient way to capture bookings as the people you’re targeting have a strong degree of purchase intent. While the volume of customers you’ll be reaching will be lower, you can expect increased conversion rates and an overall higher ROAS.

Marketing in the intent phase

Search terms at this point involve keywords with a strong level of commercial intent. Users will be hunting for the brand name of your hotel and the destination. The key now is to turn these interested buyers into confirmed bookers.

But to ensure your hotel is visible during a branded search query, it’s essential you bid on your own brand terms. If you don’t, it’s almost inevitable that the OTAs will—stealing a valuable direct booking right from under your nose.

Along with a branded search campaign, you can increase the odds of grabbing a final booking by creating tailored remarketing ads. For instance, deploying banner ads with discounts on room rates can tempt your captive audience into making a booking as they browse the web.

While this approach might eat into profit margins, it maximizes the chances of gaining a direct booking and potentially winning a long-term customer that might otherwise have booked with an OTA or competing hotel.

Similarly to top-of-funnel campaigns, RLSA campaigns can prove a highly effective way to capture bookings from those who are actively searching for your hotel or the keywords you’ve chosen to target.

A holistic approach to search funnel marketing

As an overall strategy, your intention should be to push users further down the search funnel, ensuring your hotel has a presence at each stage. In this way, you’ll reach those who were aware of your hotel to begin with, and those who arrived on the scene in the awareness or consideration stages.

By also creating tactical remarketing campaigns featuring special offers and incentives, you’ll increase the chances of capturing more bookings by capitalizing on the interest of those who have already interacted with your brand.

But having a presence at each funnel stage is just one half of the story. It’s equally important to consider what works for your hotel and budget. This might involve considering what impact spending in the “Awareness” stage has on performance in the “Intent” stage.

In the end, spending wisely and understanding what is most cost-efficient for your property should underpin your decision-making.

Nancy Huang

Nancy Huang

Nancy is the Senior Marketing Director at Pegasus and expert in strategic communication, brand development, and content marketing. She is an admitted travel junkie and loves finding amazing hotel deals when booking direct. Contact her at nancy.huang@pegs.com.

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