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Podcast transcript: Rethinking content marketing with Matt Barker

Note: This is a full transcript of our podcast on content marketing with Matt Barker. For a summary of the main points in the interview, please check out the article “Rethinking hotel content marketing with Matt Barker of I&I Travel Media.” 

Nancy: Hello, everyone. Welcome to another edition of Travel Tripper’s hotel marketing podcast. I am Nancy Huang, Marketing Manager at Travel Tripper. And I’m here today with Matt Barker, founder of I&I Travel Media. It’s a content marketing agency specializing in travel brands. He is also founder of Outbounding.org, which is a community platform that helps to source and curate the best travel content on the web. So, welcome Matt, glad to have you here.

Matthew: Hi, thanks for having me.

Nancy: Well, today we actually want to get talking about content marketing for hotels. So before we delve deep into the subject and what it’s all about, I’d like to actually ask you first how you define content marketing. So what is it, and why should hotels consider investing in it?

Matthew: Okay, it’s a good question. Content marketing is one of these things that has lots of misconceptions, and people bring different definitions to it. To most basic, what we’re talking about is using digital content to, at first, build an audience, and then figure out how to convert that audience into purchasing, to sales, into revenue. And when you put that simply, you see that there’s actually, there’s nothing special about content marketing at all. What we’re talking about is regular marketing. We’re just using a particular suite of tools and a particular set of channels to connect with people and to generate new business.

Nancy: Well, do you think that there might be some misconceptions out there about what content marketing is or isn’t? What do you think the biggest myths are?

Matthew: I think content marketing can be its own thing for different people. It can be as complex and sophisticated as you is you want it to be, and as you have the budget for, and is necessary for your organization, for your objectives. I think some of the misconceptions are that content marketing is, by definition, an open-ended endeavor, something that has no finish point, something that you have to continue to churn out on a regular basis, in the long-term, something that is indirect, this idea that it’s indirect marketing, which is true, but that doesn’t divorce it from any bottom-line KPIs. Content marketing is marketing, and it follows all of the same rules as any other approach to marketing.

At the end of the day, you have to know how much you’ve spent, and what it’s achieved, and what your return on investment is. Everything else comes after that. So you’re following exactly the same rules, it’s not a question. And people get put off, we speak to business owners all the time, and they get put off by this idea that it’s just an ongoing thing without end, it’s something you just have to do. It’s something you can’t measure, and it’s something that’s divorced from what’s actually important to you as a business, which is promoting your products and promoting brand, and bringing in new customers. None of that is true, and I think that’s partially why we see a lot of resistance, and people are scared and put off from getting involved with this when in actual fact, it doesn’t have to be that way at all.

Nancy: Right, and so when people think of ongoing, it’s sometimes… people just equate it to having a blog, for example.

Matthew: Yeah, exactly. That’s the classic idea, isn’t it? Content marketing, for a lot of people, is literally having a blog on your website and just putting articles up. And, you know, just throwing articles onto your blog, pushing your articles out to your Facebook followers, maybe you put that into an email and you send an email every month. For a lot of people, that’s what they think when they hear the phrase “content marketing.” And when you put it that way, you can understand why people are resistant to the idea, because that doesn’t make any sense. That’s not marketing, that’s something else. But it’s not marketing.

Nancy: That actually leads me to a pretty interesting point because I read a case study from your company. I actually originally read about it in Tnooz. It’s about a hotel that you worked on, on a specific content marketing campaign, so not just an ongoing blog, but a full… close-ended campaign. I’d love for you to tell us and the audience a little bit about this campaign, and how it worked, and how you were able to deliver such a strong return on investment.

Matthew: Well, this is the kind of standard…this is the solution to everything that we’ve just described. So you take all of those assumptions and you flip them on their head and say, “How should it be?” So instead of just cranking out blog article after article, content after content, we’re looking at the brand and the audience. So we’re starting with the very first question is to look at the target audience, what they want, what they need, the kinds of things that they would benefit from when they’re early in the customer journey to purchase. So maybe they’re planning a trip that could be 6 months, could 12 months away.

And for this particular case, it was a fairly small family-owned lodge in the Peruvian Amazon, it’s a modest business. And the big thing there is birdwatching, as you’d expect with the Amazon. So people would travel from all over the world to visit the Amazon to go birdwatching. And so, with this in mind, we’re starting think, what does this audience want, to someone that would consider traveling all that way to go birdwatching? So we’ve got a defined audience. We know that it’s fairly niche, it’s fairly focused. They’ve got fairly specific interests. So what would they benefit from? We’ve pulled together a whole bunch of content, a lot of it internally from the business, because these people are the experts in their field.

There’s no one else that knows birdwatching in the Peruvian Amazon better than these guys. So we gathered all of this internal knowledge, all of these assets. We pulled that together to create a guide to birdwatching in the Peruvian Amazon. And that’s a standalone piece of content. We’re not talking about a series of blog articles from now into infinity. It’s a single piece of content. We can publish it on the site in article form, but we’ll also repurpose that and turn it into a sort of downloadable guide. And so that gives us an asset, a tangible asset that we can use to start to qualify that audience. So that gives you a magnet.

It’s bringing these people into the site. And as soon as they go ahead and download this guide, they’re qualifying themselves. They’re putting themselves in a category of people that we know are important to the business, because if someone goes out of their way to give you their email address in exchange for a guide to birdwatching in the Peruvian Amazon, it’s a pretty safe bet that that’s what they’re interested in doing. So we know that this…it’s quite a small audience. It doesn’t have to be big. This is another of those misconceptions where we’re not talking about an enormous net, a big broad funnel just trying to bring everyone in. We want to be as focused as possible. So we’ve got this piece of content and it starts to qualify an audience. And it’s this audience that we know is going to be incredibly valuable to the business. We want to turn as many of these people into leads and into bookings as possible.

Nancy: And that’s interesting that you talk about a qualified audience. And that is really one of the key goals of at least this piece of content. It’s being able to identify that the people who are most likely to book, and then I remember that there was a part of remarketing to the leads that were actually captured. Isn’t that right?

Matthew: Exactly, exactly. Yeah. This is the second pillar to any piece of content marketing. You can build your audience, and you can qualify your audience, and that’s absolutely fine. What you have to do…and this is when it becomes marketing, what we have to do is convert that audience into sales, eventually. And so what you can do is create the touch points and use different channels. And it depends on the audience, so you have to build this whole thing from the ground up on what you know about the particular audience that you’re trying to reach. So where are they active? What are they looking for? What’s going to help nurture them towards making a booking?

So, in this case, email was incredibly important. So we’re using this guide to capture people’s email addresses, and then we use those email addresses to start nurturing people towards making a booking. You have to bear in mind that quite often people are months, possible years away from actually taking a trip, that the customer journey here can be incredibly long. So we’re not necessarily expecting to see bookings immediately. They don’t download this e-book and then book a trip immediately. It’s great if they do, but we have to bear in mind that quite often they won’t. So we’ll use email to nurture people along, and then we use remarketing to recapture those people when they are ready to book.

And so there are various ways of doing that. We can use search remarketing. Something that’s absolutely central to any piece of content marketing is search remarketing on Google AdWords. So if someone’s read this content and has downloaded the e-book, if they then go to Google and search “birdwatching vacations,” or “Amazon tours,” or whatever it is, whatever those keywords are, we want to make sure that we reconnect with those people, so you can build that into your AdWords with search remarketing.

But you can do the exact same thing via display ads, you can do the exact same thing on Facebook and Twitter with social remarketing. So it’s about building a framework, a number of touch points around these people, around this audience in a nonintrusive way. When people feel like they’re being followed from website to website, that gets annoying. So you want to do this in a nonintrusive way, in such a way that when they are ready to book a trip, they find their way back to the website, back to our site, and then we capture the booking.

Nancy: And at the end of the day, what would you say the success of this particular campaign was? Did it turn into actual booked revenue for the hotel?

Matthew: Yeah. The core objective for this project, the lodge in question gets a lot of business from agency referrals, from trade referrals, and there’s obviously a cost to that. And so they’re very keen, as lots of people are in building up their direct business. This will be very common for many hotel owners, you know, people that you might be relying on the OTAs, and you want to build up your own direct business, it was a similar situation here. So we can look at the average cost per sale that they have from their trade and referral business. And that gives us a KPI. We want to say that, “Okay, the leads that we generate through this project need to come in at a comparable or smaller cost per sale.”

So you can base all of this on real proper figures, real KPIs. This isn’t just about numbers of Facebook likes and numbers of shares, and numbers of visits to the content. This is measured in bottom-line metrics. And yeah, I mean it was incredibly successful. So at the latest count, we’re on something like 425% return on investment, and the main, I would say, benefit to a project like this, is that as long as that content is there on the site doing its job, it’s earning a further return on its investment. So it’s there permanently. It’s qualifying that audience, and then those people are coming back to the site. So it’s a one-off investment that has ongoing returns.

Nancy: That’s great. Actually, a great example of a case study, and showing how content marketing can really work for hotels beyond just a blog. So for hotel marketers that want to get into content marketing or change up their content strategy, where would you say is the best place to start? For example, let’s start with content creation. Where do you think these ideas should come from?

Matthew: Well, I think a lot of what we’ve learned with this particular project is probably transferable to other hotel marketers, so some of those transferable points. Firstly, the knowledge that the content itself can come from within the business. You don’t need to go and spend a fortune on external content creators and writers, and so on and so on.

I’ll qualify that with a big caveat, if you can’t produce the content yourself, then you do, most definitely, need to go and pay a professional to help you with that. What you can do is kind of botch it together with cheap content and content farm style outsourcing. If you can’t, if you don’t have the resource internally to produce this, then you do need to find someone who knows what they’re doing.

Nancy: So quality is always a primary concern?

Matthew: Absolutely, yeah. And like we were saying before, I think the goal with anything like this is you want to be aiming for something that is definitive in its quality. We’re not talking about Ernest Hemingway. But we are talking about the depth of detail and quality of the detail, stuff that isn’t just readily, freely available elsewhere. You can’t just be more…the biggest problem, in my mind, with online publishing these days is just the sheer amount of fluff, and garbage, and junk that’s out there.

The point to this is that you create…it doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t have to be huge piece of content, it can be very small, but it has to be the best piece of content there is, at least available for free online. And I think hotels are in a really strong position there because it’s similar to this lodge. They are the experts in their area. They are the local…each hotel has its own tourist information bureau. They know everything about their neighborhood, and the town, and the city, what’s going on, what’s happening, where to go. Everything you need to know, the hotel owner knows that.

Nancy: One question that our hotel marketers might have is that if you are a hotel in a large metropolitan city, so say New York or San Francisco, those cities have blogs and publications for just about everything you could imagine, how would you create content that would stand out in those types of markets?

Matthew: I guess there’s two directions you can go there. The overriding goal is to be as focused as possible. So you can focus down on the audience, if the hotel has a very particular type of audience… what does the typical customer base look like? Does it tend to be people traveling with young families? That gives you an entryway that you can follow. So look at that audience and think about what you can produce that is tailored to those people. The other thing you could do is focus down into a specific neighborhood. You’re not going to compete with a guide to New York City, but there will be tons of stuff on the neighborhood level that you could explore and that you could turn into content.

And that’s stuff that might not… there will be plenty of stuff out there already, but how good is it? And this is one of the things to look at, the stuff that you can Google and you can find, there will be a bunch of results from TripAdvisor, and you’ll click on a TripAdvisor link and you’ll get the top 10,000 restaurants in this city. Okay, well, maybe people don’t want to know 10,000 restaurants, maybe people want to know the best three. So what are the best three restaurants for your particular audience, in this particular neighborhood? And take that local knowledge. It’s more about, and this is common to a lot of content marketing, it’s about curating knowledge as much as creating it from scratch. So be the expert, be the curator, find out the most important things for your audience, and pull that together, and use your own knowledge and expertise to do that.

Nancy: And I think also it’s important to try and be as unique as possible, and really you’re not trying to create content that competes with already existing content.

Matthew: Exactly. There’s no point in just adding to the noise. You want to improve upon what’s out there already. TripAdvisor is a good example. You can Google pretty much anything in any town or city and you’ll get a load of TripAdvisor results. And if you look at that stuff, there’s not great deal of actual value there. It’s fine if you want a list of every single restaurant in the area. But who is saying, “Well, forget about all of that. If you are traveling with kids and you want a good meal, and you want a family, this one place, or these two places, but you need to get here before 6:00 p.m. because they get busy, or give so and so a ring and say, mention our names, and they’ll get you a table.” That kind of thing, it’s that kind of value that you’re looking to add.

Nancy: After you have created this sort of content, I’d like to talk about the next steps because I don’t think hotel marketers pay enough attention to content after it’s been published. Is it enough to just put it out there and hope people find it?

Matthew: Yeah, that’s another one of these misconceptions. I’m probably showing my age by mentioning the “Field of Dreams,” so you know that idea that if you build it, they’ll come. They absolutely won’t. It doesn’t work like that.

You can create this content, and it can be as valuable, and unique, and useful as possible. But you have to go put it out there, you have to distribute the content to the target audience. And these days, more often than not, that means paying to reach the audience.

Nancy: T here’s an element of paid ads, you would suggest?

Matthew: Yeah, increasingly, what we’re seeing is that that’s, by far and away, the biggest component there. So there are a number of ways that you can do that. We just get a lot of mileage with Facebook ads. And this is one of those unfortunate things. Brands have spent a long time building up their Facebook page followers, and increasingly that doesn’t really count for much. So you post something to your Facebook page, very few people will see it, even if you spent a lot of time and maybe money building up your followers. But on the other hand, if you boost those posts and you just put a little bit of money to that, then you’ll find Facebook’s audience targeting unparalleled. So you can really get your content in front of that super targeted audience. And so that’s always really useful. But there are various channels, various ways of doing it.

Nancy: What would you say about PR? How does that play into it, as well?

Matthew: That’s another important component. And again, there are various ways of doing it. It could be a lot of outreach involved with this. And this is where you start thinking about blogger outreach and influencer outreach, and things like that. Again, quite often you’ll need to pay to play in that environment. It’s not often that a blogger will happily, at least at any great volume, push out your content for free. They will need to make a living, too. But there are ways of building that into your content plan. So if you’re creating a piece of content, why not commission some sections of that content from a series of bloggers, people that already have a connection to your audience, and then they will help you to promote the content to your audience?

So that can be quite useful. And then there’s just the old-school PR, going out making…approaching the journalists and the publications that cover whatever your subject happens to be, and try and get them to give you some coverage. What I would say is that even just in terms of the amount of time it takes to do that, is quite often, just makes a lot more sense to put some money behind it, and follow the paid route, and just Facebook ads, things like Outbrain, even Google display ads can be a fairly cheap way of promoting your content. It’s a lot easier, it’s a lot more measurable, and more often than not, you get better results.

Nancy: And along with…so once you’ve actually gotten the distribution out, let’s talk a little bit about the lead capture part of it. So you’ve driven people to your content, how important is lead capture?

Matthew: It’s sort of the whole point, and for various reasons. This goes back to what we were saying earlier about qualifying the audience. Theoretically, you could use remarketing just on anyone that’s landed on your content. So if you’ve got a piece of content and it’s on your blog, maybe you do some paid promotion, and then you can remarket to everyone that touches that content.

Chances are your ultimate conversion rates aren’t going to be that good. If you put a soft conversion, like an email capture, as you know, is a perfect example—download piece of content in return for your email—if you build that soft conversion into this journey, this customer journey, then you’re qualifying the audience. Someone’s gone out of their way to exchange their email address in return for this piece of content. So that tells you that they are relevant, and that’s an important prospect that you want to go after. And then you can focus your recapture on that smaller bucket of people.

Nancy: And once you’ve captured a lead and you have their email, how do you know when a potential lead might be ready to book? And how you do the follow-up, once you have that email?

Matthew: The smartest thing to do is…you can separate these channels out. With email, what we tend to find, especially in travel…with hotels it’s slightly different. With tour operators, the journey to purchase, it can be very long indeed. From moment of inspiration to actual booking, you could be talking years. So using those email addresses just to constantly cram bottom-funnel sales messages into their inbox every month can often be counterproductive, people are going to unsubscribe. It’s not going to end well. So you can use those emails just to keep your brand in their awareness. So send the higher-funnel content, send maybe curated content, so not even your own links to your own stuff is finding their way into the inbox.

So you’re keeping the brand and the product to mind, but you’re not trying to sell to them. Then what you can do is take those email addresses, and both on Facebook and Google now, fairly recently, you can retarget a user’s email address. So you can import those email addresses to your ad dashboard on AdWords and onto Facebook, and you can target your ads to these email addresses, to these users. And so, particularly when it comes to search ads, this is enormously powerful. Search is the moment that someone has decided to make a purchase. This is a real bottom-funnel channel. They are proactively searching for a provider for a hotel, or for whatever it is.

So if you’ve got these email addresses and you’re targeting your search ads to this particular group of users, then that’s when you snag the actual booking, so that that final moment that they’ve made up their mind, they’re ready to make a purchase, and they see your ad. They don’t see that by accident. They see that because you’ve targeted to them. And it just so happens that for the last however many months, they’ve received your emails, and they’ve really enjoyed your emails because they’ve not been spammy and promotional and salesy. They’ve been informative and interesting, entertaining.

Nancy: It seems this is quite a long customer journey you’re describing. So it seems like content marketing is sort of a much more long-form game of marketing.

Matthew: It can be. Yeah. There’s no denying that. It definitely can be. This varies on the company and the type of company. So like I was saying, tour operators, if you just think about your own vacations that you might have taken in the past. How long is it from when you start thinking about a destination or a certain holiday, to the moment that you actually book that trip? It can be a huge amount of time. What we’re doing here is we’re staying relevant throughout that entire journey. So instead of just…what a lot of people will do is throw their money at the search ads at the very end, and spend a lot on AdWords, and spend a lot of money on SEO, on these things just to capture people at the very end.

Well, what we’re doing is we’re staying relevant, we’re being involved all throughout that journey. And that greatly increases the chances of getting a booking. That’s for tour operators. For hotels, it’s a whole different game. The journey to purchase, the decision for a hotel is quite often very different. People book much more…or they, not necessarily, but they can be booking in a much shorter time frame. So we’re not necessarily talking about years and months, we might be talking about weeks and days, with hotels.

Nancy: The last thing I’d actually like to touch upon is the ROI of content marketing. Sometimes it’s not super clear-cut, and obviously hotel managers want to see actual revenue, actual numbers. Can you maybe lay out some of the metrics that hotel marketers should be looking at when they’re considering content marketing campaigns such as this?

Matthew: Sure. First off, it’s actually very straightforward. This is probably another one of those many misconceptions of it’s, in some way, excessively complex, complicated to calculate your ROI. It’s actually not. It’s quite straightforward. And Google Analytics makes it very easy. You just have to make sure that you’ve got a number of steps in place before you begin any of this. So the first thing you need to do is to have your goal values. That’s a calculation, an estimation of the value to your business of every lead that you get.

Not every sale, every booking, every lead. Obviously, you have a goal value for every sale as well, but just looking more generally, every time someone contacts your company with an inquiry or reservation request, we want to calculate the value to the business of that goal, that conversion. And that’s very easy to do. Just take some back-of-the-envelope calculations. If you know the average value of the sale to your business, and you know the average sale conversion rate, so you know if you sell 10% of all leads, you’ve got a 10% conversion rate, and if your average sale is $1,000, then your goal value is $10. So that’s nice and simple.

So you calculate the goal value to your business, and then you enter that into Google Analytics, so you can save that, and you can set up your goal tracking. This is crucially important in Analytics, to have your goal tracking set up, so that fires every time somebody gets in touch, every time somebody sends a contact form, or whatever it might be on your website, and you have to track that, and you have to have a value to that. And then once you’ve got that, Google Analytics will take care of all the rest.

So, in terms of content marketing, what you’re looking at is there’s a report in Analytics called Assisted Conversions, and this is really important to get our heads around. These are indirect processes, someone comes to your content, and then they leave the website. Then they come back to the website via whatever, an email. And then they leave the website. Then they finally come back to the website via a retargeting ad, and then they book. Traditionally, that last interaction was what we based all of our ROI on. So we would attribute the sale, the final sale to that ad click, the final interaction. But in actual fact, what we know is that sale has been assisted by various other interactions.

So it started with this content, maybe it started a Facebook click. And then there was that email click. And then finally there was this ad click. And Google Analytics, in your Assisted Conversions reports, will help you calculate what those assisted interactions look like, and what the actual value is. It’s not a perfect system. It’s not watertight, but it gives you a pretty solid look at the value of all of these different channels, even if they’re not directly lead generating. They’re assisting leads. They’re not directly generating leads. But you can still calculate the value, and you can still put a dollar value to those activities. And then the rest is simple. If your sales are bigger then what you’ve spent, then you’ve got return on your investment. It’s fairly straightforward.

Nancy: Right. I think that’s actually a pretty insightful way to look at it, because I think a lot of people look at content marketing, and they think about it more in terms of page views, or search rankings, likes on social media, and this is an actual way to look at return on investment in terms of actual revenue.

Matthew: Exactly, exactly that. You could look at different metrics, how well your content is performing, the comments you get, the time on site, the shares, all of that kind of stuff. They are important metrics to be aware of. They will help you plan your efforts and give you an idea that you’re on the right track. But at the end of the day, you want to be looking at the return on investment. That’s all that matters.

Nancy: This has been a really insightful conversation into the world of content marketing. Mathew, I want to thank you so much for joining us today, and for sharing with us your experience and expertise.

Matthew: Yeah, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Nancy: Thank you. Again, Matt is the founder of I&I Travel Media, a content marketing agency specializing in custom content campaigns for travel brands. I will be posting a link to his website, and the case study we mentioned, in the blog. But you can also visit their website directly at ianditravelmedia.com. So if you have any other additional questions or comments, please share them with us in the comments section, or tweet them to us @Travel_Tripper. Thanks for listening, everyone, and subscribe to our blog here at pegs.com for more articles on hotel marketing and distribution.

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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