Podcast transcript: Winning PPC campaigns with Josh Garofalo and Tristan Heaword

Note: This is a full transcript of our podcast. For a summary of the main points in the interview, please check out the article “Creating winning PPC campaigns with Josh Garofalo and Tristan Heaword.”

Nancy: Hello, and welcome to another edition of Travel Tripper’s hotel marketing podcast. I am Nancy Huang, Marketing Manager at Travel Tripper, and today we’ll be diving into the world of search engine marketing and the secrets to creating winning PPC campaigns. I’m here today with two special guests, Josh Garofalo, a marketing copywriter who specializes in conversion rate optimization, and Tris Heaword, a PPC expert who also happens to be the Co-director of Digital Marketing here at Travel Tripper. Josh and Tris, happy to have you here today.

Tris: Hi, good to be here.

Josh: Thanks for having me.

Nancy: So search engine marketing. This is a good topic for hotels because they spend millions a year advertising on Google AdWords. And for many of them, the emphasis has traditionally been about which keywords to bid on. But keyword research is really only half the strategy, isn’t it?

Tris: Yes, Nancy. I think you’re right with that. Google AdWords within the hotel industry almost seems to be an afterthought. First, it’s get the website set up, then it’s get the offer pages and everything else that you want on there, and then you start thinking about advertising as a hotelier. Whereas I found that with the experience I’ve had with Google AdWords that really you need to get involved at a much earlier stage. Almost at the point when the website is being created or when the offers are being put together if the website already exists simply because the transition from a user of Google typing certain keywords in there, so “hotels in New York” to booking, more often than not what we’re actually finding is that the keywords and the ads that we’re getting in place for AdWords are right. But there’s a disconnect between the ad in AdWords and what the landing page and the information on the website is actually telling us.

So that transitional journey from start to finish becomes disjointed, and it interrupts the sales flow. So there’s certainly a lot more to be considering at an earlier stage that could perhaps be two or three steps down the line. More often than not we find that hotels are leaving this either to the very last minute, or in fact not contemplating it or actually making any changes to this at all, and it’s making some serious detrimental effects to their return on investment.

Nancy: And Josh, you know quite a bit about landing pages in these PPC campaigns, don’t you?

Josh: I do. That’s the other half. So if Tris does all of his work perfectly, if you’re sending them to a page that isn’t designed to actually sell on whatever it is the pay-per-click ad promised, then you’re going to lose a lot of those conversion rates, and you’re going to pay a lot more money for each of those customers that you actually do manage to acquire.

Nancy: Well, let’s start with what landing pages are all about. What is a landing page and what isn’t? So Josh, why isn’t it necessarily a good idea to send traffic to your homepage?

Josh: Yeah. So I think it makes sense to start by sort of contrasting a webpage — so your homepage for example and a landing page — because when I speak to clients, many people still think that these two are the same. They don’t recognize that there are some key differences.

So when you’re looking at a webpage, your traffic sources vary. You don’t really know where they’re coming from. It could be organic search, direct, it could be a referral from another website. And it should never ever be a pay-per-click ad, and I’ll talk about that in a little bit. And you don’t know who the user is. You have no idea what stage of the funnel they’re in. Are they ready to sign up and book direct online right now, or are they sort of just exploring where in the world they even want to go? And you have a number of clickable links on your webpages because you’re encouraging exploration. You have no idea what it is they’re looking for, so you just want to give them an opportunity to sort of do that research whilst staying on your website and just make that nice and easy for them.

So you contrast that with a landing page. This is where the sales usually actually happen. So it should be connected to a paid ad. And if a pay-per-click ad is written properly, you have a good idea of who the visitor is and what it is they’re looking for. I’m not talking about specifics like what their name is, but you have a good idea that they’re looking for vacation in New York at a certain price point, maybe they’re looking for a deal because a pay-per-click ad should say those things.

And the biggest difference, and the thing that people get wrong, is the landing page should have one goal and one goal only. So if you want them to book direct online at that time, for example, you shouldn’t have links that let them explore your own page and different types of room rates. You want to keep them on that page and give them all the information they need to make that decision to actually follow through, book direct or whatever your goal is and that’s it. Anything that isn’t driving towards that goal, whether links, images, copy, it’s just going to reduce your conversion rates.

Nancy: And does that have any relation to the ad itself? Tris, I know you had mentioned before to me that Google actually crawls your landing page. Is that not right?

Tris: Yeah, that’s very true. And Josh has hit some very important points there as well, especially about the sales funnel. The landing page copy that you’re using, the words or the message that you’re trying to relay really do need to be reflected even earlier than that in the Google AdWords ad.

So if we know that the type of keywords that we’re bidding on are more broadly related to such as “hotels in New York City,” then we know that people are quite early on in the sales funnel. They’ve at least identified where they’re going to be going or where they think they want to go, and what they’re looking for is a choice of options in hotels to test and just see what takes their fancy.

So the type of ad that you’re going to have is going to be a little bit more generic, a little bit more open to try and entice people in there. But equally that landing page that you direct to needs to reflect that as well. So if you’ve got an ad that is offering a 20% discount for an advance purchase, it may not be the best type of ad for somebody in that earlier sale cycle. So directing somebody to a landing page that is optimized for that one particular offer is not going to be particularly effective. The return on investment is not going to be that great, and the bounce rate is going to be really, really high. Well, perhaps not really high, but at least it’s not quite going to be where you want it to be. I think you want it to be a little bit more effective than that. So by having a more generic ad, that’s going to be more enticing and showing perhaps more features and benefits of the hotel at large than a specific offer, but leading them into an offer, maybe a little bit more at the right stage of that sales funnel.

Nancy: And you mentioned bounce rate, and this has a little bit to do with message matching which Josh has brought up before. Can you explain what message matching is?

Josh: Yeah, so message matching is whatever the copy is on the pay-per-click ad that they clicked, they should be reflected right away when they land on your landing page. A lot of people try to do a hard sale at the top of their landing page, but if you think about it, how often do you really click a pay-per-click ad? If you click that ad, you’re pretty much sold on whatever is on the other side. You just need to not be scared away from the offer, more or less.

So the first thing you need to do, they click the ad, they come to your landing page, they need to know within two or three seconds that they’re in the right place. And you do that by sort of matching the headlines. So I actually have a good example of this. I’ve been doing some research for my honeymoon because I’m getting married in one month, and we’re going to Disney. So I did a search, I looked for Disney World packages. I was kind of looking for a deal because it is pretty expensive, and one of the pay-per-click ads told me that they have Disney World vacations from $199, and that includes two Disney tickets and a hotel, so that’s perfect. I clicked the ad and the headline is, “Disney World vacation packages from $199. Two Disney tickets and a hotel up to 50% off.” Right away I knew I was exactly where I wanted to be with that pay-per-click ad. So that’s a good example right there for message matching.

Nancy: And what else should go on a landing page? So there are some essential elements. We’ve talked about message matching, getting from the PPC ad on Google to the landing page itself. What else should be on that landing page?

Josh: Yeah, so there’s five elements that should definitely be there. I would definitely say unique values or selling propositions. So that’s usually above the fold. You want to tell people who it’s for, what’s being offered, the benefits of the offer, and why you and not the competition. That’s the unique part there. So it could be something as simple as, you have a promotion or sale that your competitors aren’t matching right now, or maybe you have some sort of exclusive location that’s just better or different and would appeal to a certain customer that the other hotels in the area just can’t match. And of course like I just said, you want to ensure continuation from the ad. That’s definitely necessary.

Your hero shot, that’s an image or a video. And again this is probably going to be above the fold. That shows the destination that people are expressing interest in, and if possible or if appropriate, show real people enjoying the place, so they could sort of put themselves in their shoes.

Benefits. You need to stress the benefits and not the features. So I see this sometimes. The travel industry is a little bit better than others, but they still will sometimes stress the features. So for example, don’t tell me the dimensions of a room unless I click a link that says I’m expressly interested in knowing the dimensions of my room. Tell me how it’s 10 steps from the beach and that the crashing waves will allow me to sleep at night, because I’m a person, I’m at home, I’m looking for some sort of vacation, some sort of break, and you need to sell me on those benefits, not the features.

And this is a huge one, social proof. And the travel industry, this is by far the easiest industry to get this in. So I’m saying a whole bunch of things that I guess my customers want to hear. I need proof from sources outside of myself that confirm that what I’m saying is actually true. So these are your testimonials, your awards or impressive media mentions.

And when we’re talking about testimonials, this is one place where the travel industry sometimes gets it a little bit wrong. They tend to favor the vague testimonials. So things like, “This vacation was amazing, I’ll definitely be back.” That’s vague, that’s something that every hotel in the world can probably get someone to say.

The testimonials that actually do the hard selling are the ones that are a lot more detailed. If you go to TripAdvisor.com, people are writing small paragraphs and they’re giving specifics, like how many kids they traveled with, and the server’s name that made their vacation an absolute delight. Those are the types of things that are going to be a little bit more unique to your place.

The other thing, obviously one conversion goal, we kind of already covered that already. Don’t go sending them to other webpages. Whatever it is you’re trying to get them to do, only let them do that. Their only option should be to either close the window, press the back button or follow through and actually convert.

Nancy: And what should the conversion be? Should it be the booking? Should it be for signing up for a special offer?

Josh: Yeah, it needs to reflect the pay-per-click ad they clicked. So as Tris was saying, if they’re showing sort of buyers and tend like they’re looking for a deal, then yeah, make the offer a direct booking. If it’s high level pay-per-click ad that they clicked through on, you’re probably not going to get that conversion goal at that moment, but maybe you can give them something like a brochure or a sign-up for updates, or just something to help them make a decision, and that way you stay top of mind as they’re going through the exploratory stage of their vacation planning.

I was just going to say the last thing, and I notice a major destination that does this—Sandals—and that’s instill some urgency when you can. So for example I’ve been looking at honeymoons for a while now, and Sandals is one of the places I was looking at. One thing I noticed is they always have a huge sale on with a countdown. It doesn’t matter what it is. So today it’s St. Patrick’s Day sale, in 2 days, 14 hours, 6 minutes and 18 seconds this sale ends. And it’s save up to 65%. So they’re instilling a sense of urgency. I need to hurry up. They’re telling me I’ve got two days left. So whenever appropriate, instill that sense of urgency to sort of get that action now, so they know they can’t just do this later.

Tris: It’s actually really interesting you bring that up, Josh, because that’s a technique that I’ve used on multiple occasions with the PPC ads. There’s an ability to put in a countdown timer into PPC ads for, like you said, limited time offers, specials, deals, whatever. The most notable one, most recent one we did was around the cyber weekend deals, Cyber Monday. With certain hotels that we’re working with, we had a pre-cyber sale, and then the Cyber Monday sale itself, and we were using that countdown ad. And the click-through rate that we were getting for just having that sense of urgency, that fear of missing out, increased quite considerably. Managed to get some good uplift, and especially on the Cyber Monday, the percentage of revenue that was generated on that one day was probably some of the largest that we will see all year for each individual hotel that we were doing it on.

And I think another really good example…I know you mentioned the Sandals hotel, was it? I think another really good example of using that fear of missing out, that sense of urgency is essentially who the hotels are going up against. It’s the OTAs. They leverage that exceptionally well, and each individual OTA does it in a slightly different way. You’ll have various pop-ups that will come up, and it’s slightly different for the OTAs than it is for the hotels, but a lot of these techniques can still be used. But I have still to see them being introduced into a hotel website properly.

So for example, you’ve got…so many people are viewing this offer in the last X amount of hours, days, weeks or however long it’s going to be. You’ve also got the “So many rooms left. Hurry.” If you’re going to dwell and you can’t make your mind up about which room you want, well you better be quick because you might have to find a different hotel because this room is about to go pretty soon because there’s only three left.

And equally then it’s the same with the price sensitive aspect to it. “If you want this room, yes, we’ve got lots of rooms available, but hurry because this discount on this deal is going to evaporate in X amount of time.”

So there’s lots of different ways of leveraging that, but I think it’s a huge, huge area that individual hotel websites and group websites really have not even started to scratch the surface with. There’s very few hotels that I can think of that have really even attempted this or tried it, or actually made any success from it if I’m being perfectly honest.

Josh: Right. I agree.

Nancy: I want to backtrack a little bit about something you said earlier, Josh, about social proof. And what comes up in conversion rate optimization a lot is things about message mining; so using the words out of customers’ mouths. Can you explain a little bit more about message mining and how it works on landing pages?

Josh: Yeah, for sure. So message mining, as you said, is basically capturing the voice of a customer. And this is one of the things that I always do on a project, and it’s something clients, again, are a little bit surprised about because they think that I will come up with a copy in a vacuum just because I’m a good writer. But that’s not actually how it works. The best copy is usually either inspired by actual customers and what they say, or sometimes it’s literally taken verbatim from their writing or from their mouths or from doing an interviewer. And again, the travel industry, you have resources like TripAdvisor where people are talking about your destination, your competitors’ destinations in their own words. And when you’re going through those, you’re not just reading them all and not sorting through and taking different points out. There are some key things you want to look for when you’re actually looking through those testimonials.

So one of those things is what I would call a sticky message. And I guess the best way to describe that would be the opposite of what you would consider corporate. Even your corporate clients don’t speak like a corporate website. They’re human beings, they just happened to wear a suit and they’re coming to your hotel for a conference. So words that sort of are human, phrases that are human, that sort of stick in your mind, and capture your attention for a second, that will probably also work on a headline or a sub-headline to capture a visitor’s attention.

The other thing you want to look for is what it is people say they value. So you might think your salt water pool is the selling feature, that’s the thing that people love about your hotel. But if you read through 150 testimonials and most of them are positive, and no one’s talking about the salt water pool, no matter how awesome you think your salt water pool is, that’s not the selling feature. Take a look and see what people are actually saying they value. Maybe it’s the helpful front desk, or the maids who do an amazing job cleaning the room and leaving a nice little towel sculptures on your bed every morning.

Nancy: And Tris, I’m sure you have experience with this.

Tris: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely indeed. I think this is one of the biggest areas that I think hotels kind of miss. And Josh has hit the nail absolutely on the head. It’s actually understanding what your customers actually want instead of what you, the hotel, or you, the management company, believe that customers want, or what you’re wanting to push. Slightly different from the social metrics side of things. We’ve been seeing a few hotels recently trying to push a particular offer through the PPC platform simply because it’s good for the hotel. Now, the return on investment may not be the best, in fact in some cases we’ve seen it’s two or three times lower some of the other offers that we’ve got in place, but the hotel wants to push this because it’s good for them.

But straightaway as Josh mentioned there, we’ve got a disconnect from what a customer is looking for when they’re entering their keyword into Google Search. They ad is seeing something which may not be the most attractive to them. So already we’re on a back flop, but we’re still going to get some people that are going to click on it. When you click through and get to a landing page, if the landing page isn’t optimized enough, so when we’re talking about the actual message that we’re wanting to send to them, the offer that the hotel are trying to push is different from what we’re seeing that the vast majority of people are interested in, straightaway you’ve got a disconnect there.

So it’s a similar sort of vein as the social metrics. If you can have that very bland and generic, “Yes, our hotel is fantastic,” as opposed to, as Josh mentioned, the Travel Tripper individual. “My family of three or four found this, an amazing holiday. The front desk staff were fantastic.” All of these little things start to build up a picture on a landing page so that you need to get the message from start to finish 100% correct. But you’ve also got to listen to the users. They vote with their clicks. It is, at the end of the day, a popularity contest this. The more clicks you get, the more likelihood you are of getting conversions. The better optimized your landing page is, again, the more likelihood you are going to get bookings to your hotel. So it really isn’t rocket science; it’s just making sure that message match is right from the entire funnel from start to finish.

Nancy: And what are some of the good campaigns? So aside from the Sandals’ St. Patrick’s Day honeymoon special, or the Disney honeymoon package you mentioned, are there any other campaigns that you’ve seen do this well particularly with the message matching between PPC ad and the landing page?

Tris: From my perspective, I still think the hotel industry is struggling to cope with this type of thinking, simply because the OTAs are such huge monsters and all they do is exactly what we’re talking about. They’re not interested in the hotel itself, they’re not bothered about whether the maid puts a fancy towel out or a chocolate on your pillow because that’s up to the hotel. These OTAs, what they do is they’re purely digital marketing specialists. They’ve got all of the hotel details, they’ve got all the hotels signed up. All they need to do is market them. They don’t actually produce anything, they don’t create anything. The only thing they’re servicing is a marketing function. Yet the hotels are so very, very dependent upon them because they generate so much business, simply because they’ve become masters at what they do, and each individual hotel cannot compete with the sheer size and might if they were to go head to head with an individual OTA.

However, there are some really good opportunities where you can almost steal their work, steal the millions that they’ve invested in marketing techniques. Study what they do, what the OTAs do and how they do it, and implement the factors of that that are relevant to your hotel. I think I already mentioned a few before around the fear of missing out, the way that you can illicit or entice a customer to act quicker perhaps on a little bit more of an impulse. But equally again, it’s with the message that the OTAs are giving about each hotel. What are they saying is important as part of one of the features and the benefits of the hotel? So if you go to Booking.com, they’ve got various little icons that very quickly and easily show you what each room or each hotel has as a feature or benefit. Free Wi-Fi, free breakfast.

And again it’s the language that they’re using as well; this is very, very important. I’m saying this is a huge bugger of me, and anybody who knows me will be shaking their head right now. But they’ll know that nobody in the real world uses the word “complimentary” when they’re talking about something they got free. So if I walk up to you in a shop and say, “Hey, would you like to try this free sample?” you’re going to walk out and tell somebody else, “Hey, they’re giving away free samples there.” You’re not going to say, “Hey, they’re giving away complimentary samples.”

So for me I do understand but I don’t agree with the reason why many hotels are using the word “complimentary” instead of the word “free”. It’s so much more impactive. We know that the click-through rate goes up, and we also know that conversion rate is far better when you advertise and lay things out, and that is something that the OTAs do very, very well. They don’t use flowery language. They don’t use a language that is more associated with the hotels from a very business and corporate marketing style. They know who their customers are, they know what information they want, and they know how to sell it. And if you just look at any of the OTA websites, there are huge amounts of data, there are huge amounts of styles, there are huge amounts of techniques that you can actually take from them and introduce into your own hotel website.

Nancy: Tris, you actually bring up a really good point about the OTAs and this idea that you should use “free” instead of “complimentary”. And I’m sure a lot of that has to do with the fact that they do tons of A/B testing, which is another thing that I wanted to talk about. And Josh, could you explain a little bit about the importance of A/B testing and what that actually means for a landing page?

Josh: Definitely. So this is a huge topic, and we could have a whole podcast just on this, but it’s definitely worth touching on. So something that a lot of copywriters and conversion rate experts like myself don’t like to share is the fact that when we write your landing page or your website or your sales emails, we’re not going to get it perfect the first time. We’re probably going to create a better baseline than someone who isn’t trained in this would come up with; that is it’s going to convert better than what you probably have right now, but it’s not going to be perfect. The way you get perfect or as close to perfect as possible is through these A/B tests, or at least that’s one primary method, especially if you have decent amounts of traffic going to the page.

So this is just making small, controlled, calculated changes to your webpages, and sort of splitting your traffic between the two to see which one performs better. So maybe you’re testing the effect of complimentary and free in the headline at the top of your landing page. That would be the only change, and that way you know that if you send a lot of traffic to both pages, and the page that says “free” converts better than “complimentary”, scrap “complimentary”. No matter how special or smart you think that word is, it’s not converting. Go to “free”, and that would be an improvement. And then the next month you might make a different change based on some feedback you’re getting from users. And you’ll continue doing that and sort of keep bumping your conversion rate up month over month which is obviously important. It drives down the cost to acquire new customers, which is pretty key.

Tris: I think as well with that in the PPC world, especially with AdWords and with Bing, we do something very, very similar in that the ad copy that we’re using is similar sense to what Josh is talking about there. We’re going to A/B test that, but we are very, very limited by characters. So the amount of space, the amount of text that we physically got to play with is not a full landing page.

So again, it’s the same idea there. You’ll be running multiple ads and variation and that may be one word. In some cases, you can also have exactly the same ad and run them, as Josh says, to different landing pages. But it may well be that we’re actually testing the ad copy to get that initial hook, because it’s the ad that gets somebody to the website, and if you can’t get them to the website, it can be the best optimized website in the world. If you’ve got a terrible ad, no one is ever going to find it.

So we do the same there and certain tests that I’ve run in the past, again, we’ve seen this and I think it’s not just the hotel industry but it transcends the entire Internet. If you put the word “free” in there, I would say 99 times out of 100 it will have a better click-through rate than an ad that doesn’t have it in. And again, that just comes from sheer testing and A/B testing each individual ad, the copy that we use on each individual offer for whatever industry it is.

Josh: I was actually going to say, I think…sorry, Nancy. I was just going to say I think the limitations that you have in pay-per-click is actually helpful, because sometimes I’ll run into clients that are doing A/B testing. You can’t see me right now, I’m doing air quotes. But what they’re doing is they’re creating two landing pages for the same offer that are both very different, splitting traffic between them, seeing that one converts better and then going with that one. But you can’t learn anything. If you’ve changed 10 to 15 different things on a page and it converts better, well, why? Why did it convert better? And you can’t know, and then you can’t use that on different landing pages or webpages. Yeah, you end up with a better landing page but you have no idea why.

Tris: Yeah, there could be one factor in there that was hugely brilliant and drove a lot more conversions, yet there’s another factor that turns off another segment of people.

Josh: Exactly.

Tris: And actually, yeah, you end up having a very little different end result, but you have actually made changes that could have gone one way or another. Yeah, a very good point.

Nancy: Right. Absolutely. Well, as Josh said, you could have a whole other podcast just based off of A/B testing. And we won’t get into that today for this podcast, so we’ll wrap up here and finish our talk on landing pages and PPC. I want to thank you Josh and Tris for the fantastic conversation today. Hopefully we can have you both back for another chat.

Tris: Sure, yeah.

Nancy: Again, Josh is a marketing copywriter specializing in conversion rate and landing page optimization. You can find Josh at SwayCopy.com. That’s S-W-A-Y Copy.com, or on Twitter @swaycopy as well.

And Tris is our Co-director of Digital Marketing here at Travel Tripper, where he runs the PPC and retargeting programs for our hotels. So if you’d like to speak to him and reach out to him directly, his email is Tris@pegs.com.

If you have any questions about today’s podcast, please feel free to reach out in the comments or tweets at us @Travel_Tripper. Thanks for listening and subscribe to our blog for more on hotel marketing and distribution.

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