Google and Facebook continue to help their airline partners by releasing all manner of travel-related products. In fact, they are being so helpful, it’s not hard to see a future where airline brands can stop wasting money on branding altogether!
Think of Google Trips or Google Flights. Really helpful to the consumer who can quickly and transparently book a flight.
Or how about the frictionless path to purchase that Google Assistant offers? Or how Google’s upcoming VR standalone headsets might become the standard for travel inspiration. Helpful too!
What about Facebook’s Dynamic Ads for Travel, or that most airline chatbots use Facebook’s messenger platform, or that its relatively new head of global travel strategy Nikhilesh Ponde has a background in online booking?
Potentially all very helpful to the consumer booking travel — and the brands that want to reach those consumers.
Helpful…or helping themselves?
According to IAB estimates, and Pivotal analyst Brian Wieser, 99% of revenue growth in digital advertising in the US this year will go to Google and Facebook.
“The big point is that if Google and Facebook are the primary interfaces to buyers, over the long-run they own the relationships and the related data,” Wieser writes.
He concluded, “Every partner they work with is subservient.”
Airlines are finding it increasingly difficult to directly engage the customer beyond the helpful oversight of Google and Facebook.
Most conversations between airline and customer have the feel of prison visitation rights, where the concrete room is branded in uncanny primary colours with a poorly disguised Zuckerberg on guard duty.
And we all know who’s behind that large window-like mirror on the wall. It’s Jeff Bezos, of course!
Nobody is screaming “1984” just yet. Regardless of how you crane your neck, airlines often cannot see the customer without filtering through Facebook or Google.
How should airlines respond?
The problem for airlines is that the brand depends on direct engagement with the customer. After all, the airline is the one that ultimately delivers the experience to the consumer.
The stakes are especially high because customer loyalty and selling ancillaries both depend on an airline’s brand. So is an airline’s brand its greatest defense against a helpful-takeover by Google and Facebook?
The simple truth is a loyal customer, a customer who understands the value of the airline brand, is far more profitable than a qualified lead. That engaged consumer is much more profitable. So airlines have to find a way to engage directly with the customer, add value at each interaction, and cement that brand trust.
Start with email
I know it’s the oldest digital play in the book, but why do airlines do such a poor job of email marketing? Email is direct. It is a trusted channel and billions use it daily.
Most airlines require an email address to book tickets and therefore have an extensive email database of customers. Each engagement can be tied back to that email address.
It’s been 40 years since the first email, and still 89% of marketers say email is their most effective channel for lead generation, with 54% saying it is the most effective overall.
Nevertheless, I challenge you to remember the last time you read a relevant email offer from an airline. Can you recall which airline it was? I doubt it.
We know email works. The problem must lie in the content. This can be a result of poor curation or poor timing — most likely a bit of both. Great content at the wrong time yields the same result as poor content at the right time. But poor content at any time is bound to be less successful.
Either way, the same format of email with “seat sale for X amount of destinations” is not maximising on the most trusted and direct digital channel. It’s simple mathematics: if a customer travels three times a year, most of the year they are not ready to purchase a flight, so write about something else.
Time to act
However airlines respond to the Google-Facebook axis of domination, they must do it soon. Whether it’s leveraging Facebook’s tools, such as chatbots, to solidify an airline’s brand in a customer’s mind, or ensuring that emails match consumer needs so they never even start with a Google search, airlines must continue the march towards that direct relationship with the consumer.
If they do not find a way to speak directly to their customers, they will be “subservient” in the partnership with Google and Facebook.
And is it really a partnership if one member is subservient to the other’s vision?