You’ve heard it before. In fact, you might’ve even been the one to say it. A proclamation that “it’s all about digital” and that nothing else matters. We live in a world where, for the first time this year, the percentage of travelers that begin their planning process on a digital device will exceed 90 percent. We live in a world where Google is evolving to become the Amazon of travel, and amazontravel.com can book an experience for you around the world and back. We influence audiences through public relations and marketing communications that’ll likely rely on a click on a digital device as the final conversion on their path to book a hotel, a flight, a meal or anything else that makes up the travel experience.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jul. '19 Travel & Int'l PR Magazine.|
So, perhaps it’s true that digital is everything. Or, is it? In my world, strategy is the starting point and the “result” is the “everything” that really matters. So, certainly the broadest definition of digital channels is critical. And keeping up with what appears to be changes happening at a radical pace is now the common course of business. The latest travel technology was developed to stay ahead of consumers who’re planning more vacations and short escapes in the heat of the moment. Welcome is an iOS app that will help travelers build their itineraries through artificial intelligence fueled by recommendations and reviews. And, nearly 50 percent of smartphone users in the U.S. are comfortable researching, planning and booking a trip literally in the palm of their hand. The advance of 5G technology and the race by travel brands, OTAs and the technology providers themselves means the travel category is a proving ground for those who believe nothing else matters beyond the digital channel.
I cringe in a meeting when someone says that “digital is changing things.” That already happened. The reality is that travel consumers are changing things because they’ve adapted to the tools available to them, and have compressed their ability to connect, decide and experience travel. The “dreaming” phase of travel planning is now done during a nap. Yes, personalization is critical. Above all, there’s a need to match the travelers desire for personal messaging, personal itineraries, personal experiences, personal time. Almost 60 percent of travelers even want brands to customize the content they deliver to them based on past behavior and travel preferences. And, the growing desire of a growing number of consumers to disconnect or reduce the amount of time they are connected through a digital device is also part of personalization.
There are so many shifts taking place in the consumer landscape today, that it would take far more words than this article would allow to address the coming influence of change. The desire to revisit your favorite childhood memories. Growing number of “sober social scenes” being created as part of the adult experience. AirBnb creating its own media channels to deliver more long-form video as people continue to prioritize experiences over things. And, don’t get me started on the influence of Millennials as parents, and Gen Z as … well, as Gen Z.
I’d also admit to cringing a few times when someone says the definition of public relations is changing. That already happened too. And, not simply adapting to embrace social media, or focusing on influencers. Public relations in the travel category has changed partly because we could no longer sit back and allow our advertising counterparts to drive strategy. And, the ability of our teams to push the envelope of creativity to gain the attention of a travel audience in virtually any channel that provides a platform. And, yes, there’s no doubt that we have influenced change through our ability to capture a significant share-of-voice for our clients through digital channels. We’re also held more accountable than ever before, partly because of the number of tools, technology and methodology for measurement, and partly because clients want to know there’s a connection between their investment in public relations and the bottom-line.
So, if all of this is true, and so much of the world and the travel consumer landscape is lined with digital connectivity, how could anything else matter?
Have you sat in a meeting lately that’s -totally focused on digital? The conversations have shifted from technology and the digital transformation of organizations—another term that makes me cringe—back to the consumer. The buzzword in digital today is “consumer centric.” And, the struggle to create an immersive storyline that is only available through digital channels is real.
Don’t get me wrong. At The Zimmerman Agency, we embrace digital. The growth of our digital, social and analytics teams has consumed more than office space. But, as digital is focusing on being more consumer centric, public relations is perhaps the most powerful discipline to reach, connect and influence travel decisions that aren’t made by digital — they’re made by a consumer. And, the consumer isn’t yet living life through an Oculus headset, or allowing Alexa to determine where and when they go on vacation, or how a meeting planner will satisfy the needs of the attendee.
As public relations practitioners, we aren’t immune to the temptation to focus all of our efforts on digital. It’s hard to believe it, but now that may actually be the easier route to take.
Particularly for travel clients, in public relations, we’ve never lost sight of the fact that our efforts must be consumer centric. And, potential travelers attend events, participate in activations; read articles; pay attention to influencers; take part in promotions; generate, share and curate content; read reviews; watch travel shows and let their voices be heard as they convince friends and family of the right place to go, stay and eat. And, while they may book through digital, the world around them is still not experienced on a laptop.
If someone in a meeting said that digital was not the most important channel today — I’d cringe at that that too. Through public relations we’ve shifted the delivery of messages from a traditional consideration funnel where awareness was the primary focus of PR to a fuller funnel approach where consumer centric messages are delivered throughout the funnel and the most important outcome of our efforts is now measured on the bottom-line.
Andy Jorishie is EVP Director of Strategy at The Zimmerman Agency.