Friday, December 14, 2007

"Content is King" is dead

"User Experience is King"!!

Well, that's what we reckon.

Here is the leader column we wrote for the December edition of Travolution magazine:

The travel industry is continually at some kind of ‘crossroads’. In the hyperbolic world of the business news media, this is often due to the mergers of major travel providers, a relaxation of regulatory rules or adhering to the demands of green lobbyists/political parties.

The reality is that the industry, known for its incredible resilience, manages to adapt to these obstacles remarkably easily. Indeed, perhaps this is why we hear of new ‘crossroads’ on such a frighteningly regular basis.

Nevertheless, these apparent turbulent intersections on the path the travel sector attempts to traverse are almost always born out of the actions of the industry itself or official bodies.

So, therefore, it is perhaps the current ‘crossroads’ that we find so fascinating.

Indeed, the fundamental shift in consumer online behaviour is a veritable spaghetti junction in the grand scheme of things – and one not of the industry’s making.

There is evidence to illustrate this switch: four of the top 10 websites in the UK in October this year would be classed as experiential rather than solely providing information or a transactional element.

This is not to say that sites popular just a few years ago (such as Amazon) are on the wane. Far from it, in fact – consumers are just behaving in a different way on the Internet.

They are also asking for more from the providers of services during their time on the web.

This is a problem for the travel industry because, until very recently, it has been focused primarily on the transactional elements.

So-called ‘user experience’ has invariably been left to ensuring accessibility guidelines are complied with (or not, as is often the case) and sizeable sums of money being spent on flashy designs.

Research from Forrester a few months back indicated that online bookings in the US are falling despite an increase in the number of visitors to corresponding website. This is a disturbing trend.

At a recent conference, Travolution faced the wrath of the industry by declaring that if the sector as a whole fails to improve the user experience on its websites then this trend will actually become a serious issue. This argument irritates many because it comes just a few years after they have been urged to go online in the first place.

Nevertheless, consumer behaviour is changing at an astonishing pace – a fact of life, unfortunately – and the travel industry needs to react accordingly.

A concerted effort by travel companies to improve user experience on websites can only benefit their consumers, and the sector as a whole. Indeed, there are a number of key advantages for the modern travel company.

Providing value for consumers’ time on the Internet will inevitably lead to a better relationship with them, earning the company more than just the recognition it variably gets from the – often vast – sums of money it spend on online marketing.

Meanwhile, as consumers develop that much-coveted relationship and use a site to do more than simply book a travel product, companies will inevitably understand more about their customers – where they LIKE to go, what they are KEEN on doing, who they PREFER to go with.

These are aspects of a consumer’s preferences that are difficult to determine through a one-way relationship based on booking a product.

The cultural shift in consumer behaviour on the web has to be matched by the industry, simply in order for it to meet the needs of consumers now massively empowered by the ability to assimilate information and share their experiences.

This is the real and exciting crossroads the industry now faces.

[More debate on our open thread from a few weeks back]

Kevin May, editor, Travolution


JEB at Buhlerworks said...

Spaghetti junction indeed! This is certainly the time for focus on improved user experience over content. There's often content/information overkill on travel sites and the user experience is disappointing. The expectations of today's online travel shopper are higher and need to be met if the industry is to grow at high rates.

It's no longer enough to just launch a website, promote it with some search initiatives and wait for the bookings to come in. Site performance and ease of use are the success factors. The capability for dynamically handling more complex forms of travel has to become a reality and not just talk by some tech shops.

Gagan Saxena said...

Here is a thought amplifying your ideas.

We need constant reminding that the systems supporting online experiences are not the same as those supporting accounting functions. Different expectations and different half-lives..

Joel @ Whatsonwhen said...

To say that user experience is increasingly important, therefore content is dead implies they are mutually exclusive when I would argue they are complementary. It is also the reverse of what is happening in the market. Content provides a context for branding and sales messages. At Whatsonwhen, we provide many travel sites with content and have seen spend increase enormously over the past few years. This is done to provide not only a better web experience, but also the nectar to attract natural search. Online users research destinations before booking. Three quarters of users click on natural search results rather than ads. Therefore travel companies have realised that providing relevant, engaging and keyword rich copy on their websites is fundamental to attracting and addressing the needs of their customers.

Hand in hand with this is the user experience. Click on a paid for ad and often, you'll be taken to a site's homepage, not the particular content or products you were looking for. Search engines’ prime directive is returning pages of relevant content to deliver what the user expects and therefore improve the customer experience.

Sites should integrate content with relevant offers on the same page. Reducing the need to visit several areas of the site to get what you need is unquestionably the way forward. The next developments will be to provide those customers looking for ideas with ever easier and quicker ways to get relevant personalised suggestions, instead of having to click through endless pages and sites. This is the service that travel agents provide but where websites have always fallen short.