Consider this stat, published this summer by Comscore: TripAdvisor, with 35,382,000 unique monthly visitors, just became the number one most popular travel website, surpassing Expedia by over 2 million visits.

That’s right: The world’s most popular travel site is a place where your prospects can’t even book.

Then consider this. A PhocusWright study found that social media use among travellers is growing far faster than the travel industry itself. Unique monthly visitors to social travel sites such as Dopplr, TripIt, Yelp and yes, TripAdvisor jumped 34 percent between the first half of 2008 and the last half of 2009.

Not only that, but the influence of social media on the travel planning and purchase process is increasing exponentially. The study found that Facebook users who are referred to travel booking sites are far more likely to book travel than those who are referred via search engines like Google.

So what does it all mean for your marketing efforts? That just understanding how to find customers and passively guide them toward their decision isn’t enough. Success today requires active participation, knowing how and where to create and curate content every step of the way.

Social travel sites

Secret Agents

We’ve been seeing travel prospects hop around to multiple sites before making a purchase decision for years now. But the change here is in the roles that each site is playing and the amount of influence it has. Consumer site-hopping has gone beyond price comparison. Current behaviour suggests that each type of site – from search engine to online travel agent – may now play a more singular and very specific role in moving the consumer through the funnel.

For example, travellers no longer see the online travel agents as the end-all, be-all source for travel planning and booking. OTAs have long traded on a presumed agnosticism by virtue of being an aggregator, not a provider. But knowing that these sites exist first and foremost to garner bookings, consumers may be less inclined to see site content as independent and/or unsponsored.

Online travel agents and aggregators

So the OTAs are being relegated more to a bottom of the funnel tool, helping consumers compare choices once their consideration set is defined. And at the top of the funnel – helping consumers cast the wide net that leads to their aforementioned consideration set – are the search engines.

Search Party

Search engines still play a leading role in most consumers’ travel planning process. A 2009 study fielded by Google and OTX found that 64 percent of consumers use search engines for personal travel and 56 percent for business travel. This was slightly higher than their use of travel search sites or online travel agencies when planning trips (52 percent and 55 percent respectively).

Marketers should view search as a connection opportunity. Instead of looking at 70 characters as a limitation, they should think about how to maximize that copy to grab their audience in an unexpected and compelling manner. Treat SEM copy like you do a billboard: engaging and memorable enough that a simple drive-by is enough to compel action (or in this case, a click-through).

Content in the Middle

And where does Search lead? To what sits squarely in the middle of the funnel – content sites, from YouTube to brand websites, and of course, the ever-growing, ever-evolving universe of social media outlets. Content is what travel consumers are seeking to help them decide where to go and which brand will get them there.

But here’s the rub: Unlike years ago when brands owned content creation and distribution in a one-way conversation with consumers, the paradigm has shifted. Consumers and third parties are creating content for your brand, independent of you. In order to succeed, your current and future content strategy has to find some way to account for any and all content created, regardless of source.

Content platforms

Paid presence, such as your own brand website, your YouTube channel, or site content created for you by partners, is controllable. But today’s consumers will look to validate your claims elsewhere, as the TripAdvisor visitation figures authoritatively demonstrate.

And when it comes to TripAdvisor, Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the social web, all bets are off.  Consumers are talking directly to each other about you, whether you like it or not.

Sealing the Deal

But that doesn’t render you helpless. It just means that there is no more important place for strong brand management and stewardship than your content strategy. Stay consistent with your brand in the content you create and monitor the content created by others. Listen to your consumers, and talk with them, not at them. And listen and learn as they talk to each other.

But most important of all? Close the sale. Get consumers out of the purgatory of information overload.  Provide them an easy path to what is your shared desired result: the bottom of the funnel and a booking. You may not be able to control content that isn’t your own but nine times out of ten you can buy advertising or join the conversation around it. Find contextually relevant placements and put your compelling offers out there.

Sound familiar? It should: That last point has been best practice all along. And it reminds us that, even as the list of channels grows, and their interconnectivity gets more and more complex, our success is still predicated on the basic understanding of when (and where) to push and to pull.