June 19, 2024

You’re the Boss: Assessing a Travel Site That Competes With the Big Boys

Site Analysis

Last week, I posed the question: Can a Small Travel Site Compete with the Giants? The site was ShermansTravel.com and the competitors were the mega travel sites like Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity.

Jim Sherman, the site’s founder and chief executive, knows that he has fierce competition, but he says he believes that emphasizing the quality of his content and the value of his travel offerings — as opposed to just the cheapest deals — will allow him to differentiate his site from the others. His fear, though, is that the site’s visitors are having trouble finding that content because of issues with navigation and presentation, and that’s why he submitted his site for this critique.

We gave you — the faithful and Web-savvy readers of this blog — the opportunity to take a look for yourself and to comment on the quality of the site, its user experience and the way it’s being marketed. The comments are in and the verdict was fairly harsh. There was a consensus that the site has failed to differentiate itself from more established travel sites. The real issue, though, is that the visitors came away feeling that they would be better served by many of those bigger sites.

When you are in a highly competitive market, it is essential that you give visitors reasons to choose your business. In this case, judging from the reactions of our readers, ShermansTravel.com has failed to establish those reasons.

“Why Would I Use an Unknown Site?”

Richard, from Austin, found himself confused about the site’s purpose: “Is the objective of the Web site to sell travel and get affiliate fees or to gather e-mails and sell ads?” he asked. “It’s a pretty serious question that you have to answer. If the former, I see this as a big fail. Personally, I’d go away and never return. If the latter, then maybe pump up the review aspect (especially the site-exclusive staff-written articles, which could be a real differentiator) and become an online travel magazine with incidental travel revenue.”

Jonathan, from Seattle, also struggled to find the value proposition: “I feel it lacks anything that would distinguish it from any of the big-timers,” he said. “In order to establish oneself, I believe you need a peculiar draw, something exciting and novel.”

As a rule, people have a limited amount of vacation time, and they want to make the most of it. When they look for travel advice and deals, they want to make sure they are getting the best advice they can. This was a stumbling block for Annie from Manasquan (N.J). “I’ve never heard of ShermansTravel.com,” she said. “I’d be very reluctant to use it if I came across it via Google or an ad, because I have no reason to think it would be a trustworthy site. I’ve heard of Expedia, Hotwire, Kayak, etc. I know people who have used them and gotten good deals. Why would I use an unknown site (which doesn’t look, to me, to be incredibly well designed/official) when there are a half dozen better-sourced options?”

Web sites that rely heavily on advertising revenue must strike a delicate balance with their audience. If a visitor feels that he or she is constantly being sold to, it can be a real turn-off.

Several readers complained about the site’s hard-sell approach. “First thing that interested me that I clicked on resulted in a pop-up ad that I had to figure out how to get rid of so I could see what I expected,” said Don P from Georgia. “That told me in no uncertain terms I was looking at a spammy site generating revenue for the site — not content for me. It’s not about what you want, it’s about what I want. This site didn’t deliver right off the bat. No second chance from me.”

Rob from New York was similarly turned off by the way the advertising was delivered. “I’ve recently been to Bogota and Auckland for work, and went to check out those,” he wrote. “I click the Travel Guides. The pop up hits — spam alert, as mentioned before. Next I go for Auckland … But it opens in a new window, with now a new side index, that doesn’t correspond with the previous one, so I miss it. Instead, all I see are the Auckland travel deals — which just feel like gratuitous advertising, the small Google map is lost on the far right in the ads column and is basically worthless.”

Jim Sherman Responds

Give Mr. Sherman credit. Many owners would get defensive over this kind of criticism. “There is definitely a good amount of fair criticism in the comments,” he said. “It is very clear from the comments that we are not communicating this positioning well and have quality issues to address as well.”

He did draw one distinction — between his usual visitors and first-time visitors. “The comments that you have received,” he said, “come from an audience that is quite different from our core audience. Our site users often come from our e-mail list. They become familiar with our site after subscribing to our Top 25 deals newsletter. These people are familiar with our core value proposition, since they took the time to sign up for one of our e-mail products. They know us for publishing great deals. And in our newsletter consumer surveys, 75 percent rate our deal quality as either excellent or very good. These same people also rate highly the quality of our Web content.” He went on to say, “We can clearly do much better at how we execute on our strategy and how we communicate to first-time site visitors.”

The best criticism in the reader comments, he said, was about his failure to convey the message that his site delivers expert advice. “We intend to refocus on a few key segments rather than offering up the breadth of our current content,” he said. While plans were already in the works before the critique to upgrade the site and its marketing, he said, the reader observations and will lead to very specific changes.

“Our changes will start with the home page and then extend to site navigation and how the subsections are organized,” he said. “The changes will also impact our editorial focus. There are fair criticisms and we are conducting consumer surveys, as well, which will inform changes we intend to make. Our consumer surveys will be partly influenced by the comments here.”

My Take: I Would Hit the Back Button

I hate to be hard on sites that volunteer to be evaluated. It takes nerve to open your Web site up to the scrutiny of readers. That being said, there are some real issues with the site. As usual, the readers of this blog have hit the nail on the head. By failing to get his value proposition across clearly and quickly, Mr. Sherman’s site has generally disappointed his visitors.

Whenever I review a Web site, I try to do it through the eyes of a first-time visitor. When I arrive at this site, I have no idea what it is trying to be. I don’t get the value proposition. I don’t get the differentiation. I don’t get the navigation. If I were a visitor who came here through a search engine, I would hit the back button almost immediately.

If you are going to compete with the major sites, as several readers mentioned, you have to emphasize what makes you different. Two things mentioned by Mr. Sherman, valuable content and value-based travel, are certainly not easy to find on this site.

For contrast, take a look at Fodors.com. This site differentiates itself in the travel market by producing high quality content and by being a deal aggregator.

As you can see, the content is highlighted and laid out in a way that is easy to find. The first things you see are featured stories and other content pieces like Travel Tip of the Day and The Fodor’s Blog. The advertisements on the site are well positioned and nonintrusive.

User interface can be the difference between success and failure. It’s not just in the travel industry, it’s in every industry. One of the reasons Groupon has been more successful than other daily-deal sites is that its interface is crisp and its user experience intuitive. The deal is presented attractively and clearly. The call to action (“Buy!”) is prominent, and there is real value to the visitor (a 50 percent discount). What more can you ask from a site?

There are no secrets to doing business online. If you can deliver your value proposition quickly and clearly, you will succeed. If you fail to get your message across in less than 10 seconds, you not only fail to get the business your site could otherwise generate, you risk damaging your brand as well.

Have a Web site or mobile app you’d like to have reviewed? I am always looking for Web sites and mobile apps to evaluate. I am especially interested in hearing from businesses that are using smartphones, iPads and other mobile devices and apps as tools in marketing, selling and branding. To be considered, please tell me about your experiences — what works, what doesn’t — in an e-mail to youretheboss@bluefountainmedia.com

Gabriel Shaoolian is the founder and chief executive of Blue Fountain Media, a Web design, development and marketing company based in New York.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=b7a05908b4c5f8f47d0ae6e77cbfd1eb

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