The holiday season is upon us, which means an extremely busy time for airlines as customers travel to see relatives, to get away for some winter sun, or simply to avoid the hustle and bustle of a city over the very busy period. So it seems a better time than ever to look at how airline websites are performing, and what they could be doing better, when it comes to customer experience.
When I first observed that visitors arriving from aggregator sites to the international airline websites were more likely to convert than those arriving directly – I was very pleased. This was great news - it seemed as though someone else was doing the leg work and my clients were reaping the benefits. But when I thought about it a little more, I got worried.
I got worried because I realized that I was focussing on the wrong thing. There’s a statistic that says on average the conversion rate of a company is 3%, but what about the other 97%? I realized that there must be a reason that customers aren’t coming to the airline websites first. And what percentage of customers never make it to the site at all, but buy through aggregators or – even worse – another airline?
Here’s the thing: there is a new trend in travel in direct purchases from vendor websites. For accommodation, air travel, and car rental – more and more customers prefer to buy directly from providers. There are many reasons, from distrust of unknown aggregators to bad customer experiences. Whatever the reason, this is great news for airlines – they have the opportunity to cut out the middleman, and enhance their brand.
The big question airlines need to asking themselves is: why aren’t more shoppers converting directly, based solely on their visit to my site?
To answer this question, I conducted a thorough user experience review of my clients’ websites, along with some other airline sites. I found that the answer is deceptively simple: less people convert directly from airline sites because many aggregators are still doing it better. Better user experience, greater flexibility, and – let’s face it – often better prices.
But this situation can be changed very easily. And the changes don’t have to involve huge redesigns or very expensive functionality. For the most part, it’s about reading and understanding customers’ digital body language to tell us what we can improve to make big differences to the experiences of a lot of customers.
I’ve come up with five of my top tips for enticing customers away from aggregators and back to your website:
In this modern world of frequent flyers, international business and travel is much more of a commodity - which means that a lot of travel is unplanned or last minute. There are aggregator sites that embody this principle. But if we look at how many airlines cater to customers with flexible needs - there aren’t many. Why not offer your customers the option of finding the cheapest destination for this coming weekend, or a monthly view to help them find the cheapest flight options for their destination of choice?
I understand that airlines can’t guarantee that their flights from Point A to Point B are the cheapest of all airlines – especially when competing with budget airlines. But at the very least they can guarantee the cheapest tickets on their own flights - something the hotel industry has already adopted. If airlines want to draw traffic and wallets away from aggregators, they really need to make sure that their own stock isn’t being sold cheaper elsewhere.
- Payment options
Not all credit cards were created equal, nor either were credit limits. And not all credit cards work for large international purchases either. Payment facilitators like PayPal figured this out eons ago (figuratively speaking), yet few, if any, airlines allow payment via PayPal. This is a no-brainer – almost no administrative or technical overheads to cut a huge step out of the checkout flow (with PayPal, customers don’t need to enter long payment and billing info). Make it easier for your customers to pay, and they’ll be more likely to buy directly from you.
Moving customers down the funnel is a challenge for any online business. For high-priced airline tickets, all the more so. One of the standard tricks of the trade, and one that aggregators have adopted in a big way, is creating a sense of urgency. They do this by letting customers know that they need to decide quickly to snag the best deals by indicating how many tickets are left at the more attractive price points. On aggregator sites, you’ll often see a big red “Only 5 tickets left at this price!” notification. These notifications can go a long way towards encouraging travelers to part with their cash.
- Different strokes for different travelers
We need to recognise that business travelers and leisure travelers are radically different in their tastes and needs. By watching user sessions and using advanced in-page behavioral metrics, I’ve seen how business travelers – for example – utterly ignore repeated offers for discounts on checked bag fees. Similarly, family travelers almost never choose to purchase access to an airport lounge.
Adapt content, especially ancillary offerings, according to traveler type. Don’t even bother offering a family access to lounges, and don’t offer businesspeople kids meal options. It is not a technological challenge to make this happen, and the benefits to conversions – not to mention customer satisfaction – can be dramatic.
Airlines can enhance direct bookings, and take back significant wallet share from aggregator sites. However, those looking to impact the bottom line with more direct sales and return customers will need to keep understanding digital body language and customer intent to make it happen.