Test, Test, Test to Get Ads off the Ground

ORLANDO, FL — Banner ads are not dying, they just need to be thoroughly tested, travel Web site executives said at the recent eTravel World conference here last week.

“We had to find a way to get immediate results on how many people are clicking on our ads and how much revenue we generate, and banner ads do that,” said Tim Poster, co-founder of Travelscape and vice president at Expedia.com, Bellevue, WA.

Poster thought Travelscape's banner ads would fit perfectly on a weather site, but testing showed otherwise.

“People who go to weather sites have already made their reservations and are looking to see what the weather is [at their destination],” he said.

“We're such a big proponent of testing because of our early failure [when banner ads were not tested],” said Ken Swanton, CEO of Lowestfare.com, Las Vegas.

The most effective banner ads include a call-to-action, instead of just announcing “click here,” Swanton said. One of Lowestfare's most effective promotions was a banner ad that included the instruction, “Push the red button.”

Mass consumer advertising, on the other hand, is not as effective for Lowestfare. Other online companies that pay for mass consumer ads will simply increase the awareness of the Web as an option for travelers. “We're probably going to be one of the stops they're going to make [when they go to purchase travel],” Swanton said.

However, Swanton said Lowestfare will continue the newspaper advertising campaign of weekly ads in newspapers nationwide it has run for four years because the company can measure the response.

Lowestfare also will continue to experiment with other major offline advertising. For example, NBC's Internet division offered Lowestfare a spot on its electronic billboard in New York's Times Square during the Olympics. Swanton jumped at the opportunity, even though it is difficult to measure results of that type of advertising.

Theknot.com, a wedding gift and honeymoon travel site, has never placed a banner ad, but has benefited from some offline promotions.

NBC's “Today” show approached the site when it wanted to conduct a promotion involving its audience in planning a couple's wedding. The benefit for Theknot was the exposure to an audience of 6 million.

“TV is still the mass medium,” said David Liu, CEO/co-founder of Theknot, New York.

Surprisingly, the exposure did not cause a spike in visitors to Theknot's site. Instead, a surge occurred when America Online decided to feature the promotion on its home page. “We had more traffic than in the previous two months,” Liu said.

Theknot has also successfully targeted its shoppers in e-mail promotions for honeymoon packages, after it acquired Clicktrips. “We're essentially running an online travel agency, without having to spend any dollars,” Liu said.

Liu believes that the cost of online advertising is rising, and that it is better suited for larger companies that can afford to track the results. “If you're a relatively small company … you have to do your homework or go through a network like DoubleClick, because it's not readily available,” he said.

Meanwhile, Jane Butler, publisher of Travel at DoubleClick, said promotions and sweepstakes should be simple and followed through. “It's really important … to do something with the information you collect, not just collecting a database that sits there,” she said.

In addition, sites do not have to “give away a $25,000 trip” to be successful. “Something that is more attainable is actually more believable. There is a lot more interactivity with a Palm Pilot than a trip around the world,” Butler said.

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