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Travel Site's Discount Ads Draw in Banner Test After Sept. 11

To say travel marketers were in a bind after Sept. 11 would be an understatement.

But executives at discount travel site Hotwire.com found that discounting was one way to overcome people's travel fears.

After extensive testing of 49 different banner ads, five that promised low airfares were most popular with consumers.

One said, “Travel for Less! Save BIG with Hot-Fares(TM)!” and included a box that viewers could scroll to choose either airline, hotel or rental car fares, plus a “GO” button.

Another promised, “Save More with Hot-Fares.” Users could choose to view either “published prices” or “unpublished Hot-Fares.”

“Those months [October through December] were really important to us, to find out people's travel habits coming out of September 11 and to find out what travel advertising was appropriate at that time,” said Amy Bohutinsky, a Hotwire spokeswoman.

And because the ads, which ran on Ubid.com, About.com, Juno.com and IndependentTraveler.com, were served only to visitors who were likely to be interested in specific banner ads, Bohutinsky said response rates were much higher than for most campaigns.

Hotwire used New York-based Poindexter's Progressive Optimization Engine technology, or POE, which determines which ads people respond best to, then groups viewers into clusters such as geographical location, time of day, demographics and viewing frequency. Working with ad-serving firms, the optimal ad for that viewer's cluster is delivered.

“If it seems like people on the West Coast like that ad, in the future, we'll give them all that,” said Jonas Lee, CEO of Poindexter. “If they've seen ads one and seven, we'll give them four.”

“As the viewing audience grows, significant viewer characteristics continue to emerge, allowing clusters to become more relevant over time,” according to the technology firm. “The system 'learns,' delivering increasingly higher performance boosts.”

Hotwire tested 49 banners, all prompting users to click through to the site. Ads ranged from branding messages such as “Travel for Less! Save Big with Hot-Fares!” to specific offers such as “From Chicago, IL, to Las Vegas, NV. Price: $167.”

“Since we're a year old, our biggest obstacle to date is just getting people to know us,” Bohutinsky said. “It [the banner ad campaign] was just to induce them to check out the site.”

Compared with the control group of the same ads, the POE ads had a 152 percent higher click-through rate. Hotwire chose not to measure actual ticket purchases from the ad.

“What was so effective is knowing which of our online creatives were more creative,” Bohutinsky said. “Our bottom line is selling airline tickets and hotel rooms. We want to know which designs compel people to come to the site.”

Assuming a media buy of $2 per thousand impressions, Poindexter executives said Hotwire reduced costs by 45 percent and achieved a 286 percent return on investment.

“We do a lot of testing before we decide to go wide scale,” Bohutinsky said. “After September 11, we did some TV, radio [and Internet], really intensely focused on ROI. We don't want to spend money on something that is not working.”

“The only things that are selling right now are the things that are directly impacting ROI,” Lee said. “That's the only thing that's going to get a CFO to say it's a good idea.”

Interactive agency Critical Mass, New York, also has used the POE technology for clients such as Mercedes-Benz.

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