Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

You're communicating to a potential buyer of travel, perhaps over the phone, perhaps in person, perhaps through messaging on your homepage. How much information is too much, too little or just right?

Live and in-person, a seller's active listening skills and ability to "read the room" come into play. But online, the conversation occurs between the buyer and a machine. How can a digital conversation reward both the buyer and seller?

A reliable pre-internet marketing strategy has become even more efficient online: A-B testing. Pre-internet, when direct mail was the dominant form of mass marketing, a control piece that had done well was sent to the majority of a mailing list, while a variant challenger would be sent to a smaller subset in order to see which resulted in a higher percentage of sales. The object was to "beat the champ"; that is, create a variant that performed better than the control and would become the new primary message.

The Wall Street Journal famously had a champ that lasted more than 20 years and netted $2 billion. It told of two men with nearly identical backgrounds who attend a college reunion. One is president of a company, the other a lower-level employee in the same company. The only difference is that the president had subscribed to the Journal and the other hadn't.

How can A-B testing be implemented on a website? Nicola Clark, vice president of digital marketing services for Making Science, a digital marketing company with cruise and resort clients, was hired to optimize Azamara's website, she said. And, using A-B methodology, there was an uplift in revenue of 34% on a new variant version of the site vs. the existing control version of the site.

It did so by, in essence, learning how to "read the room" in a digital environment. Fifty percent of the cruise line's website visitors were directed to the existing, or control, homepage, and the other half landed on a page that featured information about the cruise line's Covid protocols. But that information was only revealed if visitors hovered their cursors over iconography related to health and safety: a bandage with a "check" on it and the text "Vaccines and Testing" or an icon with the text "Fresh Air Filtration."

Onboard protocols were briefly detailed, and there was a "Learn more" link for visitors who wanted to delve deeper, but Clark said very few people clicked that. The messaging on the pop-up turned out to be "just right" for those who hovered on the iconography.

Additional A-B testing was performed on other pages on the site. If looking at a webpage of, for instance, shore excursions, one version of the website provided straightforward shore-ex information. An alternate version reassured potential bookers -- ones who hovered their cursor over the health-related icons -- that shore excursions were conducted within a bubble of vaccinated fellow passengers.

The timing of the A-B test is important to note: It was performed from the middle of November to the middle of January, coinciding with the emergence and spread of the omicron variant.

Now that Covid concerns seem to be at a lower level, I asked Clark what they're finding.

"We're having those discussions today," she said. "In news headlines, Covid is kind of taking a back seat to stories about Ukraine. In my 20 years' experience, I've never seen sentiment change so quickly. But we're continually measuring -- that's the beauty of A-B testing -- and can switch gears on our messaging and our tactics. We've also done a study on six different cruise lines to see who is placing what messaging and where, on their product homepage, on detail pages and further down the funnel.

"We call it our Goldilocks temperature test because, you know, are we too hot? Too cold? Just right? We found that everybody still has messaging on their homepage when it comes to safety and health protocols. Half of those six cruise lines have the messaging on their product description page. And all of them have it in the booking pages. So, it's interesting. They want you to get excited about your vacation, plan your trip, and then when you get into the booking funnel, 'don't forget you've got to be vaccinated.'"

Clark paused. "I wouldn't be surprised if things change in the next couple of weeks. We've done this temperature check, but that doesn't mean that everybody else has got it right, either. That's why testing is so critical for us."

While suppliers have the volume of traffic to feel confident about trends unearthed by A-B testing, most travel advisors do not. But long ago, small consumer-goods retailers learned they didn't need a lot of traffic or big marketing budgets to discover web best practices; they just studied and copied what Amazon was doing.

Similarly, travel advisors can visit and study six cruise lines' (or tour operators' or resorts') websites and, likewise, serve their clients tailored messaging that's not too hot, not too cold, but just right. 

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