HotelTonight CMO Lays Plan For Tomorrow

Ray-Elias-HotelTonightHotelTonight, the five-year-old booking app, spends all its marketing budget on mobile.

For CMO Ray Elias, who joined nine weeks ago after a decade at StubHub, being mobile-only gives HotelTonight an edge over its desktop-first competitors in the online travel agency space.

“We exist in an elite group of customer experiences that really only work on mobile,” Elias said. Consumers understand why they need to download the app the same reason they understand why they need to download Uber to call a car, he said.

Elias’s background in performance marketing fits HotelTonight’s past advertising initiatives. But he now faces a branding problem he’s not sure the current ads will solve.

Once focused on day-of bookings, HotelTonight now allows bookings a week in advance, making its name something of a misnomer. “There is a lot of equity in the HotelTonight name, but for people who aren’t familiar with that, it’s literal,” Elias said.

But as HotelTonight expands its messaging, Elias is noticing some limitations to data-driven marketing, which focuses on price and audience targeting over relevancy and creative optimization.

“Relevance is not just who you are saying the message to, but what you are saying,” he said. “That’s an area of data-driven marketing that’s way behind.”

While HotelTonight will eventually do offline advertising – where its competitors can massively outspend the comparatively small app – it’s looking at other online strategies, like content marketing designed to inspire people to take last-minute trips. “In addition to figuring out when people are inherently in-market, I also think we can be a market maker,” Elias said.

Elias talked to AdExchanger about his plans.

AdExchanger: When you joined, what was HotelTonight’s biggest marketing challenge and opportunity?

RAY ELIAS: I saw at StubHub massive shifts in consumer behavior: Consumers traditionally trained to purchase a ticket six months in advance at an onsale started waiting until at least week of, if not day of, because you’ve got an open and transparent marketplace. Consumers have been trained to bundle their airline purchase with a hotel, and believe they unlock value by bundling upfront. At HotelTonight, we are demonstrating that’s absolutely not the case. If you wait, the best value is actually toward the end of that curve.

What are your marketing goals?

I think we have the opportunity to broaden the spectrum of demographic we’re addressing, and that’s where the marketing kicks in. We can continue to move into older demographics, people who weren’t born in the mobile commerce. People like me, who started using the internet back in the ’90s who have huge purchasing power but still think of traveling in an antiquated way. In ticketing I saw that shift.

HotelTonight needs to reach users at the right time. Can you accomplish what you want to there?

One of the things that makes search still king is intent and timing. And that’s not something that impression-based advertising has figured out. Timing is still something that’s so hard to do well, based on the way ad networks and ad platforms work today. Everybody is so fixated on the cost of winning the auction, but there is so much less focus on the creative, the message and especially the timing. Some of the traditional OTAs have an advantage, because they see when people are buying airline tickets.

Where can you find proxies for that intent?

An early success we’ve had finding a high-intent audience is in a lot of these dating – or, if you want to say what it really is – hookup apps. There is very high intent and we’ve seen some pretty big success.

Does that mean “get a room for tonight” ads on Tinder?

I mean, we’re not saying that, but that tends to be the inherent user behavior.

Where else do you advertise?

 We see success on Facebook and Instagram. Travel is one of the most prolific subjects in social. People are constantly talking about travel and sharing pictures. How do we weave ourselves into that conversation and be really timely and relevant?

What issues that crop up when you’re only working with an app?

A lot of the traditional ways of tracking and measuring and rolling out data-driven marketing are different on mobile than on web. I don’t think mobile has fully caught up. You are also dealing with walled gardens: iOS is a walled garden. So those things are more difficult to contend with.

Location data is a big part of the app experience. How are you using location data in your marketing?

I don’t think we are doing a good job with that yet, to be honest. The experience is awesome: A hotel can create a geofence and offer you a price based on your location. I want to learn how to bring that out to our marketing. At StubHub, we were probably the first advertiser to use APIs to put event schedules real time in a display ad, because we knew what you were interested in as a fan. We have an opportunity to do that here, and I’ve got to figure that out.

Does HotelTonight do app-install marketing?

Of course that’s a top-of-funnel [metric] you want to look at for efficiency, but we are not buying installs. That’s like focusing on traffic. It doesn’t make a tremendous about of sense because we are looking for high-value customers and driving growth based on bookings and the ROI associated with it. It’s more of a long-term play. With cohort analysis, we know there are people open to installing an app whether they are in-market or not. I’m separating that from high-intent bookers who are in-market right this second.

Are you more focused on loyalty or new customer acquisition?

We are putting a full-court press in both places. We have a disproportionate amount of people that have booked once on HotelTonight, and people with the app have a soft subscription, if you will. That is an opportunity for us to do time-based notifications considerably better, and drive significantly higher loyalty.

How actionable is HotelTonight’s customer data?

In order to tune our marketing, I’m looking at data that shows booker locations and where people in those ZIP codes are going. If you look at the locations the way travelers look at it, in terms of travelers going to destinations, there is a lot there to unpack in people’s travel patterns.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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