Travel publishers often miss the boat on attribution.
Although their content is an integral part of the trip-planning process at the top of the funnel, there’s no easy way to credit its role in an eventual hotel booking.
Fathom, a site that publishes curated destination guides and first-person travel accounts, knew it was leaving money on the table, but forging direct relationships with hotels was far too cumbersome for an online-only publisher with a loyal readership – its newsletter has a circulation of 500,000 – but a tiny staff.
“We don’t have a big sales team to negotiate deals with every hotel we cover,” said Fathom founder Pavia Rosati. “And travel is also such a long tail, which makes it really difficult to track.”
But Rosati knows that Fathom’s content helps produce real results for the hotels she and her team write about. Readers occasionally even bring printouts of Fathom articles with them to a hotel. Rosati hears from the hoteliers that they’re pleased, but Fathom isn’t getting a commission.
Last year, Fathom started working with Curacity, a tech company that enables publishers to measure the revenue their content generates for hotels.
Think of it as “Datalogix for travel,” said CEO and founder Mike Keriakos, who also co-founded everydayhealth.com, a health and wellness site that sold to Ziff Davis in 2016 for $465 million.
It’s still early, but Fathom is starting to get a taste of the revenue it’s been missing out on.
Using Curacity, Fathom proved that three of its reviews of five-star properties in New York and Chicago helped generate more than $200,000 in direct booking revenue for those properties.
“Digital journalism isn’t an easy business to be in – you put your work out there and you don’t always know what impact it has, especially in terms of monetization,” Rosati said. “Now, attribution is becoming a part of how we talk to hotels, and it’s because we can say to them, ‘We’re actually able to measure this.’”
Better attribution is also ammunition in an ongoing battle with online travel agencies, such as Expedia and Orbitz, which scoop up credit at the bottom of the funnel at the last possible moment before conversion. Despite making more on direct bookings, hotels often default to third-party booking sites because it’s easy to work with them.
“Travel is a wonderful space, but when it comes to technology, it’s not a very innovative space,” Rosati said. “It’s an old-fashioned business. Large hotel chains can be slow to move, and the smaller hotels sometimes just don’t understand what they’re supposed to be doing.”
For example, some hotels treat publishers the same way they might treat a direct-response channel, which just doesn’t make sense.
“In defense of publishers, the measurement KPIs they’re being asked to deliver aren’t possible,” Keriakos said. “Click to buy – no one does that immediately after reading an article. What we do is close the feedback loop.”
On the publisher side, Curacity measures bookings by adding code to email newsletters that tracks the content readers click through and engage with. Curacity contracts with hotels for access to their property management system data. After encrypting the data, it uses an algorithm to make matches and produces a monthly report that correlates the people who booked to the people who engaged with hotel-related content.
To test the accuracy of its model, Curacity spent $2.5 million to develop a travel site called surfacehotels.com in collaboration with design magazine Surface Mag. In return for data to use in testing the content’s impact, Curacity signed up 20 hotels to promote themselves on the Surface Hotels site for free.
By walling off portions of the database and running extensive A/B tests, Curacity was able to prove a dramatic lift in bookings among visitors that engaged with travel content about a particular hotel.
“If I had to estimate, I’d say that the top three market leaders in travel publishing – Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure and AFAR – are doing under $25 million in revenue altogether from luxury hotels,” Keriakos said. “Compare that with everydayhealth.com and WebMD, the market leaders in their category, where pharma drives $1 billion in revenue. I believe the size of the opportunity for travel publishers is even higher than that, yet they’re only making a fraction."