Tai Parata, ZUJI’s Director of Marketing, Asia PacificSearch engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO) are the powerhouses of proactive marketing for online travel company ZUJI across the Asia Pacific.

As online travel and consumers evolve, and the technology which helps drive targeted marketing changes, ZUJI itself has metamorphosed and will continue to evolve here. The company’s phenomenal success in the region has been well charted: The brand began as a start-up in four Asia Pacific countries. Just six or so years later, the company has made its mark as a dominant and trusted brand in online travel in the Asia Pacific, with sites in seven countries here, and many B2B partners across the region as a result of their Travel Partner Network.

“Our early target customers were the early technology adopter set, and at that stage our marketing was very much about building trust and educating people about the safety and security of making online travel bookings on ZUJI,” says Tai Parata, ZUJI’s Director of Marketing, Asia Pacific.

“Today, we’re targeting a much wider audience, in terms of age, geography and demographics. We’re also targeting a predominantly net-savvy audience, thanks to the growth of Internet adoption and broadband penetration, as well as people with a propensity to consider online travel bookings without our encouragement. The entry of Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) really helped this online movement, as more people could afford to travel, and the ‘pure’ online business models of LCCs helped educate consumers about the ease and simplicity of online booking and bring these new customers online. Once online, they started to shop around, and the total online category, and our business at ZUJI, grew as a result,” he continues.

According to him, ZUJI’s product range has also changed from the early days where people predominantly came to them to book a flight, then possibly a hotel, to today, where their ‘TripSaver’ packages allow the flights and accommodation to be booked as one transaction, and one travel package which has been created by the travelers based on their desired travel dates, airlines and choice of hotel. Significant savings can be made as a result of making a package booking on ZUJI.

“All of this means our marketing has also evolved.  We need to move faster, be more engaging and continue to adapt.  The beauty of SEO and SEM is that it’s a very transparent way to see exactly what people are clicking, and the sales as a result. We call this the look-to-book ratio, and it’s predominantly how we judge the success of our efforts,” adds Parata.

Explaining the company’s strategy here, he says, “Our target audience plays online, and that is our marketing playground.  Nearly 70% of our customers use search when researching or making their buying decision.  Because of this, search provides an invaluable branding and brand awareness tool, as well as a qualified lead driver for us.”

He adds that SEM or paid search can give you guaranteed visibility at a price with a short lead time.  This is opposed to SEO or organic search, which has a longer period of return and more dependent on internal resources.  However, organic search is considered more credible as a source of information by customers.  

“The two disciplines are complimentary.  Both results appearing on the same page can provide credibility and ‘frequency’ in the online space.  SEM is a science in itself. While generic travel terms are highly sought after, and generally highly priced, we tend to think beyond these key words, which can lead to a spike in traffic, but not necessarily customers. Our strategy includes the purchase long- and mid-tail terms and words that are highly specific and relevant to our business, thereby funneling highly relevant traffic (people) to ZUJI sites in order for them to locate the deal they’re after. For example, we might look to purchase a string of terms like “beach hotel in Phuket” versus one key word like “Phuket”,” Parata explains further.

Ensuring sound SEO for page development and promotions allows ZUJI to grow their relevance and appearance in ‘unpaid’ listings on Google and other search engines in the Asia Pacific. It’s a complicated and ongoing process, which the company is constantly working on and developing. One area they are currently focused on is building the links between themselves and other travel sites to aid this effort.

“The key thing to remember about SEM and SEO is that they are another set of tools in your marketing mix, which you need to integrate, not separate. Marketing is about helping people make decisions with their ‘head’ and their ‘heart’,” Parata notes. “SEM and SEO work as part of a broader marketing strategy for ZUJI that focuses on raising our brand awareness, linking our brand with inspiring travel choices and our brand personality, and importantly, leading qualified traffic to our sites. Thereafter, it’s our job to convert those lookers into travel bookers thereafter.”

In fact, when it comes to SEM being integrated into a company’s marketing mix, he observes that there are two barriers that come into play: mental and knowledge barriers. The mental barrier is the fact that most marketers see search as separate from the more traditional marketing channels such as television, radio and print media.  “SEM if often considered the realm of technical people or agencies. One companies and marketers realize that it is just another tool in their total mix and that their target audience is interacting with it on a daily basis, then this will be a huge step forward,” remarks Parata.

The second barrier is knowledge or lack of knowledge about how to use this tool effectively, in other words, the fear of the unknown.
However, Parata notes that despite these barriers, at the end of the day, the numbers say that a huge part of the population interact with search engines. “This is a marketing opportunity we can’t ignore, so then it falls on us to upskill ourselves as well as get expert advice.  Many search engines offer training programs, there are specialist agencies and thinking a bit more laterally, I am sure there are opportunities to forge mutually beneficial relationships with specialist online players such as ZUJI who have played in this space for a long time,” he elaborates.

According to Parata, ZUJI views search primarily as a ‘conversion’ tool.  “It offers great transparency into their spend and results, enabling them to manage their ROI very closely.  He notes here, “Other companies set other objectives such as traffic generation or brand awareness.   These are valid approaches but we use other tools for these functions. To stay ahead is a daily challenge, not a weekly or monthly job, and that is the key.  We have a talented and experienced in-house team, as well as external agencies helping us tweak our approaches on a daily basis. Ultimately, the benefits can be judged in terms of sales. In terms of lessons, it’s a challenge to make sure our international sites don’t overlap on the search engines. It’s a work in progress to improve this.”

Just how has ZUJI leveraged both SEO and SEM to increase their brand awareness especially with the current economic slowdown? “Given our brand is pretty well known now in the online space, and in these tough economic times, our focus right now is on using SEM and SEO to help people find a great travel deal on ZUJI. But as I said, we have been more brand focused in the past, and we may be again in the future. That’s the beauty of the internet medium – there’s opportunity to try, test and tweak depending on the strategic need of the business as well as learn from what consumers are searching for and ensure we give them what they seek,” notes Parata.
So does he feel that SEO and SEM are a silver lining in today’s economic downturn? ”Certainly using the Internet and SEM are good, cost effective and transparent mediums during this time.  Whether you’re up spending or controlling spend, the game at the moment is ROI and accountability.  SEM works well in this environment.  The other important area is partnership.  Forming alliances for stretching your marketing spend or fast tracking your skill base is smart marketing.  For example, if you work with ZUJI as a supplier or with tourism body or another of our advertising partners, you’ve found yourself a pretty cost effective and useful way to help promote your product and drive sales through a multi-channel campaign that includes SEM and SEO,” he responds.

Being in the online business and gurus in their way in SEO and SEM, means that the company of course has a strong Online Reputation Management strategy in place. Elaborating on this, Parata says, “Being transparent and honest on the web is very important and we have a team of professionals across the APAC region to deal with any customer question or concerns.  In the online space, there is the possibility that customer or corporate issues can be raised.  SEM is not one of the first tools to pull out of the box to deal with this.  It would probably be one of the last.  It is general better to respond to these issues in the source medium.

What about the role of Web 2.0, Social Media, networking and its tools when it comes to SEM and SEO? ZUJI of course has a strategy in place here too. Observing that social media marketing and Web 2.0 is all about engagement, interaction and dialog, Parata notes that to-date, a lot of online marketing has been ‘push’ marketing.  He emphasizes, ““The net is changing and so are our consumers.  Engagement, interaction and dialog are fundamental to building brand affinity and loyalty.  This has been difficult online. However, now with new social media tools there are more options.  It is important to note though that you cannot simply apply what you are doing as a commercial entity in search, in a social media environment. In many social media environments, our consumers are in ‘their space’ as opposed to a commercial page or public commercial portal.  This therefore requires us to respect their space and come as a guest in many cases, and to add to their experience.”

According to him, ZUJI is doing some things in social media marketing and their strategy is still evolving here. The company has various Facebook and Twitter activities from some of their sites. In addition, Travelocity, their partner company in North America is also doing upping its ante on activities here. “This is definitely an area we’re exploring, tracking and refining at the moment,” says Parata.

Sharing his views on SEO/SEM trends in the Asia Pacific, Parata observes that it is a very competitive market, but that there is still some way to go before we reach the levels of Europe or the United States.  “In those markets, marketers are facing decisions over the rising cost of paid search versus other channels.  The other concern is high dependence on search, which is also an unhealthy position to be in.  At present I don’t see these as a problem in APAC over the next few years.”

Instead, he feels the main issue we face here is the complexity of multi-country, multi-language and multi product lines search campaigns across the region.  These offer challenges in the setup and management of search.

In addition, he believes that the removal of brand protection in Asia will see an inflation in paid search.  This will happen as more companies get more educated about search and get involved in it, thereby inflating costs.  He adds that this will likely push the demand for skilled people in the region even harder.  “I would not be surprised to see the inflow of skilled people from mature search markets to fill this gap,” he says.

Does ZUJI have a formula to its success in SEM and SEO? ” SEM and SEO are a daily job if you wish to get the best results,” states Parata simply, yet emphatically.

By Shanti Anne Morais