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Last month we released research, covered on Econsultancy, which found that 90% of British consumers use a different travel provider every time they book a holiday, and that only 12% of respondents said they book with the same operator every time.

The results show that when it comes to booking holidays online, British consumers have little or no loyalty to travel operators. Is this diminishing brand loyalty just a natural result of a more open web or is it because brands are less adept at building relationships with web savvy visitors?

In order to answer this question, we need to drill down into more detail and look at why UK ebookers are becoming less loyal to specific brands. In the report Tealeaf published to launch the research, Internet Psychologist Graham Jones observes that, when consumers visit a website they are looking for two key things: fulfilment of a need and brand trust.

Fulfilling a need

When shopping online (not just for travel), we usually have a set idea in our minds about what we want: the product, the brand, the colour, the delivery timescale and, of course, the ideal price. Meeting these expectations as quickly as possible is absolutely crucial for brands.

The research we conducted backs up this point, with 60% of respondents saying price was the most important aspect of a positive online experience, while 32% cited the destinations on offer.

For a travel company, fulfilling a specific need is particularly problematic because booking a holiday can involve so many different travel combinations, destinations and other variables. Some our travel customers have combatted this by analysing the behaviour of customers that come to the site based on the specific search engine queries used to find the site. This approach has lead to impressive uplifts in terms of time on site and, more importantly, conversions.

Having a clear picture of the behaviour of your visitors and using this insight in a strategic way is important. Why do visitors abandon? Can you identify behavioural patterns and optimise your site accordingly?

Trust

But, while it is crucial, fulfilling a need is not the only box that needs to be ticked. Trust is extremely important online. There are three key ways that online brands can increase the amount of trust that we, as consumers, have in them:

  1. Trust indicators – the first is by including elements on the site that indicate that a site can be trusted. This includes registered addresses, customer service details and even SSL padlock indicators.
  2. Social proof – then we have what Graham calls ‘social proof’. This is closely connected to the central theme of the social web; that we trust our peers. Recommendations and word of mouth can be powerful drivers of trust.
  3. Reliability – the final element and perhaps the most crucial, is trust in the website itself.

This last point can encompass anything from having a site that is easy to navigate to ensuring there are no errors or glitches on the site at any point that cause the customer to struggle, or question whether the site behaviour is “normal”. How many times have you left a site (possibly never to return) when you’ve been stuck in an endless loop or had an issue entering personal or payment details?

These kinds of incidents don’t only result in loss of revenue for the brand, they also have an impact on the second trust driver when the person in question heads over to Twitter to vent their frustration to likeminded social connections.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that the second most important aspect of a positive online experience, cited by 44% of consumers, was the feeling that a site was easy to navigate, while 23% wanted an error-free experience when booking online.

Building loyalty and benefiting

So what does this mean for brands online?

There is no doubt that brand loyalty is one of the elements that is becoming eroded online. There was a time when your local travel agent on the high street had the luxury of strong brand loyalty from its customers. On the web, the same company will have to fight a lot harder.

Building loyalty, as the research shows, is about more than just delivering on price and product; it’s about delivering on customer experience, consistently, too.

It might be harder, but it is still possible to build online brand loyalty. There are brands out there that are getting it right and have incredibly loyal customers who, because they are social media-active become far more powerful than they ever were offline. They are now very active and vocal advocates for the brand.

So it’s time for online brands to pay closer attention to the behaviour of online visitors, and the behaviours of their site, as well. How do consumers browse the site, where are the sources of struggle and how can these be overcome? Building brand loyalty online might be hard, but the benefits will more than make up for it.

Geoff Galat

Published 22 December, 2010 by Geoff Galat

Geoff Galat is Worldwide VP of Marketing at IBM Tealeaf and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

25 more posts from this author

Comments (4)

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Craig Killick

Nice article. I agree with your finishing sentiment that brand loyalty comes with the delivery of good customer service, consistently. Social interactions that used to take place on a small fragmented scale are now taking place online, with the dots being joined up.

I face ongoing conversations with clients who object to negative sentiment about them online as if it's not them that caused it in the first place.

A lot of companies out there still need to look at the core of their organisation to understand how they will cope with this sea change. 

almost 6 years ago

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Hoover

Quality is low. Travel companies don't care. Improve the standard of service and I'll come back and use you again. In the meantime, feel free to kid yourself that all this can be rectified by somehow using the internet better. By the way, what's an Internet Psychologist, and why does he merit capital letters?

almost 6 years ago

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Stewart Atkins

Brands are ultimately responsible, the web has primarily acted as a facilitator and accelerator whether by search and its output rankings plus comparison sites making it easy to compare value and service largely independent of the usual brand halo or by social media bringing WOM into play on a global and real time basis.

almost 6 years ago

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Dallas Ford

In my opinion, the reason why customers don't have brand loyalty is because the internet makes it too easy to comparison shop and get the lowest prices. With a site like Expedia, you can immediately see which carrier offers the cheapest flight to a destination on the exact same date. It only makes sense financially to go with the cheapest offer. Also, with the economy being pretty poor and consumers having to watch their purse strings, you can't really blame them for going this route. Brand loyalty doesn't account for much when most people are watching every dime and can barely pay their bills.

almost 6 years ago

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