Travel Startup Marketing Strategy & Case Study
I have been approached by many travel startups to help them with their marketing.
Using everything I had learnt so far, I employed various marketing tactics and strategies to help Vibescout become a juggernaut in the travel and tourism space.
These tactics below helped grow a travel startup from 400 page views a month to almost 500 000 organic page views a month. By the end of the year, we’d reached more than 1.5 million people from a small start of 4k organic users they had the year before.
In my 10 years as a marketer, this is some of the best growth I’ve seen, but we had a biggish marketing budget and we tried hundreds of things to drive traffic (from sniper outreach to fake Tinder profiles). This is what worked for this travel startup and some of my clients.
But these can be applied to almost any niche.
Even though this was a web app that was/is to become a mobile app, any smart marketer would tell you that SEO is one of the best ways to acquire customers. Although we did everything from Pay Per Click to Social Media Marketing, SEO can be the lowest cost of acquisition channel.
SEO doesn’t have to be complicated, if you focus on the basics.
To increase your search traffic it’s as simple as:
- Conducting an SEO audit/analysis (know what to fix & strategy)
- Creating strategies and tactics based on audit
- Write great SEO content (with keyword research ALWAYS in mind)
- Getting links from friends, asking, and sharing
- Continuously optimizing your content
Rinse and repeat.
Our primary traffic was organic traffic… The kicker? We never used the go-to SEO tactics being used today. No guest posting, no PBNs, just good old white hat SEO.
In this post, I’m going to tell you some of the things we did to garner such growth.
But first, let me tell you a little more about the startup and why I helped it (you can skip this).
I came across a fellow South African in an SEO Facebook group who really intrigued me.
I was more interested in the fact that he was from SA, as there aren’t a lot of us in these groups. But then I checked out Vibescout – his newest startup company. It was pretty much the solution to a current problem when travelling – this is REALLY important (selling or marketing a product that you believe in is much easier).
As a digital nomad, I would rely on Facebook, Trip Advisor, Google, movie sites and blogs to find things to do when arriving in a new city. This startup brought everything into one place, or at least that was the goal.
Being a travel marketer for almost 10 years, I had never really seen anything like it, and I knew it was something I wanted to work on.
I consulted one of the founders for the next 2 weeks, offering help or advice where I could. We found common ground really quickly, and since he had already built a couple of successful businesses from SEO, he knew the value behind it (one of the biggest frustrations in dealing with site owners or clients, sorted).
Vibescout had been around for almost 2 years but hadn’t been getting the traction that it deserved.
After explaining the SEO issues and setting up social media automation to streamline things, I was asked by the co-founder if I wanted to be a part of the project full-time. To do this, I had to move back to Cape Town to help build it. I already had plans to backpack Europe.
This was pretty much my dream startup – solving a problem that I encountered almost every day while travelling.
I saw the potential, bought shares and booked my flight to Cape Town 2 weeks later.
In the year that followed, we generated more than 1.5 million page views and used A LOT of different tactics, which I will outline below.
Beginner Marketing Tactics
This is perhaps THE most important part of digital marketing. I tell everyone that if you can understand and master the two images below, you will become one of the best marketers.
Understanding the potential, value, and ROI is key.
It is always important to try and write content with high traffic potential. This can be found through many different tools like Buzzsumo (check what’s popular on social media) or Ahrefs (to check what’s good for SEO). Having experience and interest in the topic will assist you in creating the best piece of content on the topic.
Again traffic opportunity should be the most important aspect; you can use this content to funnel clients and try to find synergy between high business value and traffic opportunity. This is where true ROI lies.
The startup I was working on had written a previous piece on Valentine’s day – but nothing that was really ranking or had gotten much traction.
We created a content strategy with the focus on a variety of long form content guides that helped users find things to do in cities that were easy to rank for.
SEO tip – it’s worth writing about annually celebrated days, i.e: Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, St Patrick’s Day. We got links and traffic from listing these and doing a little email outreach, although they will need to be updated, I found the links earning worth it.
Business tip: websites are scouring the web for businesses who have specials on a given day, we gave out a crazy amount of absolutely free links and exposure to brands and venues who had some kind of event or special, like this.
NB: Start with keywords and invest in a keyword research tool.
We went after the big evergreen keywords like the typical “things to do in x” and a variety of easier keywords that we mined from competitors. This later expanded into posts that were easier to rank for.
We published almost 100 000 words in the first month and hit the ground running.
Table of Contents
The website was custom built and one of my requests was that we had a table of contents.
This was for two main reasons; the first being usability and the second was because Google was now allowing sitelinks on a page level by using anchor links. This was a pretty big win and we got in on it early.
Google really loved long-form content at the time and these meaty guides needed a great way to navigate them. We had crazy long read times on the site and I can attribute it to the design.
One of the biggest issues that I see with most sites is they have diluted or polluted URLs, this could be numbers, dates, long URLs or inconsistent use of dashes “-” and underscores “_” as separators. Sometimes, it’s just the wrong keywords, or phrases that wouldn’t allow scaling later on, like having the year in the URL.
Best practice is to have your keyword in the URL and the targeting correct. Always look at the users intent behind a keyword and URL, try and match the URL to the exact keyword, and keep it simple
This was something that Vibescout had wrong, as the targeting of the URLs was not satisfying user intent and would cause cannibalization at some point or another.
Here is an example of theirs http://www.vibescout.com/editorial/post/shimmy-beach-club-easter-weekend
It could read on WordPress http://www.vibescout.com/2019/07//shimmy-beach-club-easter-weekend
Best practice is simply
(if you wanted to segment /posts/ from /events/)
For the real SEO nerds: we did country and city segmentation:
(we may lose on keyword strength, as the keywords are pushed quite far back from the start of the URL with /za/cape-town/ in it, but we felt that URL siloing was quite important and the key aim was to rank https://www.vibescout.com/za/cape-town/)
Backlinks was another thing that Vibescout was working on. They had got a large number of spammy links from Fiverr, but they had submitted a disavow just before I joined the team. The disavow prevented these from negatively harming the website at the time and in the future.
For the love of your website never ever buy backlinks, especially from Fiverr of all places.
We asked for links from our friend network and used opportunities to build links on forums and communities where our audience could be found. From February to the end of my tenure, we built links slowly and constantly, I believe this is key to creating a healthy, SEO-rich website.
We earned about 270 links from other domains in the year, with the majority of them coming very naturally.
Social Media Automation
I set up IFTTT to tweet everything that we posted on Facebook, and also set up Instagram automation which allowed us to grow 2 accounts (vibescout_za and thingstodoza) to more than 10 000 followers each within the year.
This was rolled out to other accounts for every city 🙂
This doesn’t really help traffic, but it helps with branding and forming connections, which always contributes to the value of the brand.
Heading Structure & Semantics
This is probably my favourite SEO change to do as it’s so easy and can make a huge difference across a site. We made some small changes in the heading structure across the site, which allowed Google to better understand exactly what kind of site we were.
Always make sure that there is an H1, modifier (longer tail keywords) H2’s, and a few H3’s in a logical order for a crawler to understand.
Knowing the topic well helps the writer form a knowledgeable piece with great structured headings. For example, Google sees “activities”, “what to do” “whats on” and “things to do” as synonyms and using these to compliment each other is something to note for most travel sites.
Every niche has these kinds of synonyms and if you don’t know them it could lead to cannibalization, if you do know them in your niche, it can be very powerful.
This change has a pretty big impact on SEO (one of the biggest in my opinion) so making sure that your title contains your target keyword, is super important.
69 Fun Things To Do in Cape Town | Updated Activities For 2019
ProTip: you can use a really short URL and then make your title go after your keyword, most of Vibescout’s URLs are just one or 2 words, 3 at most.
Using the Date
Landing on outdated content can be frustrating, so indicating that yours is fresh is important (and easier to rank for initially).
We began using the year in the Titles and found that the CTR was pretty high in general for most terms we ranked in the top 5 for. Simple and quick win.
Some people use plugins to automatically add years, months and seasons into titles – super effective 🙂
There are always long-tails when it comes to SEO, and sometimes it’s good to specifically go after them in the beginning. Especially if your site doesn’t have the authority to rank for the meaty high-difficulty keywords.
“Fun”, “unique”, “romantic”, “with kids” are all great long-tail modifiers (keywords you add to other keywords). Sometimes, it’s a great idea to go for these slightly smaller and easier targets, build up your authority and then start going for the tastier topics.
Download my list of travel keyword modifiers (link to option monster signup and resource page)
Youtube Videos or Links
Video is gonna be HUGE so don’t just focus on the written word. We used these to generate links too 🙂 Nothing fancy, just something in the descriptions. They have built up some views and this is just going to compound.
For Pinterest, the ROI wasn’t there for this particular site but from some of my other tests, it does help SEO, so I’m putting it in here.
These tactics are not that hard, it may take a little more strategy and understanding of SEO or marketing elements.
I’m always surprised by the number of people who don’t use this tool, it’s really simple and can bring MASSIVE returns.
Every day, I would go into Search Console and check for optimization or content opportunities, then add a few words to posts, updating them or maybe briefing blog topics about something we ranked for that didn’t have a post or page for.
Since optimizing is something I did daily, and something I firmly believe in, it’s become a service that we offer our clients, you can check it out here.
This is quite a weird one and it is SUPER effective if you can find an opportunity.
Our country was protesting about our president and although this isn’t something we covered, we were getting traffic from these searches. This seemed like a great opportunity. We whipped an article up at about 2 am and over the next 2 days, we got well over 100 000 sessions just frn.
Specifying where and what Google should crawl is so important but often overlooked. Nowadays it’s so simple; you can use Yoast or any other sitemap tool and easily create a sitemap for your site.
As our website was pretty custom, we got to really experiment here and make sure that the search engines crawled the correct pages.
This is not that critical for smaller sites, but I think having an optimized and thought-out sitemap is an important part of SEO.
This is one of the most overlooked SEO tactics. You don’t want to waste Google’s time with the crawl budget.
Many websites have used tags and categories that don’t add much value to Google. This is usually the case unless you get very technical, and are generally hard to rank for. Such examples in many travel sites are destination tags and categories.
That’s where the Robots.txt comes in. This handy tool allows you to tell Google NOT to crawl your tags and categories pages, allowing the crawl budget to rather be used on valuable pages.
Outreach was one of the most important parts of Vibescout’s strategy, we would reach out to every single person that we ever wrote about or linked to.
No one’s gonna really know about you if you don’t tell them. We basically sent about 20 – 50 emails a day to various stakeholders in our articles and if we were lucky, we got a share or sometimes some kind of gift that we could give to our readers.
Touching on the point above, sometimes we would ask for some kind of item/ticket or prize and to hold a sponsored campaign for the people involved.
Page speed on your website is a big factor in how Google ranks your posts and pages. No one likes a slow-to-load web page, least of all Google.
Our developer was obsessed with page speed, which was awesome. We were about a second faster than most of our competitors.
Lazy load, better servers, it all counts. Ideally, you should try to get it to under 2 seconds – but I often settle for 4. Every theme is different but just be aware of the size of images. You don’t need much more than 1080px most of the time and kb size should be low (under 200kb is ideal).
We didn’t really want outside investment, well at least not at the stage we were in. However, we did apply to some programs and got in with Google developers Launchpad and Ycombinator Startup School.
There was a lot of value and support that came from there, from 5000usd in server costs to emails and talks with mentors. It’s always a great idea to apply to an incubator and get outside resources to take your product to the next level.
There are a lot of APIs out there that could give you a ton of data, Some of those that we used were for movies, maps, and facebook events. We were able to pull data put this information on a page with better SEO elements and visually nicer, this allowed us to seamlessly create pages and really scale.
Leveraging Contacts and Keeping Your Ear to the Ground
I don’t think this is necessarily an advanced tactic, but it does take a lot of time. By building relationships with people and being active in certain communities, we were able to access programmes and get press pretty easily because of the relationships we were building.
There are quite a few tactics in this post, and I don’t think there is a silver bullet to every startup; but the key is to test them and continuously try new things to find things that catapult your growth. Who knows, maybe you find some awesome loophole and use it to get more exposure (a fancy name for this is growth hacking).
I hope this guide helps you get some ideas to take your startup to the next level.
- Beginner Marketing Tactics
- Content Strategy
- Table of Contents
- URL Structure
- Social Media Automation
- Heading Structure & Semantics
- Youtube Videos or Links
- Medium Tactics
- Content Optimization
- News Jacking
- Robots TXT
- Advanced Tactics
- Leveraging Contacts and Keeping Your Ear to the Ground
- Your Turn