A Storyboard. Enjoy.

Storytelling in 2017 Turns Visual

In today’s realm of content marketing, consumer attention spans are shorter than ever (eight seconds, in fact — shorter than that of a goldfish). Even if you craft the most original, well-thought-out 1,000-word article, we hate to break it to you: Chances are it won’t stand a chance against text laced with compelling images and videos.

Simply put, words are no longer enough.

Consumers expect visual content all the time because their daily lives are inundated with photos, infographics, memes, GIFs, and how-to videos, particularly on social media. Just take a look at your Facebook feed; we can bet that the majority of the content you scroll through offers more than just a line of text. (Not to mention, photo- and video-based apps like Snapchat have continued to rise in popularity with new filters and add-on components.)

The written word is always going to be invaluable to content marketers, but the fact is, our brains naturally have the capacity to process more visual content than text – with approximately 90% of information transmitted to the brain being visual. Most people are visual learners (approximately 65%), and using a strategy that appeals to these image-driven learners can only propel your brand forward.

At AZDS, we work extensively with luxury hotels and resorts and top-tier travel companies. When developing content for our clients, we pair engaging text with visuals that help to tell the story – whether we are highlighting a travel destination or conveying the benefits of business aviation. Presented in a way that the audience can relate to and quickly process, visual content is irreplaceable in drawing traffic to our clients’ websites and improving brand awareness.

With more brands using visual content than ever before (up 130 percent from 2015 to 2016), it is important to approach your visual strategy both creatively and efficiently. Here are our step-by-step guidelines for creating content that won’t flop:

Determine the Type of Visual Content

Similar to textual content, images and videos need to be high-quality and relevant to the story you are telling. While memes may be a humorous and effective way to promote certain brands, especially those geared toward a younger audience, they don’t have as much of a place in the luxury hospitality industry.

Exceptional photography is our most often-used form of visual content on our clients’ blogs (with immersive, 360-degree photography on the rise), followed by eye-catching infographics, videos, and graphic design elements. More technical brands can also benefit from how-to videos, testimonial videos, and presentation-style visual content.

Make It Personal

In an ideal world, you want to have your own high-quality visuals that stand out from brands using stock images that consumers have already seen before. Hire a professional photographer or graphic designer to craft original content, and make sure to personalize the layout and design of your infographics – always including your logo or brand name for easy attribution.

If your article highlights other brands, remember that it only takes a few minutes to reach out to them and ask for permission to use an image. (They may be more likely to share your article after publication too.) And when all else fails, look for non-generic stock images. There are more and more stock photo websites all the time that can turn up engaging photography.

Set the Pace

The great thing about visual content combined with text is that properly placed images and videos allow the reader a moment to breathe, which is exactly what you want for those aforementioned short attention spans. Add compelling images at regular intervals and your audience will be more likely to finish lengthy articles.

Use SEO to Create Links

In the same way that your SEO specialist optimizes text for search, images and infographics should be properly optimized to allow them to become available to greater audiences. This includes appropriate file naming and tagging, from using target keywords in your image title to using alt tags so search engines can index visuals in search results. It is also important to have the right image compression and make sure that images and videos are not iframed.

Consider Virtual Reality

On a different note — for those who want to take visual content to a whole new level — one of the greatest developments in recent technology has opened the doors for marketers to completely immerse consumers in their stories.

With virtual reality, couples can see what it would be like to wed at a destination property, luxury travelers can understand the feeling that comes with taking flight in a specialized private jet, and powder seekers can visualize their ride down a freshly coated ski slope. As brands step into a relatively untapped marketing environment, the opportunities are endless for great storytelling.

A Guide to Paid Online Marketing for Hospitality Brands

Like most things in life, everything in digital marketing has a price. Want more traffic to your home page? Buy it. More blog visitors? Buy them. More social followers? Swipe your card and voilà.

But as we all know, buying visitors far from guarantees the type of high-quality traffic that leads to tangible conversions. The million-dollar question, as marketers in an increasingly diverse paid marketing landscape, is this: What digital marketing should I pay for, and what actually generates engaged customers? After all, a smart paid search strategy is essential to completing the multi-channeled marketing approach complementing organic search, email, social media, referrals, etc.

To answer that question, below are some guidelines we’ve established after many years working with hospitality brands. Think of it as a stoplight: Green means go, yellow means go under the right circumstances, and red means stop right there.

GREEN

PPC Adwords Campaigns

This one’s a given. Adwords is to paid search what Facebook is to social, and there’s no doubt brands should set aside a dedicated budget to best take advantage of paid ads on Google. It’s really only a question of how much budget you want to allocate for branded keywords versus non-branded.

On the non-branded front, I recommend bidding for your most high-volume, high-converting keywords—but avoiding spending too much on the long-tail keywords where organic search should ideally have you covered. Instead, focus the majority of your budget on branded terms, not just because they are highly qualified, but because they will help you compete against OTAs like Expedia and Kayak. If you can convert $50,000 of OTA business into direct brand.com business, you can save $7,500 in commission (assuming about 15%), which can lead to very high ROI.

Remarketing

Remarketing ad campaigns produce some of the highest ROI and it’s easy to see why: You’re targeting users who have previously engaged with your brand and thus are better qualified than any other segment. Be it users who have visited two or more pages of the site (mid-intent), those who have dropped off the booking engine (high-intent), or those who completed a pre-determined goal, our remarketing campaigns have seen excellent results for virtually all of our clients.

YELLOW

Social Ads

A general rule of thumb when it comes to social advertising: On active platforms where you have dedicated followings, by all means set a daily budget to boost your regular posts. Social media is the best way to engage with your audiences and, considering today’s heavy restrictions on organic post reach, it’s imperative to add $15-$20 per day in order to maximize exposure. Without it, your posts will only reach a fraction of your total followers and thus diminish the entire potential of your social strategy.

Where social advertising gets less reliable is when approached strictly as a sales channel. Leave the direct booking ads to social retargeting platforms—which target a more qualified guest—and dedicate your social budget to pushing engaging content to capture new leads into your initial sales funnel. Consumers use their social feeds to discover interesting content and smart brands will take full advantage by tailoring their content to a variety of formats—from photos to videos to user-generated media. Each platform has its benefits in terms of audience and targeting, but I’m especially fond of Instagram, where ads are difficult to distinguish from normal posts.

Lastly, one thing to always consider on the social advertising front is paid influencer sharing. At the right price, social influencers carry huge potential for exposing your brand to thousands of highly qualified, credible consumers.

Past Purchase Re-Engagement

For brands willing to invest significant funds (think $50k+ per month) on a campaign with extremely qualified audiences, few options can rival re-engagement targeting through Amex, VISA, and MasterCard. The campaign leverages credit card spending records to target users based on three different segmentations: customers who have previously stayed at the hotel but not within the past 12 months, customers who have spent money on a direct competitor within the past 12 months, and customers who have spent money at the hotel within the past 12 months.

The ads show up in display format within major content publications across the Internet (much like retargeting ads). From there, the credit card companies can track, all the way down to restaurant purchases and spa treatments, exactly how much each user spends per conversion (via their personal credit cards). Though it doesn’t show up within Google Analytics, we have consistently seen ROIs exceeding 80x and recommend it as one of the best paid marketing options available on the market.

RED

Syndicated Content

The idea of padding your blog traffic through syndication platforms like Taboola and Outbrain is nice in concept, but that’s typically where it ends. Yes you’ll get a high influx of visitors but very rarely are they the type of visitors that actually move the needle. In our experience, average visit duration is typically well below 30 seconds and bounce rates hover in the 70%+ range, meaning they’re one-and-done visitors who aren’t really interested in the brand.

Instead of allocating money on low-quality syndicated ads, spend it to secure higher-quality visitors through personalized, trigger email campaigns or strategic social influencer outreach.

Purchased Email Lists

Much like syndicated content, purchasing an email list seems like a quick solution to getting the audience you need for regular email sends. But, for a variety of reasons, this is one of the worst things you can do for your campaigns.

Not only are you buying a list full of people who likely don’t even know your brand, you’re getting a list of addresses scraped together from other sites that are often unrelated to yours. To make matters worse, those people never directly agreed to be on your email list—and will be not-so-pleasantly surprised when your email shows up in their inbox.

The fact of the matter is, high-quality email lists are not available for sale and will only serve to irritate people and produce terrible engagement results on your email sends. You’re exceedingly better off sticking to organic methods for generating email addresses—like booking engine captures, social media contests, gated assets/tools (requiring email signups), social media promotions, prominent calls to action within your website design, and more.

Five Ways Hotels Can Counter Airbnb and the Sharing Economy

Make no mistake: 2017 is as great a time as ever when it comes to digital marketing for luxury hotels and resorts. There’s a dependable, merit-based framework for new customers to find you (search engines), a cutting-edge method for capturing and retaining both new and returning visitors (content marketing), and countless ways to distribute your message once published (social media, paid search, email, and more).

Yet despite all this, two repeat suspects seem to scare marketers and hoteliers alike into thinking that hotels are harder to market than ever before. One is OTAs, the pesky saboteurs who cannibalize direct bookings, and the other is private rental platforms (like Airbnb or VRBO), the hotel industry’s equivalent of Uber and Lyft.

Since we already discussed OTAs extensively last year, I’d like to dive deeper into Airbnb, VRBO, and the sharing economy. Airbnb, to give some context, is coming off a staggering year of growth—revenue increased over 80% to an estimated $12.3 billion—and offers well over 3 million listings in more than 65,000 cities across the globe. Needless to say, hotels can ill afford to stand by and watch as valuable market share gets funneled into private homes and daily rentals.

Having worked extensively with luxury hotels and resorts, here are my recommendations to keep marketers ahead of the game:

1. Market the Experience

Private rentals appeal to travelers who want to immerse themselves in a certain destination. They can live like a local, avoid tourist traps (or being surrounded by them), and experience the destination from an insider’s perspective.

To compete with this, hotels have to leverage what they have and private rentals don’t: local expertise and curated experiences. Luxury hotels are admittedly designed for tourists, but designed in such a way that tourists can authentically experience their local surroundings. Be it cultural immersions, culinary events, expert guides, or personalized travel recommendations, the key is to market these offerings through online content, social media, and email.

There are many reasons, for example, to write a story about the revival of Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood or the art-infused new metro line in Los Angeles, SEO being the primary. But you’re also endearing yourself to guests who want to feel like they’re traveling, not just staying somewhere. And chances are, those are the same lifestyle-oriented guests who are also considering Airbnb or VRBO.

2. Make Guests Feel At Home

For large families (or groups of friends) who want to stay together under the same roof, a spacious private home, available through Airbnb or VRBO, seems like the perfect fit. The job of a luxury hotel is to disrupt this commonly held belief, proving that private residences or large suites can be just as, if not more, accommodating than private homes.

To do so, create content-rich, image-based residence pages and target long-tail keywords like “residences for families…,” “family accommodations…,” and “private residences in…” Run stories on the layout or design of your residences, including expert insights from the designers themselves, as well as stories highlighting multi-generational experiences from dining to exploring. Or, create special packages targeting extended families and friends, offering incentives and ideas for staying with larger groups.

Your main message: What’s better than staying together as a group in a place that feels like home? Staying together as a group in a place that feels like home, with the added luxury of five-star service, gourmet dining, expert concierge, exclusive amenities, and much more.

3. Create a Streamlined and Reliable Reservation Process

The problem with the likes of Airbnb and VRBO is that you typically can’t reserve a home with the click of a button. You have to request the dates of availability, wait for the owner’s approval, then finally reserve your stay a day or more later. In short, it’s far from a convenient process for travelers wanting to guarantee availability and reserve immediately.

Hotels, of course, have a huge advantage in this area, but don’t just settle for the bare minimum. Implement a user-friendly, streamlined booking engine that lets guests choose dates and see real-time availability in one step, then easily customize and finalize their reservation on the very next page. My agency has made this a priority for many of our clients, resulting in not just drastically improved year-over-year conversion rates, but extra incentive for consumers to remain loyal to hotels.

4. Ensure Seamless User Experience

Thanks to its five-star service and hospitality, a quality luxury hotel will inherently have a better offline experience than a private home. Done right, it should also be much superior online.

An Airbnb profile, for example, can only tell you so much about the home and its possibilities—like basic location, features, amenities, and a general vision of the home, often using photography that’s not exactly sparkling. Luxury hotels, however, have the bandwidth to feature professional photography, captivating content, unique details of every room, insider information that guests would want to know about, and customer service for any remaining questions. Most importantly, their sites should be easy to navigate, simple to understand, and quick to operate.

It comes down to this: Since many online consumers are undecided whether they want a hotel or a private home, oftentimes the winner is the one with better information and easier user experience.

5. Promote Loyalty Programs

Loyalty programs are many hotels’ primary tactic against OTAs, but they work just as well—if not better—against Airbnb. The reason being, while Airbnb (and its counterparts) has yet to establish any form of loyalty rewards, hotels can incentivize guests with a wide variety of benefits, from upgraded rooms to resort credits. Use them well and use them often, whether as a notable page in your site navigation, a dedicated email send with personalized promotions, or even as a featured component of your paid search ads. It’s a true trump card and one of your best options for swaying consumers back into the reservation book of your hotel.

The Changing Face of Luxury

In early February of this year, Pendry Hotels opened its first-ever location in the historic Gaslamp District of San Diego. An offshoot of five-star luxury hospitality group Montage Hotels & Resorts, it’s an urban locale for trendy travelers seeking “simple luxury, clean design, well-crafted restaurant experiences, vibrant bars, and that perfect balance of polished comfort and modern edge.”

Six months prior, America’s third largest private aviation provider, XOJET, launched a brand new partnership with technology and app developers, JetSmarter. Complementing XOJET’s revolutionary on-demand pricing model, it gives sophisticated consumers Uber-like access to private jet charters using a quick and convenient mobile app.

About a year before that, another private aviation company, Tradewind Aviation, introduced a daily shuttle service from New York to Boston. The premise: Using private FBOs, not commercial airports, frequent business commuters can enjoy the efficiency and convenience of private air travel by reserving a single seat aboard a private aircraft, in this case a Pilatus PC-12.

…….

Besides being clients of AZDS, these brands all share one common denominator: They are part of a growing segment of upscale brands offering a modern alternative to “classic” luxury.

Much like Hilton’s Curio Hotels or Tesla’s Model 3, they are generally less expensive than their traditional counterparts—say Porsche, NetJets, or Four Seasons. They are also less exclusive: Pendry is “younger,” XOJET is more accessible, and Tradewind is more convenient.

Yet for all their differences, these new “lifestyle” brands still maintain a certain standard of luxury-level service, quality, and hospitality. Think of it as the democratization of luxury: What was previously only affordable by the ultra-wealthy is now within reach of a whole demographic of new consumers.

Far from speculative, this groundbreaking development comes in direct response to new demands placed on the luxury market over the past decade. The traditional luxury consumer—typically older, affluent buyers seeking exclusivity and privacy—will never be obsolete, nor will traditional brands like Four Seasons, Rolex, Louis Vuitton, or Ferrari.

But with the emergence of technology, online shopping, and the sharing economy, luxury brands are suddenly hitting the radar of an entirely new subset of qualified consumers. Of the 330 million people who purchased luxury products worldwide in 2014, only 150 million were considered to be “true luxury” buyers (consistently spending high amounts on products like perfume, fashion, and fine jewelry). The remaining 180 million are unconventional luxury consumers in more ways than one: not just new to the market, but bringing with them a whole new set of expectations, ideals, and demands.

Lifestyle brands, like Pendry Hotels or Curio Hotels, are luxury’s answer to these new demands. Generally speaking, new luxury consumers tend to be younger in age and tend to value convenience over extravagance and luxury experiences over luxury items. So in launching new lifestyle hospitality brands, the focus is less about champagne and caviar and more about craft beer, farm-to-table restaurants, and curated local culture. It’s supply and demand at its finest: Consumers are drawn to luxury products that tell a story and enhance their experience—not necessarily their social standing.

In the end, how this new luxury niche ultimately performs remains to be seen. But as a marketer in an increasingly diversified industry, to me it’s a fascinating story of demographic insights and how markets react to the demands of consumers.

The bottom line is this: Though traditional luxury remains alive and well, luxury as a whole is no longer the one-dimensional bubble it used to be. Experience over exclusivity—luxury is evolving and marketers must do the same.

2016: The Year In Review

As we inch (or seemingly fly at supersonic speeds) closer to 2017, we tie up all the loose ends from 2016 and reminisce on all the extraordinary accomplishments from this past year. I say it every single year, but it bears repeating: our outstanding and dedicated team deserves all the credit for being the best in the business. The way they treat our clients, day-in-day-out, is nothing short of perfection.

This year we celebrate the addition of Danielle, Lexi, Andrea, and Kyle to our team and several new developers that help our clients exceed their goals. The motto at AZDS is to deliver true hospitality to our customers and partners, a concept that we define quite differently than service. We believe that service is what you do for someone, while hospitality is how you make them feel. For example, in our line of business, when a web or marketing request comes in, someone completes it during business hours and lets the client know the request has been completed. That is what we consider service. At AZDS, it can be 7:00pm on a Sunday night, and if a client has an important request (that on the surface might not look important), we not only deliver on that Sunday night, but we follow up by asking the client if there is anything else we can assist with. We think outside the box and always provide helpful suggestions on how we think something can be done better. We go above and beyond because we know it means everything to the client.. That is what we consider delivering true hospitality to our hospitality clients, and that is what we do every day at AZDS.

In addition to launching new websites and campaigns for some of the most renowned brands in the hotel business, 2016 saw us expand our work into several new realms of hospitality and travel. For one, we launched a new website and member portal for the Vaquero Club, a Discovery Land Company project featuring a Tom Fazio-designed golf course in Westlake, Texas. And as part of our new aviation roster, we also partnered with the leader in private travel, XOJET, to create, curate, and share editorial level content targeting ultra-exclusive audiences of luxury consumers.

It all added up to a busy year of creating on-point deliverables for our growing list of clients. But even amid so many successes, new partnerships, and award recognitions (including W3 Awards, Pixel Awards, etc.), what still shines through as the most important aspect of 2016 is how our people made our clients feel.

Going into 2017, as we continue to roll out our software-as-a-service platform, the team at AZDS understands how important delivering hospitality continues to be. At AZDS, we do not believe in delivering our products and services through a technology/software culture – a culture that often provides limited customer service, creating a roadblock for even the simplest of tasks, such as reaching out for support. The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of software companies are in it for the high valuation and quick sale, and I can proudly say that AZDS is in it for the long run (AZDS has been in business for eleven years now and counting). Our combined wealth of agency experience allows us to differentiate ourselves from the competition by instead delivering our products and services through a hospitality culture. Trust me, you’ll see the difference.

If you’re looking to elevate your hotel booking engine in 2017, reach out to me personally (adam@azdsm.net) or reach out to one of our sales people to understand how our Synxis and Trust API products will increase your monthly revenue by five figures per month.

Wishing everyone and their families the most wonderful last few days of 2016 and best wishes for a marvelous 2017!

Adam Deflorian
CEO

Search Experience Optimization

Not long ago, optimizing for search was a very robotic process. Stuff as many keywords as possible into your title tags, meta descriptions, and website content, then rinse and repeat. It was a question of satisfying Google’s keyword-hungry crawlers, essentially incentivizing what was little more than a glorified spam tactic.

Today’s search formula is unrecognizable in comparison, still aiming to appease the crawlers but doing so in a vastly different manner. Brands now have to cater to the humans that are searching, not the machines, because the crawlers themselves reward user experience over keyword-stuffing. Hence the evolution of a new form of SEO, Search Experience Optimization, which perfectly embodies this brand new era of organic digital marketing.

Optimizing for experience requires a wide array of online tactics—more than could fit in one blog post—but below are some of the overarching factors to consider in this new search landscape.

Give Users What they Want

You may have noticed that Google now reserves a dedicated first position (position 0) in search results for listings that provide the best possible answer to a user’s question. This is a microcosm of today’s new search model, which rewards brands that provide the best overall value and usefulness in their respective search queries.

For digital marketers, the key to performing well in this new human-centric equation is to prioritize your website visitor over all else. Create content-rich sites that answer their questions instead of littering keywords. Write page titles and meta descriptions that explain exactly what the page is about, not something that misleads the user. And most importantly, understand that users—at least the highly motivated ones—are not performing search in the same way they used to.

Today’s search is more detailed and specific, often written as full questions or extended phrases. We think of them as long-tailed keywords and they’re usually queried by consumers looking for specific answers—and who are more likely to convert when they find them.

For example, instead of “Resorts in Park City,” searchers are turning to longer terms like “Ski-in Ski-out Resorts in Park City.” They’re looking for a very nuanced result in their booking process and we’ve been able to capitalize on it for our Park City client, Montage Deer Valley. Because we’ve created editorial content around skiing and ski-in ski-out accessibility, featured it prominently on the website, and created a user-friendly visitor experience, not only are we highly ranked for that keyword, it’s also one of our best performers in terms of conversions.

Generate Engagement

Google’s algorithms place great emphasis on how visitors engage with your site after clicking through. This means you need to stay on top of your user experience metrics—including bounce rate, time on site, pages per visit, conversion rate, and returning visitors—and perform A/B testing to make sure your site feels intuitive and user-friendly. But more importantly, you need to provide reasons for the user to engage to begin with.

The best way to do this, as we all know, is to create compelling content that gets shared socially. Hone in on what types of content your visitor demographic would enjoy—by following trends, timely events, and social behaviors—and create it in a way that’s authentic, useful, relevant, and actionable (we call it AURA). Then reach out to social influencers to give it legs across social media. The result is a much higher user experience associated with your brand, which will subsequently reflect in your search engine rankings.

Think Mobile

It’s no secret that mobile is giving desktop a serious run for its money as the top dog in traffic acquisition. In fact, within our client set of hospitality and travel brands, average mobile market share lies just around the 40% mark and is quickly approaching half of total site traffic. What’s more, other industries have long since passed the 50% threshold.

As if this wasn’t incentive enough to optimize your site for mobile experience, search engines have made it all but a requirement. Google’s algorithm update in April of 2015 delivered significant ranking penalties to brands lacking mobile sites and/or mobile-friendly designs. This pattern is only continuing, as Google, Bing, etc. regularly evaluate brands based on metrics like mobile site speed, mobile bounce rate, and mobile visit duration.

Long story short: Ensuring your mobile site is in impeccable order should be at the top of any marketer’s checklist. And keep in mind mobile design isn’t always like its desktop equivalent. Intricate, complex designs may be feasible on desktop—because visitors have greater Internet bandwidth—but not so much on smartphones relying on data connectivity. Keep your mobile sites clean and simple to maximize site speed and ensure visitors enjoy a seamless experience browsing your site.

More so than stuffing keywords, writing deceptive meta descriptions, or obsessing over link profiles, mobile optimization is arguably the most important thing you can do to make an impression on search crawlers. And seeing as it’s making the online space much cleaner and transparent for the user, all of us are better off for it.

Social Influencers: Giving Wings to Your Content

In its simplest form, content marketing boils down to two equally important steps: creating great content and then distributing that content. One without the other results in either uninteresting content that's not marketable or excellent content that never gets read.

Both are unfortunate in their own right, but the second scenario is especially discouraging. You’ve done all the hard work—strategized ideas, sourced writers, and created something that people actually would want to read—only to fall short at the last (and often easier) hurdle. There’s nothing worse.

Which begs the question: How can you ensure your online content gets the reach it deserves?

The answer has multiple parts, starting with some of your basic digital tactics: optimizing for search, making your content publication easily visible through your home page navigation, and sharing it through your own social media channels. Paying for syndicated traffic—through Outbrain (my recommendation) or Taboola—is another option, though these will predominantly bring you quantity of traffic and not necessarily quality.

More than anything, successful content marketers harness the power of social influencers. Significant sharing on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. is almost always the main difference we see between high- and low-performing content, especially when that sharing stems from notable online profiles with high volumes of fans/followers.

It makes sense: when content gets shared by well-known brands or influencers online, not only is it exposed to thousands of new digital consumers, ideally it also falls into the lap of consumers who are pre-disposed to enjoy that type of content. For example, at AZDS we work primarily with hospitality brands (hotels, privation aviation, real estate, etc), so we’re always on the lookout for influencers within the travel industry to share our content. When they do (and we’re assuming they’re high quality influencers), our clients are introduced to a qualified audience especially interested in travel—almost like a targeted paid social advertising campaign but without the exorbitant cost (and with better results).

The key to making this work, of course, is finding the right influencers to target and partner with. There are several ways of doing this:

Start with other brands. When strategizing content and what stories to run, consider partnering with like-minded brands that are not necessarily selling the same product but targeting the same audience. Telling their story—or featuring them in your content—can not only produce an interesting angle, but virtually guarantee a valuable social share once the article goes live (as long as you do the legwork and establish the relationship). In the luxury travel industry, for example, we’ve gained significant online traction when featuring vineyards, wellness products, fashion houses, five-star chefs, and the like, because they all fit within the same realm of five-star luxury. We write an engaging story for them and, in return, they share on their social media channels; it’s rewarding for everyone.

Moving on to individual influencers, all brands should remember that nothing sells a consumer quite like endorsements from a celebrity, leader, or acquaintance (i.e. people trust people). Finding these 3% of people who generate 90% of the impact online is not difficult (with tools like BuzzSumo or Inkybee); rather, the challenge is to entice them share your content.

One way to do this is to have them contribute through guest posting. This will create an organic traffic draw, not to mention a valuable social reach upon sharing. Another way to go is simply through targeted influencer outreach. Once you’ve created content that aligns with the interests of your targeted social influencers (and their audiences), simply reach out to establish a relationship for social sharing. This is often possible for free, but even at a reasonable cost, I can’t think of many better digital investments than a long-term content partnership with an established social influencer.

Because, when all is said and done, influencer marketing is the most powerful way to lift your content off the ground and make a meaningful impact online.

Truth or Myth?

In the fast-paced, oft-changing field of digital marketing, best practices can quickly change from one day to the next (we’re looking at you, Google). Below we consider some commonly held industry beliefs and decide whether they’re right on the money or wide of the mark.

1. Social Media is not a Great Fit for Luxury Brands.

Myth:
Quite on the contrary, social media has quickly emerged as one of luxury marketing’s most potent acquisition channels in recent years. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram have an important role to play at the top of the conversion funnel—for example, by leveraging social influencers to expose your brand content to thousands of new luxury consumers.

What’s more, social can frequently drive direct conversions as well—because it appeals to a luxury audience’s empathy and desirability. Luxury brands have an advantage in that they have extraordinary photos and videos in their arsenal, perfectly suited for the visual nature of social media engagement. An enticing picture on Instagram or compelling video on Snapchat can be just what pushes a consumer over the edge when they’ve been considering buying a luxury product or experience. The analytics back that up, as we’re starting to see our clients’ direct social bookings increase dramatically compared to years past.

2. First Impressions Still Matter.

Truth:
In an age where 40% of people abandon a website that takes more than 3 seconds to load, the last thing brands can expect from their consumers is patience. We all make split-second decisions about our online behavior and much of it is based on the very first experience we have with a brand: its site design, user friendliness, site speed, or overall quality. Brands are marketing us from all angles during all parts of the day, and whether you read that email or click on that piece of content largely depends on your first impression.

3. Mobile is only used for browsing, not converting.

Myth:
It’s true that mobile traffic is sky-rocketing across all industries while mobile conversions lag in comparison. That said, smartphone conversions have come a long way in recent years and people are becoming increasingly comfortable making purchases on their devices. A Business Intelligence report estimates that by 2020, mobile commerce will make up 45 percent of total e-commerce. This is more than double what’s expected for 2016 (20.6%), meaning it’s fair to assume mobile conversions will soon begin to close the gap on mobile traffic.

4. Quality Beats Quantity in Content Marketing.

Truth:
Cranking out lots of content, though not necessarily of the highest quality, was once considered the golden ticket to appease Google’s SEO algorithms. That is no longer the case, as quality has not just spiked in importance for engagement purposes but certainly for SEO. If you can publish a high volume of content at a high level, by all means do it—but the key is to create “sticky” content that is authentic, useful, relevant, and actionable. Typically the vast majority of traffic stems from a handful of articles anyway, so there’s really no harm in eliminating the “noise.”

5. Short-Form is Better Than Long-Form Content.

Myth:
Having just discussed the lack of patience shown across the Internet, it seems safe to assume that people prefer shorter, bite-sized content when reading online. What we also know, however, is that people will make the time for content they find interesting—and oftentimes the long-form content is simply of higher quality. So we’re not saying that short-form is worse (because it can be incredibly effective), we’re just warning you from writing off pieces that extend beyond 1,200 words or so. Not only can they increase the engagement of your site, they can also do wonders for your SEO.

6. Traffic Drops Are Bad for Business.

Myth:
The goal for any brand is obviously to report traffic increases on a year-over-year basis. That said, a drop in traffic is by no means reason to panic. At AZDS, we’ve seen many cases where clients show a 20% drop in traffic but a 50% growth in revenue. Why? Because we’ve strategically targeted a new audience, one that’s more likely to engage with the brand and ultimately convert. It’s a big difference maker for the bottom line, and frankly, something that a lot of brands could benefit from.

7. Keywords Still Matter in SEO.

Truth:
When it comes to the top three most important factors for ranking webpages in Google’s ranking algorithm, the importance of keywords, or content, sits directly between quality of relevant backlinks and Google’s new machine-learning artificial intelligence system called “RankBrain.” This according to Google itself.

More than a few have been adamant that keywords play a less important role in search nowadays. This is simply untrue. The argument could be made that the placement and the frequency in which keywords are used throughout the content play the largest role. It’s important to know that keywords do still matter, as we still consider it imperative that targeted long-tail keywords are displayed in page titles, subheaders, image alt text, etc.

Having said that, the frequency in which you utilize the keyword is not as important as it once was. You do not need to repeat a keyword several times in the page copy anymore. This is a strategy that no longer works and often makes the writing worse and less enjoyable to read from a user’s perspective. And we all know Google prides itself on providing the best user experience possible.

8. Email Marketing Shows the Highest ROI of any Digital Channel.

Truth:
Successful email campaigns are certainly no cakewalk, but the channel’s marketing potential remains as high as ever. It’s a direct line of communication with your qualified audience, and when combined with great content, social integration, and segmentation, can have a huge impact on online engagement and conversions. The main takeaway: For every $1 spent, email marketing generates $38 in ROI, higher than any other channel in digital marketing.

Seeing the Big Picture

There's no doubt the success of a digital agency depends largely on the performance of its monthly client analytics. That said, the buck doesn't always stop on metrics nor are all metrics created equal.

True value, rather, stems from a long-term marketing strategy that blends credible, quantifiable metrics with the dedicated commitment of a genuine digital partner.

Here's how we at AZDS aim to see the big picture for our clients, and thus add real, reliable value:

Metrics That Tie Back to the Bottom Line
When optimizing for and reporting analytics to clients, we know that all metrics are not created equal. Some, like average visit duration, number of Facebook likes, or total ad impressions, can be quite variable, unreliable, and ultimately don't give an accurate gauge of a brand's online success. Finding the metrics that do reflect your progress--and tie back to a brand's bottom line--is the key to seeing the big picture and truly empowering your clients.

Though this may sound obvious when it comes to metrics like visits, conversions, conversion rate, and revenue, the key is to go one level deeper and understand which secondary metrics play an equally important role in the online puzzle. Of the ones we've identified over the years, one of our favorites is pages per visit. More reliable in measuring visitor quality than bounce rate and visit duration--both of which can be misleading--a high page per visit count is indicative of a better qualified user, higher website engagement, and ultimately a higher likelihood to convert.

Another underrated metric is your multi channel count. Digital agencies are hired to ensure the full online puzzle is working cohesively, meaning each acquisition channel shouldn't just be functioning on its own but complementing the other campaigns in the puzzle. Multi channel funnels tell you how visitors are finding your brand, which touch points are most influential (and which ones are not), and what your top conversion paths are. It's an agency report card and we use it as a foolproof tool to measure our value to clients.

The takeaway is this: if you know your ultimate goal is more conversions and higher revenue, ask yourself how a given metric is helping you achieve that. If you can't establish a strong correlation--plus eliminate any misleading variables--you're not really seeing the big picture. And more importantly, not showing true ROI on your work.

An Extension of the Brand
For any successful digital agency (especially in the hospitality space), ROI can't always be measured. Clients hire agencies to optimize their marketing, sure, but they're also looking for a digital partner who helps, assists, and advises them like they do for their own clients.

Consequently, seeing the big picture doesn't always come down to the amount of conversions you're generating. Sometimes it's about the extra effort you put in after business hours to respond to a ticket, the quick response times to fix an issue, or going above and beyond to provide assistance outside your retainer agreement.

At AZDS, we consider ourselves an extension of all our clients, equally invested in their growth as anyone within their organization. We're constantly looking for new technologies or tools to further empower a brand, always searching for new ideas to inspire innovation, and never settling just because our work is done.

Because at the end of the day, though analytics are variable and can fluctuate even during periods of great digital work, we can always control the service we're delivering. Which is why our client retention rate is just as important to overall value as our client conversion rate.

Brand Exposure
Content marketing is widely accepted as one of the greatest marketing tools of our time, yet the debate rages on about the best way to truly measure its success.

The reason being, like many other digital mediums, the true value of content marketing lies outside the realm of traditional marketing analytics. Of course it can improve traffic, increase engagement, and boost search engine rankings. But when great content is shared (to thousands of new, qualified fans on social media), what it really does is increase a brand's overall exposure and credibility. A conversion today through organic search may come from someone who saw a brand's content six months ago, and now feels trust and connection with that brand (enough to choose it over others).

The same can be said about many other facets of digital marketing. Short-term results are a must when reporting analytics, but we're equally particular about checking our long-term patterns, like total social shares and early-stage keyword development. They may not seem essential in this moment, but in reality they're the difference between a brand staying stagnant online or just growing slowly long-term, to showing exceptional growth and becoming a household name.

Talk about big picture.

Exceptional Content in Four Comprehensive Steps

Content marketing is the marketing technique in today’s world—where PR and digital marketing are crossing over more than Kris Kross.

At AZDS, we believe in using concise, well-written content, value, and interest to attract consumers rather than advertisements and traditional forms of outbound marketing. The results can often be seen months after sharing, and when effectively done, content marketing has the power to shape a brand’s online personality and better social media reach and SEO placement.

At AZDS, we have developed a definitive process for creating meaningful content for our clients. The following steps help maximize our clients’ content marketing ROI:

Step 1: Strategize

The first step in generating compelling, effective content for your brand is understanding why you are creating the content and what you hope to achieve through sharing it. Likely, you already have an end goal in mind, such as attracting new consumers to your business, but a powerful marketing strategy will require a deeper analysis.

Start by familiarizing yourself with the brand you are representing and your consumer demographics. Just who are your potential readers?

Think about your own readers’ specific interests and priorities to understand how you can best relate to them, then develop a persona for your individual brand’s audience. Google Analytics, for example, allows you to narrow down your audience’s demographics, including age, gender, interests, geographic location, and more across a variety of reports. Facebook then gives you further defined interests, especially as it relates to what they engage with online. Or, use a Twitter aide like Followerwonk or Twitter ads to see exactly what your followers are interested in and list common topics, which can be extremely valuable as well.

Once you have analyzed your readers and are certain of your intent, you will be able to plan content with greater ease and can expect more rewarding results.

Step 2: Plan

Relevance should be the first priority when crafting topics for content. You want to relate to your audience by coming up with unique approaches and subject matter that readers find interesting, emotionally stimulating, and--ultimately--engaging.

Think about what is timely in terms of seasonality and holidays and consider trending topics popular across social media and in the news.

Once you have determined the type of content you will be producing, the next part of the planning process is partnering with external brands to maximize your content’s sharing potential. And, yes, this is something that should ideally happen prior to the actual writing. We recommend online tools like Buzzsumo to find influencers and understand what content topics are working through sharing data.

Step 3: Optimize

Now that your content is ready to share, you’ll need to optimize it for search. Your SEO specialist can begin with keyword research by finding long-tail keyword variants to target in the title tags and headers and the top keyword within the first paragraph.

It’s important to link text to relevant internal and external articles through keyword-rich anchor text as well as to optimize images by placing targeted keywords into the image alt text. When highly optimized throughout, your content will become available to greater audiences.

Step 4: Reach Out

There is nothing worse than writing an incredible piece of content and having no one actually read it. This is why the importance of reaching out to your influencers--and doing so with persistence--simply cannot be overstated.

Ensure that your partners share your content by messaging them on different platforms if you are not getting a timely response, engage regularly with fans, and promote your content through captivating email marketing efforts. You don’t want to force your blog post upon audiences or self-promote excessively; it’s about having work with value so the article can propel itself forward when given a push in the right direction.

…………

Eliminate what doesn’t work, and repeat what does. When the content marketing process is done well, your content can be engaging, wide-reaching, and effective in improving brand identity.

The Power of Empathy

As an avid tennis player, I’ve bought my fair share of tennis shoes over the years. Dozens, in fact.

So as I bought another pair from Tennis Warehouse online a few weeks ago, nothing seemed out of the ordinary at first—from the quick checkout to the two-day shipping to the confirmed delivery notification.

Problem was, some curious passerby likely thought the package in front of my door was a little too tempting to simply leave be. So, naturally, said passerby decided to give him or herself a little complimentary gift.

After realizing what happened and swearing off deliveries without signature requirements, I decided to give Tennis Warehouse a call just to follow up—not expecting more than a standardized sympathy line like “We’re terribly sorry to hear that” in return.

What I received, however, was empathy.

Instead of setting me up for another purchase, Tennis Warehouse shipped another pair to my house free of charge (this time with a must-sign obligation, I might add). The person I was speaking to made a split second decision: make another $100 now or reward a long-term customer for their loyalty.

His quick thinking—call it a $100 investment—has now guaranteed a customer for life who will spend thousands of dollars in Tennis Warehouse apparel over the next several decades.

Talk about ROI.

…………

The point being, empathy can go a long way towards differentiating your brand— and not just in retail service or selling tennis shoes, for that matter.

At AZDS, we consider empathy an integral (if not the most important) part of our marketing arsenal, both for our own brand and those of our clients. At a time when robots are capable of replacing humans in many of today’s complex intelligence matters, emotions and our ability to empathize remain our shining redemption.

The most obvious example, much like my experience with Tennis Warehouse, applies to customer service. Working in the luxury hospitality industry, we consider ourselves to be “hospitalians,” meaning we’ll go out of our way to accommodate our clients during every project or interaction. By prioritizing empathy and understanding their specific circumstances and pressures (even if it’s inconvenient for us), we’re able to respond to requests in minimal time, turn around major deliverables in a matter of hours, and establish personal relationships with every one of our connections. We’ve even been known to give price breaks in certain “benefit of the doubt” circumstances, because we know that—despite the short-term loss—human compassion will reward us in the long term.

What’s really fascinating about empathy, however, is when you apply it to specific marketing campaigns. Nobody likes a brand that feels forced, flavorless, and unrelatable. Whether crafting email creative or telling a story through content marketing, it’s our job as marketers to step into the shoes of our audience and ask the questions we, ourselves, would be asking of our favorite brands. In other words, stop viewing your customers as “unique users” who “consume” digital content using “Google Chrome” on a “mobile device”—and instead see them as another human being, inundated by thousands of bad ads and marketing on a daily basis, just like yourself.

When asking marketing questions as if you’d be marketing to yourself, your answers might yield some interesting results. You might find that another promotional email on a busy Monday afternoon just pisses you off, that a branded event recap simply doesn’t catch your attention, or that a beautiful-yet-unintuitive website really serves no purpose at all. Speed, interest, convenience, emotion, and timing—these are all factors that run our daily lives yet oftentimes get overlooked when we plan our marketing campaigns.

We’re by no means saying you should stop making decisions based on concrete data and analytics—because that's imperative for any of us—but save some room for human emotion as well. Empathy can lead your brand to places other brands simply have never visited, especially if you’re marketing vivid travel experiences at some of the most beautiful hotels and resorts in the world.

After all, if you’re selling something that doesn’t appeal to your own emotions, how are you going to succeed with others?

Adapting to a Changing Paid Search Landscape

Recent changes to Google’s search engine ad displays have sparked a heated discussion across the advertising industry. Nixing the right-hand ads in favor of 4 ads above the organic results and 3 below for “highly commercial queries,” advertisers are now left with just 7 available spots per page as opposed to the 11 from before. Less available space, stiffer competition, and more bidding changes to implement—are paid search marketers getting the short end of the stick?

Not necessarily.

The good news is that Google’s right-hand ads were never very effective to begin with. Click through rates for side ads were considerably lower than those of top-of-page banner ads, 14 times worse to be specific. Frederick Vallaeys, one of the original creators of AdWords, uses this 14x estimate to conclude that the new layout could make 16% more clicks available—simply because banner ads are much more valuable, even with less total slots up for grabs.

By this prediction, marketers seemingly have little to worry about from a click and impression standpoint. The layout changes have triggered small CTR alterations between top and bottom banners, but the big picture remains very similar, if not better. If anything, it’s actually organic marketers who take the hit—since the extended ads on the top of the page are pushing organic results further down below the fold.

Instead, the real takeaway for paid search marketers is the growing importance of a solid PPC strategy. While there is more potential for paid search clicks, the bad news is that brands occupying spots 8 through 11 will no longer be able to capitalize on it.

Which brings us to the main issue at hand: what can brands do to ensure they don’t get benched?

First off, increased competition will likely lead to more aggressive bidding. This means that brands need to monitor their performance and increase their placement bids accordingly—either by using Google’s “target search page location” (which will adjust your bids to achieve a certain target) or by increasing bids manually. If your account strategy is already in good shape, you likely won’t have to make too many drastic changes besides checking in more regularly.

A second way to beat the competition is to perform a Quality Score optimization. Raising this rating is certainly more challenging than upping your bid, but should definitely be considered for those who are lagging behind their competitors. Google calculates Quality Score based on three main factors: ad text relevance, expected CTR, and landing page experience. If the UX of your landing page is already in good shape, the easiest change to make here is your copy—ensuring your targeted keywords are aligned with the text you’ve written for the ad and landing page, as well as the ad group itself.

Last but certainly not least, since organic rankings are losing some visibility with this new ad layout, there’s never been a more important time to hone in on a detailed SEO strategy. Organic keywords still present the most credible way to convert online consumers, especially for brands ranking on the top of page 1. Plus, a high organic ranking will serve as the the safety net for brands whose paid rankings have dropped from the new top 7. You ideally you want to rank high for both, of course, but you’re never out of contention with a strong organic presence.

8 Ways to Optimize Your Hotel Site for Conversions

Having an extraordinary website is critical for any luxury hotel brand, perhaps more so than any other sector. Guests want to experience the same level of beauty, service, and convenience when they begin their journeys online as they do when arriving in person. Meet (or surpass) their expectations and chances are you’ll have a significant leg up on the competition.

Here are eight ways to do just that.

1. Beautiful Photography
Generating conversions is all about tapping into emotion and empathy. Nothing achieves this feat quite like high-quality photography, an easy way for guests to visualize their stay before booking. We have noticed significant improvements in user engagement with more photo-centric sites, not to mention a huge upgrade in overall design. Invest in photography that is nothing short of spectacular. If you are a luxury brand, you have the product to show – so flaunt it!

2. Engaging Content
Beyond the photography, you’ll also want to create great written content that captures the essence of your brand and engages your visitors. This isn’t limited to just your website copy; it also means producing editorial content that is both useful and relevant through some form of blogging. At AZDS, for example, we love working with freelance editors and writers from great publications like Vanity Fair and Wallpaper.

If brands can consistently distribute content that resonates with visitors, the bookings will follow—because like-minded individuals will share your content with their friends and colleagues. Word of mouth is the best form of luxury marketing. Content is where it all begins.

3. Clean and Clutter-Free Design
If great content tempts users back to your site, great user experience is the reason they’re even there to begin with. Be careful not to forget your main objective—selling your experience—and clutter your site with too much unnecessary noise. The navigation should be easy to use and visitors should have no problem locating the reservation widget. Clean, simple, and intuitive—why stray from a winning formula?

4. Mobile Responsiveness
Forget the days when mobile was just used for browsing and researching. eMarketer estimates that in 2016, 51.8% of travelers who book trips digitally will do so using a mobile device. That’s a staggering number for any travel brand, meaning a device-responsive, user-friendly mobile site is an absolute must in order to stay competitive. This includes your mobile booking engine, as users will have no problem abandoning their reservation should it be clunky and difficult.

5. Faster is Better
Site speed won’t necessarily win over a user on its own, but it can certainly lose one. The stats below tell you everything you need to know about the importance of a quick-loading website:

40% of people abandon a website that takes more than 3 seconds to load.
• A 1 second delay in page response can result in a 7% reduction in conversions.
• Amazon calculated that a page load slowdown of just one second could cost it $1.6 billion in sales each year.
• Google has calculated that by slowing its search results by just four tenths of a second they could lose 8 million searches per day.

6. Reserving Should be Simple
It’s hard to overstate the importance of a simple, user-friendly reservation process. Once visitors have decided to convert on your site, don’t force them through a challenging booking engine to test their patience. A refined, two-step booking engine—like the one we’ve integrated for Montage Hotels, among many others—allows guests to reserve a room from anywhere on the site using a drop-down reservation system showing real time availability. Once they choose their dates, all that’s left is page 1 for choosing their room and page 2 for entering personal information and payment.

If you think that once you have the guest on the booking engine you’ll get them to convert – think otherwise. Average luxury ecommerce conversion rates are below .2% and with so many other options to book—including the dreaded OTAs—you’ll lose direct customers quicker than you can blink.

7. Encouraging Direct Reservations
In the ongoing battle against OTAs, hotel brands have a few key strategies at their disposal. The first is obvious: maintaining rate parity across the board so OTAs can’t offer a better rate. Second is to follow that up with a Best Rate Guarantee, promising to match any rate found online while potentially even throwing in an additional incentive.

Third—and this is a biggie—be sure to monitor your paid search strategy to ensure OTAs aren’t outbidding you for key positions in search result ads. This is especially relevant right now, as Google has recently decided to include an additional top-of-the-fold ad in the search engine result pages (SERPs)—now displaying four ads where it previously displayed three for “highly commercial” search terms. The addition of the fourth ad was likely due to the removal of all side ads from the SERPs, which is in effort to have the desktop experience be more like mobile.

For hotels, this recent change means that brands need to place additional focus on organic efforts by having a strategic SEO plan in place. These additional top-of-the-fold ads will likely increase the average CPCs, forcing paid search advertisers to be more aggressive in their approach as the competition for the top slots increase.

8. Great SEO, with Emphasis on Long-Tail Keywords
Excellent keyword rankings are the result of a well-rounded approach to digital marketing, which we certainly can’t explain in one small little paragraph. All we want to say is that great SEO is arguably the most important factor in generating online conversions—simply because that’s how potential guests will find you in the first place. Pay especially close attention to long-tail keywords—i.e. “Santa Monica hotels on the beach” or “ski-in-ski-out resorts in Park City”—because these have been proven to attract a better user that’s more prepared to convert.

A Holiday Trip out of the Ordinary

AZDS celebrated the holidays a little differently this year. Same tradition of team dinner with a healthy serving of High West whiskey, albeit with one significant exception: the team had no idea where they were going until they arrived at the airport.

Here’s the story:

AZDS Tarmac

Roughly a month before the trip, Adam invited the executive team and its significant others on a holiday getaway planned for a specific weekend in December. The invitation said pack your bags and we’ll see where we go. No one had no idea of the hotel location, how we were getting there, or any itinerary for the trip. All he said to expect was warm weather and a direct need for golf clubs.

Puzzle pieces started coming together a day before departure, when everyone received a formal invitation with the specific meeting place the following morning: an FBO in Centennial, CO. From there we’d get picked up and fly off with a catered breakfast, mid-air Mimosas, and not a worry in the world.

Our final descent would take us into Scottsdale, a location both beautiful and fitting considering our namesake beginnings in Arizona. Appropriately a Dodge 1500 rental truck (Adam’s favorite joke of all time – more on this later) was waiting for us and soon enough we’re pulling into our private hacienda at the renowned Boulders Resort in Carefree, AZ.

Golf for the gents, spa for the ladies, and a mind-blowing dinner at Vertu Honest Craft in Old Town Scottsdale (including a Tomahawk Porterhouse and plenty of Gaja)—these are just some of the highlights from a weekend that will live on in AZDS lore for many years to come. We even stayed to watch the Broncos game on Sunday afternoon, victory included.

AZDS Ladies

Safe to say, the 2015 holiday celebration was a grand finale to an even grander year for AZDS. Here’s to hoping we have even more to celebrate come December 2016!

A Year in Review

This year is without a doubt the most difficult year in our history to select a single word to describe the year. There are so many adjectives I could choose from:

Proud. Huge. Challenging. Legendary.

2015 was one of those years that I know was so iconic – it will be hard to live up to. AZDS added two additional members to our leadership team: Danielle and Kyle. In addition to those fabulous new leaders, we have many new faces from developers (Vlad and Alex) to an additional in-house writer (Kaleigh). There is just no doubt that we have the best team in the business (I would be remiss to not mention Ian and Viktor – who deliver our clients the best service and product day over day, year over year). No one in the group comes to us with less than four years of industry specific experience, so our clients are dealing with industry experts that truly “get it.” Further, our team brings to the table completely different backgrounds and client experiences. We have hospitality gurus, a UC Davis Law graduate, recovering chief editors, and the former lead for Volkswagen SEO. And we are growing further. So if you think you could bring value to our clients and our team – please send your resume to info@azdsm.net. We are always on the lookout for extraordinary talent. And our work environment and culture is one that you will certainly want to be a part of.

We have also diversified our portfolio of luxury hospitality clients this year – expanding further into the luxury lifestyle realm. Included are private aviation and luxury real estate – with new clients in each category. Additionally, our book of luxury hospitality business saw tremendous growth as well – with an addition of about 15 new luxury hotels and resorts to our portfolio.

The highlights of our work this year included:

The launch of the new Montage Hotels & Resorts brand and property websites in April. The site was awarded with the Internet Marketing Association’s overall website of the year, a Gold W3 award for hospitality, and several Silver W3 awards for user experience, photography, and front-end design

The launch of the new Shutters on the Beach, Hotel Casa del Mar, and Edward Thomas Collection websites in October. The websites are simple yet extraordinary and evoke luxury lifestyle and legendary hospitality in Southern California.

Team trip down to Todos Santos Mexico to explore the town of our client, Tres Santos. We caught about 60 pounds of Dorado and then had it sliced into sushi and sashimi that evening!

My speaking engagement at Marketing United in Nashville with one of our favorite partners, Emma Email Marketing.

The filming of the AZDS “short film” on our website. Golden Globe? Highly likely. Credit to our videographers at V3 Media.

Launch of brand.com META integration – helping our clients compete with the OTAs on Google, Kayak, Trivago, and Trip Advisor.

Most importantly, 2015 was a monumental stepping-stone for us outside of the client services side of the business. We now have successful booking engine integrations with both Synxis (Sabre) and Trust (including certifications). In 2016, we are rolling out our first software as a service for any hotel that is interested in a truly custom front-end to a Synxis or Trust booking engine. For a very nominal monthly fee, any hotel that is interested in enhancing their booking experience, while vastly improving their conversion percentage, should contact us. There is no major upfront investment and the guest-booking path will become streamlined and simple.

From all of us at AZDS, I want to wish all of our clients and their families a very happy holiday season and a prosperous New Year!

For luxury brands considering investing further in their brand for 2016, AZDS is the only digital marketing partner you need. We create the most elegant, revenue-generating websites on the market. No matter the challenge, we will make it happen.

Best,
Adam
CEO

Welcome to the Team

Times they are-a changin’ around AZDS. In addition to new clients and new projects, we’ve also hired two new members to our leadership team.

It’s time you get to know them:

Kyle Bullock | Director of Search

Kyle is our new SEO guru. A Colorado native, he has over 5 years’ experience in digital marketing—specifically with SEO but also expanding into SEM, web development, graphic design, and analytics. He joins the AZDS team after a successful stint as Senior SEO Specialist with a local agency, where he worked with clients like Volkswagen, Aspen Skiing, Beaver Creek Resort Properties, Aspen Hospitality, and many more.

A natural-born early riser, Kyle can be found in the AZDS office cranking away on SEO spreadsheets by 6:15 in morning. We’re already loving his expert insights and so are our clients.

On a personal note, Kyle is a former junior hockey standout and now spends his spare time perfecting his photography portfolio—when he’s not hanging out with his lovely wife Jenna, that is. Don’t tell Kyle but we might like her even more…

In his own words: “I joined AZDS because the reputation of the company in the luxury hospitality space was hard to overlook. The team dynamic and the extensive experience and those involved with AZDS is quite impressive. The vision of Adam Deflorian is something that certainly helped attract me to AZDS, and Ian Cornish and Viktor Stigson are some of the top leaders in their respective field; all three have a wealth of knowledge that has garnered AZDS as an award winning leader in the digital world. It’s an honor to work with a creative agency that has accomplished so much and continues to set an example of what a luxury interactive agency should be.”

Kyle Bullock


Danielle Skornik, Esq. | General Counsel, Director of Communications

Danielle is our in-house expert for all things legal, communications, client services, PR, and analytics. A graduate of UC Davis Law and UCLA Law and member of the California Bar, she adds a whole new dimension to the AZDS wheelhouse—not to mention some serious smarts. She’s already making a huge difference for the company and we’re beyond excited to have our very own Jackie of all trades.

Raised in LA in a bilingual household, Danielle is fluent in Hebrew and often a better English speaker than us Americans.

In her own words: “I joined AZDS because I wanted to be able to use my legal skills, but do so in a more creative environment, where I could also explore my interests in technology and communications. I was intrigued and impressed by the work that AZDS does for renowned hospitality brands around the world, and knew that it would be tremendously fulfilling if I could be a part of such a forward-thinking, exemplary digital agency. I am extremely excited to be part of this dream team and look forward to what the future has in store for us!”

Danielle Skornik
A Month for the Record Books

We normally refrain from tooting our own horns here at AZDS. As the saying goes, however, for every rule there’s always an exception.

September 2015—one of our best months ever—was that exception.

Hard Work Rewarded
It wasn’t long ago that the AZDS team was working around the clock to launch the all-encompassing redesign of Montage Hotels & Resorts. A few short months later, the results have made it all worthwhile—and not just from an analytics standpoint.

Thanks to some of the industry’s leading award organizations, AZDS is the new owner of several distinguished recognitions. The first came at the IMA Impact Awards in Las Vegas, where Adam was on hand to collect the Category Award for Hospitality and most notably, “Website of the Year.” Later that week, we were also recognized by the W³ Awards—specifically with a 2015 Gold Award for Overall Hotel and Lodging Website, as well as Silver Awards for photography, structure & navigation, and visual appeal.

We’re not in this business to win awards, of course, but it’s certainly rewarding when your hard work gets recognized.

Facelift for Shutters and Casa
Speaking of hard work, September also marked the much-anticipated presentation of another of our main projects of the year: the new websites for Shutters on the Beach and Casa del Mar. Since they’re still in final review for launch, we unfortunately can’t share any of the nitty-gritty details quite yet. What we will say is this: it’s easily one of our most cutting-edge, industry-leading designs to date and we can’t wait to see the results.

Be on the lookout in the next month or so…

More in the Works and Mexico is Calling
There’s plenty more in the pipeline as well. Stay tuned in coming weeks and months to see what other projects we’ve been working on!

The Formula For a Great Analytics Report

You’ve spiked your client’s organic presence, doubled their online revenue, and developed a shiny, responsive website with exceptional UX and engaging content. Time to unwind and play some ping pong, right?

Not so fast.

What many agencies don't realize is that delivering quality results is only half the battle. When it comes to proving your worth to clients, reporting these results—both accurately and efficiently—is equally important. And just like your SEO, content, or email campaigns, quality reporting requires a quality strategy.

Here’s a peak into ours.

Beyond the Basics
The key to a complete report is digging deeper than obvious metrics like visitors, pageviews, transactions, revenue, mobile, and acquisition channels. What “deeper” truly entails will vary by client, but here are a few metrics you’d consistently find in our reports:

Goals: Setting up goals within Google Analytics is a great way to measure user engagement, much more so than traditional metrics like visit duration, bounce rate, and pages per visit. We’ve set up goals for everything from email signups to event rfps to restaurant reservations to spa bookings. Recently, we also started tracking how often Montage guests are upgrading their room through the booking process—using the upgrade function we strategically added a few months back. We even track the percentage of guests that click the upgrade button and then return to their original category.

Average Daily Rate: Seeing as most of our clients are hotels, average daily rate is a pivotal stat in our revenue analysis. Google Analytics doesn’t provide this metric so we’ve improvised to create our own formula.

Assisted Conversions: Assuming you’re employing a multi-channel digital strategy, understanding how your acquisition channels work together is vital. Always check to see which channels are working hand-in-hand, and more importantly, which ones are not. Don’t forget to Prepare an attribution model based on conversion data so you can properly attribute revenue to each channel.

Mobile Conversion Rate: A spike in mobile visitors shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering mobile is up in virtually every industry. Instead, what really matters is how your mobile experience takes advantage of this increased usage. The best way to measure this is mobile conversion rate, one of the most important stats in any modern digital strategy.

Monthly Reports
Presenting analytics reports on a quarterly basis simply isn’t enough. AZDS produces reports each and every month to show exactly how each client is progressing comparatively over time. Doing so, in our opinion, is the only way to keep up with important developments, ensure that adjustments can be made if necessary, and maintain close communication with the clients themselves.

"General Manager" Template
All of our analytics reports open with an executive summary explaining in great detail how every aspect of the digital strategy is developing and how our work impacts our client’s business. In other words, the executive summary tells the story behind the data.

Also included, however, is a one-page visual synopsis specifically created for “general managers” who aren’t interested in all the small details. Complete with the most essential primary and secondary metrics—all of which are presented in a user-friendly, color-coded, attractive layout—this addition has quickly become the most popular feature in any of our reports.

Thinking Outside Google Analytics
There’s no question you’ll find almost everything you need inside the realms of Google’s unending analytics hub. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t complement this information with some of the other countless reporting apps out there. At AZDS, for example, we’ve long been partnered with CrazyEgg (heatmaps for illustrating user behaviors), SEM Rush (keyword research and reporting), Chango (retargeting), Omniture, among others.

Winning The Battle Against Hotel OTAs

Let’s be clear about this: hotel OTA bookings aren’t all bad. They’re promoting your brand after all, and without them hotels would lose a significant amount of both exposure and total online bookings. In other words, it’s good practice to at least maintain a healthy relationship with them.

Having said that, few things strike fear into revenue managers and digital marketers like us quite like the threat of Booking.com, Expedia, Priceline, etc. It’s been an especially worrying issue in 2015, mostly due to several big-money consolidations like Expedia’s purchase of Travelocity and Orbitz and Priceline’s purchase of Rocketmiles. Recent statistics show that OTAs make up a considerable 16.4% of total rooms sold in Q2 2015—up from 14.8% just a few months ago in Q1. Compare this to the 29.1% of rooms attributed to a hotel’s own website (up from 28.5% in Q1).

The reason for the worry, of course, is that hotels are required to pay OTA sites anywhere from 15% to 30% in commission per booking. Add this up over the course of a year and you’re left with a serious amount of lost revenue. Millions, to be more exact.

This sobering thought leads us to the all-important question everyone’s talking about: how can hotels maximize revenue through their own booking engine and drive conversions away from OTAs?

Here’s our take on the matter:

Rate Parity
First and foremost, nothing is more important than ensuring your hotel maintains rate parity across the online space. This may sound obvious but you’d be surprised by the number of hotels losing bookings simply because their rates are considerably higher than those of OTAs. Even in the luxury sector, $50+ more per night will drive consumers away from the hotel’s own booking engine—especially given rates are now integrated into Google’s search results. With the integrated rates (META) guests are able to pull all rates from all OTAs and your website in one place.

User Experience
Another important strategy is to keep your booking process simple, streamlined, and user friendly. Consumers will choose to book with the most convenient process and sites like Expedia are constantly improving their functionality to stay on the cutting edge. If your site offers the same rates as an OTA but a worse user experience, guess where that user will book…

Paid Search
Yet another important consideration is your paid search bidding. Not all users click on ads but of those that do, the majority will click on the first ad that pops up on the search results. If OTAs are outbidding your brand for that top position, suddenly you’ve got a problem.

Ad rank is based on two main factors: max mid (cpc) and quality score. Hotels themselves naturally have the advantage in quality score so it’s not terribly difficult to outbid OTAs for that pole position. It simply requires an ongoing conversation on PPC strategy to ensure you’re allocating enough of a paid search budget to divert visitors from the OTA ads.

Local Listings
Last but certainly not least, think about the way a user finds your hotel organically. Say they search “Beverly Hills resorts” and find Montage Beverly Hills in the Google local “snack pack” listings (which, by the way, have now decreased in size from 7 listings to 3). If they click on the Montage profile, they’re then taken to the official Google listing, not the Montage site. From there they’ll find several channels for reserving a stay directly through Google—mostly through an OTA.

To prevent local listings from cannibalizing direct bookings, we at AZDS have incorporated a new and innovative strategy of implementing direct meta-bookings into the actual Google listing. We’re one of only 30 agencies in the world with this ability and it’s doing a world of good for our clients. Now when users click into Montage’s local listing, for example, their only booking options through Google aren’t just OTAs. As shown below, Montage Beverly Hills’ own booking engine is right there as well—giving users another opportunity to book through the hotel itself.

Stay tuned as we share more detailed results from these groundbreaking meta-bookings in coming months.

MBH META

META Integration, extended
META is a term used for a number of hotel searching tools--it's a very important part of Universal Search within Google. However, it's also critical to bring brand.com to OTA's like Kayak, Trivago, TripAdvisor (among countless other META search sites). See below for examples from AZDS clients.

IPB META

MDV META

Adam on the AZDS Difference

Adam always relishes the opportunity to talk AZDS, be it at digital marketing conferences like Marketing United or in interviews for online publications. Below you'll find him discussing one of his favorite topics: what makes AZDS unique, especially when it comes to content.

If you haven’t yet, also be sure to check out our recently launched video on our home page. It’s a day in the life at AZDS and it couldn’t be more accurate.

Enjoy!

The AZDS Difference: View Video on Vimeo

Content Marketing: View Video on Vimeo

Lessons in Luxury

AZDS has a mantra. Well, we have many mantras. But the one we are going to talk about in depth today is “The AZDS 5.” It represents the five ways AZDS markets to luxury consumers shopping for their next high-end vacation or in the process of booking business travel. High-net-worth consumers present a whole new set of challenges when marketed to and often require a highly specialized strategy.

Without further ado, here are some of the most important lessons we’ve learned after many years working exclusively with luxury hotels and their guests.

Presenting The AZDS 5:

Aligning Passions
When high-net-worth consumers decide to book a hotel online, they can essentially have their choice of any brand in the world. Since many hotels offer similar levels of luxury, however, the decision often comes down to the “personality” of the hotels. Brands that effectively communicate their passions—family, culture, wellness, art, etc.—will be highly appealing to visitors with similar interests.

Montage Hotels & Resorts, for example, has a well-documented passion for art and culture—with beautiful pieces of original art lining the walls of every property and numerous outlets available for history, local culture, and tradition. By communicating this lifestyle through dynamic storytelling (see our blog earlier this month), compelling copywriting, and engaging imagery, the brand can target an audience that is more likely than most to convert.

Petit Ermitage, also a client of ours, offers another great example of the power of passion. Free-spirited bohemianism marks every piece of branded Petit content and it’s undoubtedly also the primary appeal for its legion of fans.

Recognizing Loyalty
Going above and beyond to keep returning customers happy is more than a good practice in hospitality, it’s a necessity. Not only do they bring you consistent revenue over the years, they also hold considerable influence over another demographic of luxury consumers: their friends.

For digital marketers, catering to these “influencers” essentially means staying away from the one-size-fits-all approach. Be it through content, email, or social, frequent customers must be treated as VIPs, not grouped in with demographics that haven’t visited before. It’s the same concept as showing up to your favorite restaurant and being asked “Have you dined with us before?”

The perfect digital example is email. At AZDS, we make sure to segment our email lists to ensure that our messaging is relevant for each demographic. We also personalize messaging to ensure that customers are being “Wowed” with the same level of personalized service they receive once arriving at the hotel or resort. The personalized service should start from the beginning of the online research process all the way through the physical stay.

Delivering Exclusive Experiences
Exclusivity is another buzzword for the luxury demographic. If these travelers wanted to reserve an ordinary accommodation, they could easily do so for a lower price. What they’re looking for is a vacation of the highest order, complete with exclusive experiences, utmost privacy, exceptional dining, and more.

As digital marketers, it is our responsibility to portray this feeling of exclusivity in our online strategy. Depending on your campaign, this could mean showcasing stunning photography, cutting-edge design, and elegant copy in your UX strategy. It could also mean creating compelling content around luxury lifestyle, like exclusive cuisine, wine, or wellness. Or further yet, it could mean creating a social strategy around exclusive local insights or event invitations (i.e. wine samplings, tasting menus, musical performances, wellness events, etc).

However you choose to tell the story of your brand, think of it as an invite into an exclusive circle. You’re not pushing them onto an experience; you’re pulling them in. That’s the difference between luxury and mass marketing.

Ensuring Offline and Online Personalization
If you’re paying top-dollar for a hotel, it’s only fair to expect topnotch service in return. And not just while staying on property, either.

Digital marketers can continue a hotel’s five-star service into the online space by adopting a strategy of personalization (see our blog earlier this month). From exclusive content based on user demographics to pre-stay room customization to responsive browsing experiences, this is a great way to keep guests engaged and personally connected even when away from the hotel.

Showing Pedigree
Luxury consumers are influenced by the finer things in life. Digital marketers can use this to their advantage by leveraging pedigree—a hotel’s esteemed assets like cuisine, design, tradition, history, culture, and more.

Shutters on the Beach and Casa del Mar, for example, are designed by world-renowned interior designer, Michael S. Smith. These properties are the epitome of beach style and evoke fabulous personality through the details. The Sereno Group, another client of ours, showcases extraordinary pedigree through design as well: both Le Sereno and Il Sereno are designed by two of the world’s most famous designers, Christian Liaigre and Patricia Urquiola. By focusing content and imagery around spectacular design, we’ve told the story of Shutters, Casa, and Sereno in an authentic, compelling, and strategic manner. Quite simply, pedigree sells.

Hyper-Personalization and Hospitality

Personalized service has long been a staple of luxury hospitality. Show us a guest who doesn’t enjoy customized, VIP treatment and we’ll show you someone who isn’t quite telling the truth.

At AZDS, however, we’ve always envisioned a type of personalization that goes well beyond your traditional meanings of the word. A concept we like to hyper-personalization, this is more than your simple “Welcome, Mr. Smith” upon arrival. To match the $750+ guests are paying per night for a room, we’re talking customized content away from the hotel, personalized room preferences upon arrival, and tailored updates throughout the stay. Done correctly, it’s an unrivaled method for establishing an emotional connection with guests and earning future loyalty.

Take a recent initiative we launched with Shutters on the Beach. A few days before guests arrive to the hotel, Shutters will now send a simple email questionnaire called “My Room at Shutters.” Quick and simple, it allows them to choose exactly how they want their room to be prepared, down to the minute details. What’s your desired room temperature? What kind of music do you want playing? Is there a specific newspaper you’d like in the morning? Or maybe a good time for room service or “turn down” service? What about the type of pillow: synthetic fibers or memory foam?

My Room at Shutters

Housekeeping will be notified and the guest will arrive to a perfectly personalized room. It’s a relatively small gesture with some very large results. Just think of it from your own perspective: how much would you appreciate a brand going above and beyond to accommodate your personal preferences? Chances are you’ll remember them for your next stay.

Beyond this example, there are countless more one-to-one marketing strategies for hotels to take their guest personalization to a higher level. Many of these we’ve discussed on this blog previously, like customized content creation based on demographic insights, real time phone or smartwatch updates following guest location, personalized hotel promotions (not just one size fits all), and custom guest profiling with relevant content for returning online visitors.

One additional strategy that merits further mention is the need for mobile personalization. In today’s world of “do or die” mobile optimization, it’s absolutely critical for guests to receive a customized on-screen experience—such as the optimized, responsive sites for Casa del Mar and Shutters on the Beach (launching in September) and the examples shown below for Montage Hotels & Resorts. Regardless of how good your online strategy is, all is rendered void if guests can’t consume your content in a mobile friendly manner. And let’s face it: the majority of today’s content is read on a mobile device.

Montage Accommodations

Montage Scarpetta Site

In case you need some further convincing, take a look at Four Seasons’ recently released mobile app. As the most cutting-edge, personalized initiative the hospitality industry has seen to date, this impressive platform offers telling evidence of the importance hotels are placing on personalization. With personalized greetings and advanced features for checking in, checking out, ordering room service, requesting a car from the valet, ordering turndown service/personal items from housekeeping, accessing personalized local recommendations, and much more, it’s not only a serious investment but also a powerful sign of the times.

Pictures Are Worth a Thousand Words

Of all the trends to hit the travel industry over the last decade plus, none have been as wide-ranging and impactful as digital photography. The modern traveler journeys with a full arsenal of photo-capturing devices—smartphone, digital camera, GoPro, you name it—and each trip is virtually defined by its output of pictures and (wait for it…) selfies. You know what they say: pictures or it didn’t happen.

As a result of this widespread development, we in the travel marketing industry have had to follow suit. If our audience responds to pictures and images, it’s our responsibility to employ image-driven strategies to capture their attention. With that said, here are a few of the ways digital marketers like us have adapted to a world driven by photography.

Image-Driven Content
Visual inspiration lies at the heart of modern content consumption. The Internet is completely saturated with content and standing out amongst the crowd often comes down to captivating imagery—and that’s just to get people to click. Once they reach your page, the average user will decide whether to read on or bounce within a matter of seconds. Even if your copy is spectacular, chances are you won’t make the cut without an attractive layout based on engaging photography.

Photos on Social Media
It’s no coincidence that platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest have sky-rocketed in recent years. Social posts with visual media have proven to significantly outperform those without—from a reach perspective but primarily in terms of engagement (see stats below). As such, hotels that incorporate ample photography into their social strategies will have a much easier time keeping fans loyal, engaged, and in touch with the brand. If your brand hasn’t leveraged Instagram or Snapchat yet, there’s no better time than now.

User-Generated Photos
Speaking of engagement, few strategies leverage the power of photography better than user-generated content—think social photos aggregated by branded hashtags. Allowing fans to help create the story of your brand is beneficial in more ways than one. Not only are they showing loyalty and passion for your brand themselves, they’re also impacting their like-minded network of friends. Look for social influencers to become huge players in digital marketing in coming years.

Simple, Inspiring Design
Take a look at some of today’s most cutting edge, innovative sites and you’ll notice a distinct theme: simple is better. Instead of overcomplicating the layout with unnecessary copy and clutter, designers are letting the power of imagery do the talking. Minimalistic headlines accompany full-width images to create a sensory online experience that matches what guests can expect at the actual hotel. The result: higher engagement, better usability, and a heightened emotional appeal to generate conversions.

Here at AZDS, we recently employed this strategy in creating the new design for montagehotels.com. The entire concept was based on simplicity and user friendliness, accentuating the brand’s stunning array of imagery. You’ll see intriguing photography on full display across the whole site—be it the full-screen “hero” images on the home page or the tiled images in the on-page navigation. And notice that we’ve kept copy to a minimum, fully confident in photography’s ability to do the convincing.

The same could be said for our accompanying re-design of Montage’s email templates. Photos have always been a big part of the brand’s email strategy, but our new design further accentuates the imagery and virtually eliminates extended copy. Again, the idea is to focus on emotional appeal—through photography—supplemented by concise header text. Simple, sleek, and efficient.

…………

With all that said, we thought we’d leave you with some further food for thought on visual content…

Articles with images get 94% more total views

The average person reads only 20% of text on a regular webpage

Tweets with images receive 18% more clicks, 89% more favorites and 150% more retweets

Brand Photos Receive 2X More ‘Likes’ than Text Posts

Videos are shared on Facebook 12x more than text posts and links combined

Facebook posts containing photos accounted for 87% of all network interactions in 2014

Marketing United

In April, the AZDS team headed off to Nashville to meet with our terrific email-marketing partner, Emma. They were hosting their first-annual marketing conference, Marketing United, and we were excited to attend and be a part of it. I spoke on a panel regarding content marketing, where we shared insights from the agency side of selling content as well as why it is such an important part of the overall marketing mix.

All of our clients really enjoy using the Emma platform because of its easy-to-use drag-and-drop editor as well as its intuitive nature. What they really like, however, is its incredible customer service, which we are able to provide to our clients thanks to the support team at Emma. Their team is always eager to help and their can-do attitude is very refreshing.

From the agency side of things, we are always looking for partners that are willing to adapt and improve the overall product and user experience for our clients. Emma is always improving and is willing to partner with us on integrating property management systems, CRM software, etc. In fact, we are currently in the process of building a new integration with Emma and a leading hotel online booking engine. This integration will give our clients a better glimpse into direct ROI and total stay revenue from their email marketing efforts.

I would like to give a big congratulations to the entire Emma team on a terrific conference. It was a job well done (especially Logan Baird, John Peregoy, Matt Thackston, Jamie Bradley, Hana Crume, and Cynthia Price) and we especially appreciate their warm hospitality during our time in Nashville.

We can’t wait for 2016’s Marketing United!

Adam
CEO

One Statistic, Many Conclusions

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the digital analytics world over the years, it’s that numbers aren’t very useful until you’ve identified the factors behind them.

So, when I recently came across an interesting stat about “How To” content—shortly after spending hours immersed in client analytics, I might add—I couldn’t help but ask myself that all-important question: Why?

Here’s the statistic I’m talking about: YouTube “How To” Video Searches Up 70%, With Over 100 Million Hours Watched In 2015.

Seems fairly reasonable at first, right? People like to learn how to do new things. Simple.

But here comes the rebuttal: people have always liked to learn new things. Why is interest in “how to” articles just now starting to explode? Surely, there has to be something deeper here…

Having launched numerous “how to” articles for client marketing efforts, my hypothesis is as follows: demand for “how to” content follows a strategic increase in supply, led by publishers looking to establish a trend. And why would publishers like us be benefitting from building buzz around “how to”? Because this type of content fits perfectly within today’s framework for content marketing and SEO.

Allow us to explain. The goal of modern content marketing is to create dynamic, usable, and engaging content that reflects your brand without being directly sales-oriented. “How to” content accomplishes this objective better than most, a perfect method for appealing to the interests of your audience, highlighting the passions of your brand, and not being overly promotional.

Consider a piece we created for Montage Impressions, called “How to Make the Perfect Hot Chocolate.” Formatted as a written editorial embedded with a YouTube video, it featured one of Montage’s Executive Pastry Chefs sharing his personal gourmet recipe along with detailed instructions on how to prepare it. It was a very successful piece and we attributed it to a number of reasons.

First, like any good “how to” article, it was very useful to our audience—launched in the middle of winter when readers would be most interested in making hot chocolate. Second, it came from a respected pastry chef who readers trust and admire. Most importantly, however, it never once pushed readers to book a stay at Montage. It simply didn’t need to: by giving readers a piece of content that they found useful and would share with friends, Montage indirectly established itself as a credible and interesting source of information. This appeal to their emotions, in turn, led to reader retention, loyalty, and ultimately an intrinsic reason to return for a stay (hence why Montage Impressions has the highest conversion rate of any brand site). And there we have it: the beauty of “How To” articles and why they’ve become so popular in online publishing.

Now think of it from an SEO perspective. Search engine algorithms have obviously diminished the importance of keyword stuffing in recent years, favoring brands that create engaging, authentic content and establish themselves as the credible experts in a certain field or subject. Not only do “how to” articles improve brand engagement, sharing, and traffic, they’re also tailor-made for establishing credibility. What better way to prove expertise than showing people how to do something, be it a recipe, beauty tips, home improvement, or otherwise? In the Montage example, a popular article on hot chocolate recipe can go a long way towards keyword rankings for the hotel’s restaurants, coffee shops, and overall food & beverage. It’s a win-win situation on all accounts.

So, take it from us: if you haven’t jumped on the “how to” bandwagon yet, there’s still plenty of room.

Luxury Hospitality and Storytelling: The Perfect Match

Working with a wide array of 5-star hotels presents us at AZDS with a unique and exciting challenge within digital marketing. A luxury audience is unlike any other and it’s our job to zero in on the most impactful strategies for reaching such a discerning demographic.

One strategy that we’ve found especially effective is the concept of storytelling. Though it’s been around since the beginning of humanity, it’s virtually tailor-made for the luxury sector and offers a perfect means for generating interest and engagement online. At AZDS, we use it not just as a helpful tool but as a central tenet of everything we do—email, content, design, social, you name it.

So, what is it that makes storytelling and hospitality such a great match?

A Different Sales Objective
Rather than selling a product or service like most brands, luxury hotels are selling an experience. A well-appointed room and a comfortable bed are the bare minimum when paying $1,000 per night; guests want to know how your hotel will shape the story of their getaway. Be it culture, cuisine, recreation, or wellness, what makes Montage Deer Valley or Shutters on the Beach stand out from the rest? There’s no better way of communicating this message than storytelling—showing the personality of your brand in an interesting, engaging, and informative manner.

A Wealth of Interesting Content
A great story has fascinating characters, an inspiring setting, a captivating plot line, and a distinct genre. Luckily for hospitality marketers, so do hotels: staff, location, guest experiences, and property style.

The result: a virtual goldmine of quality content to use in telling the story of your hotel. Maybe run a series on destination insights, like local events or notable attractions. Or perhaps interview your spa staff to curate an expert’s guide to healthy and wellness. Yet another option could be to create a travel feature with the latest in tips, tools, and trends.

Either way, the point is clear: hotels offer limitless material for filling your brand’s content marketing efforts through storytelling.

Editorial not Advertorial
The beauty of travel marketing is that good quality content will sell itself. There’s no need for marketers to deliberately advertise specific amenities and services in their content. Simply create a well-targeted editorial—with topics like the ones mentioned above—and readers will indirectly relate their interest back to the hotel itself. This in turns leads to higher trust for your brand, better understanding of your passions and, eventually, higher rates of transactions and goal conversions—like booking rooms or sharing with friends.

Guests Can Pick Up Your Story Right Where You Leave Off
Another unique benefit of marketing for hotels is that the story never has to end. Guests may leave the hotel but if you make a good impression both offline and online, they’ll likely turn into brand advocates who share their own stories with like-minded friends and family. Whether it’s by writing reviews on sites like Trip Advisor or sharing your online content through social media, user-generated content is an incredibly powerful tool for shaping the story and reputation of your hotel.

In the end, it all comes down to this: travelers are constantly telling stories about your hotels online and though marketers can’t control the conversation, they can certainly influence it.

The Impact of Excellent UX

Over the past year the AZDS team has been hard at work on a full re-design for Montage Hotels & Resorts. It’s hard not to get caught up in the responsive and streamlined design, but—now that we have launched—let’s take a moment to reflect on the tangible ROI we can expect as a result.

First and foremost, consider the ultimate goal of any new design. Be it through elegant imagery, clean navigation, engaging layout, or ideally a mix of all three, everyone’s primary objective is to create a compelling user experience. Brands that convincingly engage their visitors online will establish better perception, higher retention, increased sharing, and more inbound links. This, in turn, leads to a higher quality of visitor and ultimately, higher likelihood for online conversions and revenue—both of which are anticipated outcomes for Montage Hotels & Resorts’ new sites.

Equally important, however, is the impact of UX on the digital industry’s holy grail: SEO. Gone are the days where on-page optimization is the only requirement for high rankings. Factors like keyword targeting, meta data, and title tags are admittedly still important, but they're now just a small part of the equation instead of the whole formula.

The fact of the matter is that Google’s search algorithm has been all but overhauled in recent years, now focusing more on engagement as opposed to keyword stuffing. User experience lies at the heart of this engagement, peaking the interest of your guests through responsive design, attractive layout, simple functionality, and engaging content. The results of excellent UX—higher conversions, fewer bounces, and higher retention—are all heavily factored into keyword rankings and thus dramatically improve a brand’s organic visibility.

Put it this way: under Google’s new algorithm, a site with attractive UX and fewer inbound links will always outrank a site with poor UX and more inbound links.

So How Do You Quantify UX?

Not every brand has the financial capacity to frequently revamp their sites based on UX testing—think Amazon or Facebook—but consistently monitoring what design elements do/do not work with visitors should be an important practice nonetheless.

Overarching metrics like revenue and conversions tell the main part of the story, but also keep your eye on comparative measures like bounce rate, visit duration, pages per visit, and conversion rate. Improvements in these statistics are a telltale sign that visitors are finding your site more engaging and thus more worthy of a conversion.

With that said, stay tuned in coming months as we share some UX and SEO results from our April Montage re-design.

Closing the Gap Between PR and Content Marketing

For the past 25-30 years, public relations and marketing have generally been seen as two mutually exclusive entities. One deals with potential publishers and the other with potential customers. No overlap. No collaboration. Nada.

With the arrival of online content and a more progressive way to market, however, this perception has started to evolve. Collaboration between PR and content marketing is now an indispensible part of a holistic online presence.

What changed?

Consider the original purpose of each field. PR aims to generate what is known as earned media, content that leverages the established reach and credibility of an external publisher. Content marketing—or traditional print marketing—aims to generate owned media, content that is fully controlled by the brand itself.

Historically, it’s not hard to see why these two types of media would remain separate. PR professionals and marketers targeted distinct audiences: print publishers had very little in common with normal consumers. There was simply no reason to collaborate on a consistent basis.

That is, until a little thing called social media came along.

Suddenly, print publishers weren’t the only ones who could publish meaningful content. After all, the only requirements for publishing today—for individuals and brands alike—is an active Internet connection and a Facebook or Twitter account. All of a sudden, content marketing and PR share overlapping audiences.

Say an external brand shares/retweets/republishes a piece of your brand’s content thanks to a mutually beneficial partnership. Content marketing suddenly generated earned media—the theoretical objective of PR. Now imagine if content marketers partnered with a socially influential blogger to promote a branded story on their blog. Would the resulting exposure represent content marketing or PR?

Conversely, say your PR department generates a noteworthy story from a credible publisher. What’s to say that this piece of earned content can’t be repurposed into owned content on a branded blog or social account?

In summary, the lines between PR and content marketing are becoming increasingly blurred. Twenty years ago you never would have had difficulties distinguishing between a marketing campaign and a PR campaign. Today’s situation, on the other hand, is not so straightforward.

It is this shared digital audience that brings us back to my initial point: collaboration between marketers and PR specialists is absolutely essential to maximize brand reach. As content marketers at AZDS, we are constantly working with PR managers at our hotels to figure out the best ways to leverage certain content ideas, strategies, and outreach plans. This should only continue as we move forward and we are in for a very exciting future.

For now, though, all we know is this: leveraging the huge potential of content marketing/PR comes down to creativity and innovation and that is something we can definitely get on board with.

How Will Wearable Technology Affect Digital Marketing and Travel?

AZDS hasn’t jumped on the smartwatch bandwagon quite yet—we prefer our timepieces of the old-fashioned variety—but there’s no denying the magnitude of a certain tech company’s highly anticipated Watch release this month. The Twittersphere has spoken and it seems Apple may just have initiated the latest revolution in digital innovation, namely wearable technology.

History tells us Apple knows a thing or two about trendsetting—see iPod, iPhone, iPad—so it’s high time to consider how this latest tech phenomenon could affect the future of digital marketing and travel.

With no further ado, here are some of our initial thoughts…

More Personalization and Accessibility
Hyper personalization is the future of digital marketing and wearable technology may be the first step in this process. The Apple Watch, for example, allows marketers to access personalized information that has never before been available: heart rate, fitness habits, and specific location (specific stores, for example, as opposed to cities).

These insights open up the possibility of implementing hyperlocal targeting based on exact consumer habits and surroundings—think hotel promotions or shopping specials when consumers are in a certain neighborhood. You may be thinking mobile could do this as well, but consider the one main difference between the mobile and wearable: wearable devices are literally attached to the wrist while mobile phones are not always as accessible (in a bag or purse, for example). Send a location-based ad to a mobile phone and the user may not see it until a few minutes later, when location has changed and the opportunity has passed. Send the same ad to a wearable device and the user will receive a wrist notification and thus see it immediately. The result: a potential conversion thanks to instantaneous hyperlocalization.

Moreover, wearable tech also allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the effectiveness of certain ad and content campaigns. Did a consumer’s heart rate jump after receiving a new menu promotion after leaving their favorite restaurant? Did they make a direct conversion as a result?

Combine these unique demographic insights with the fact that wearable technology literally follows user around wherever they go and you’re left with a whole new way of interacting with consumers. The potential for a revolutionary marketing strategy is off the charts.

Travel Personalization
Starwood Hotels wasted little time bringing the untapped potential of wearable technology to the hospitality industry. In coordination with the introduction of the Apple Watch, the owners of Sheraton, W Hotels, and Westin have recently announced their plans to launch an app that lets hotel guests unlock their rooms with just their smartwatch. It’s a cutting-edge concept that promises to revolutionize the guest experience and further enhance the premise of luxury hospitality.

What’s more, this is only the beginning. Imagine what hotels can do when they have real time access to information like guest location and behavior. Personalized messaging upon arrival and departure. Notifications with travel recommendations for restaurants, recreation, and entertainment. Special offers based on user location and behavior. Reservation updates and hotel happenings. The list goes on and on….

Welcome to the future of luxury travel.

Real Time Notifications
One of our recent blog entries discussed the importance of real time marketing, similar to hyper personalization in that it appeals to a consumer’s daily reality and relevant happenings. Wearable technology could take this concept one step further than even mobile, simply because these new devices are attached at the wrist. One simple vibration and suddenly you have the consumer’s attention, unlike mobile where a minute’s delay in gaining the user’s attention could mean the opportunity is gone. Finding a way to incorporate real time messaging will be a critical marketing objective as wearable technology hits the mainstream.

Wearable-Responsive Design
Responsive design has been paramount for mobile marketing success and that will undoubtedly be the case with wearable devices as well. Imagine trying to use a site or app that isn’t responsive to the small screens of a smartwatch—literally impossible. The takeaway is clear: UX will be crucial with wearable technology and it all starts with responsive design.

Another consequence of the small screen is the need for quicker, more consumable content. Users likely won’t have the patience or time to read long-form ads or articles on a small-screen smartwatch—designed more for convenience—so marketers will have no choice but to make their content even more compact. Considering the fact that today’s device users already have a short attention span, creating engaging content for wearables will prove much easier said than done.

Increased importance of keyword rankings
High-ranking keywords will be even more important for the wearable market, considering their screens aren’t big enough to show more than one or two listings at a time. Forget about page two rankings or even bottom of page one. As far as smartwatches are concerned, it’s essentially top five or bust.

Clickbait: The Opposite of Content Marketing

Content marketing has taken the digital industry by storm in recent years and—though there are countless instances of high-quality online content—the results haven’t always been pretty. One such example is the unfortunate practice of clickbait, defined by Wiktionary as follows:

“Website content that is aimed at generating advertising revenue, especially at the expense of quality or accuracy, relying on sensationalist headlines to attract click-throughs.”

The incentive for this type of misleading content is clear. On top of advertising revenue, an influx of pageviews—regardless of quality—is thought to improve brand awareness, conversions, and SEO.

The results, however, are markedly different. By promoting misleading or sensationalist headlines, brands are not just relegating online content to the depths of supermarket tabloids, they’re also achieving the exact opposite of what they set out to accomplish through content marketing.

Instead of the heightened brand trust and consumer confidence fostered through investment in high quality content, they’re being misleading and thus losing trust. And instead of generating quality user engagement, they’re making overpromises, delivering content below initial expectations, and thus sending bounce rate through the roof.

You get the point: clickbait is nothing more than a cheap traffic strategy with a negative effect on digital marketing as a whole.

With that said, how can brands avoid falling prey to this deceptive trend?

One approach is to re-evaluate the logistics behind your content marketing strategy. All too often brands feel the need to create “x” amount of content each month in the belief that more articles equals more exposure equals more results. The problem is that more often than not, brands do not have the time time or resources to simultaneously produce articles in mass while also maintaining a high quality in each story. The result? Underdeveloped content that may not live up to its expectations.

The practical way to employ this solution is to bid farewell to that trusted content calendar. We’ve entered a new age of content where quality is much more important than quantity and adhering to a strict calendar can prevent a piece of content from reaching its maximum potential. Quite simply, producing fewer articles of more interesting content is far superior to producing more articles of thinner, less developed content.

Another important step in the move away from bad content is a change in our approach to content analytics. Pageviews has always been the primary measure for content marketing success—the more clicks the better—and this mindset has naturally incentivized the practice of baiting users to click through.

Whereas pageviews should still remain amongst the most important metrics, going forward we also need to optimize for quality of visitor metrics like visit duration, bounce rate, and conversion rate. In doing so, we’ll place more emphasis on the kinds of users reading our content—the demographics that actually matter—not the amount of users reading our content.

Either that or download the laughter-inducing hyperbole-killer that is Downworthy.

Beyond the Basics: Using Underrated Metrics to Gain Deeper Insights

Many sports fans mistakenly reduce Kobe Bryant’s basketball greatness to a few overarching statistics: 19 NBA seasons, 25.4 points per game, and 32,482 career points (good for 3rd all time).

Impressive, yes, but do they tell the whole story of No. 24? Not a chance.

Kobe’s legendary career doesn’t just come down to the “sexy” statistics (i.e. scoring), it’s also about the less glamorous, behind-the-scenes numbers. A shooting guard with 6,122 assists (4.8/game), 1,882 steals (1.5/game), 6,800 rebounds (5.3/game), and 627 blocks (0.5/game)? Now that’s truly great.

Forgive us for rambling about Kobe Bryant (we can’t help it), but the story of the Black Mamba can actually teach us a lot about another of our favorite topics: digital marketing analytics. Namely, instead of focusing exclusively on the world’s most popular website metrics (i.e. total visits, conversions, revenue), let’s dig a little deeper and uncover the full story behind your online presence.

With that said, below are some of the most widely used metrics in the world of digital marketing and a few of our favorite, most underrated metrics that merit equal attention.

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The Usual: Visits
There’s no denying the significance of overall site traffic, but simply reporting on visits leaves us with a significant unknown: did these visits represent quality or simply quantity?


The Underrated: Pages Per Visit
There are many metrics for measuring quality of visitor, but few are as straight-to-the-point as pages per visit. The premise is simple: large quantities of visits are only beneficial if they are actually interested in your content. If visitors are bouncing directly after the first or second page, you are either a) targeting the wrong audience, b) lacking compelling content and/or design, or c) both.

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The Usual: Average Visit Duration
In principle, average visit duration seems like the perfect metric for tracking user engagement. On closer examination, however, it’s not always as reliant as one would think.

For example, when Google Analytics calculates time on site, it does so by compiling the totals of each time on page. The problem is that if a visitor bounces from a specific page, that page’s total time will be calculated as 0:00—regardless if said visitor spent 10 seconds or 10 minutes on that page. As such, there’s no accurate way of knowing exactly how much time each visitor actually spent on the site as a whole.

Secondly, we also have to consider the impact of site speed. Ideally, your site will be getting faster with time, meaning visitors will spend less time waiting and more time browsing. If that is indeed the case, they could hypothetically have a shorter visit duration than a year before but ultimately be more engaged in the content.


The Underrated: Goals
A better, and more reliant, way to track your visitor’s engagement is by measuring how many goals they completed on your site. Google Analytics allows you to track virtually any kind of objectives, from email signups to contacts to inquiries. For our clients, we consistently measure goals like spa reservations, weddings rfp, meetings rfp, party rfp, Open Table reservations, and email subscriptions. It’s a great way of tracking not only engagement but also the most coveted stat of all: conversions.

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The Usual: Mobile/Tablet Visits
Non-desktop visits are a crucial metric, but the fact of the matter is that tablet and mobile visits are sky-rocketing across all industries. How can you measure if your site is making the most of these lucrative channels?


The Underrated: Mobile/Tablet Conversion Rate
Optimization for mobile and tablet is arguably the biggest trend in digital marketing and no metric tracks its efficiency quite like non-desktop conversion rate. As you build your responsive sites, watch this stat like a hawk (for both mobile and tablet)—taking note of the slightest conversion fluctuations following design and layout changes. The day mobile and tablet conversion rates start approaching desktop conversion rates—at least in the luxury hotel industry—is the day we can all rejoice.

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The Usual: Pages Viewed
It’s imperative to know which of your pages drives the most traffic. Wouldn't it also be imperative to know which pages are the most user friendly?


The Underrated: Page Timings
Enter page timings, a Google Analytics tab that allows us to compare how quickly each page loads compared to overall site average. The key here is to make sure your most popular pages also perform efficiently. If they do, you’ll create positive user experience, happy visitors, and excellent customer retention—returning visitors who had a good online experience with your site. If they don’t, you’ll see the complete opposite—bad UX and poor retention—and you’ll also lose ground in the Google SEO algorithm for bad site speed.

Here are some statistics to get the wheels spinning about the importance of fast load times in an age of sky-high expectations (courtesy of Relentless Technology):

• 47% of consumers expect a web page to load in 2 seconds or less.
• 40% will abandon a website that takes more than 3 seconds to load.
• Amazon discovered that a 1/10th second delay equals a 1% drop in sales.

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The Usual: Conversions
Conversions are the most important online metric of all—for good reason—but there are ways to supplement these stats to gain further insights into your visitors’ most frequent conversion processes.


The Underrated: Assisted Conversions
Combine all your major acquisition channels—from organic search to direct traffic to referrals—and you’re left with the giant, interconnected web that is digital marketing. This is where assisted conversions come in.

Also known as multi channel conversions, these insightful metrics are the best tools around for tracking how all of your marketing efforts work together to create conversions. How did your visitors find you? Which touch points did they engage with before converting? Which acquisition channel was ultimately responsible for the conversion? How many days did your visitors take before converting? Which were the top conversion paths? All of this information is available to you simply by studying your multi channel funnels—allowing you to optimize and improve each of your marketing efforts accordingly.

We like to think of it like this: a healthy multi channel process map is a foolproof sign of a holistic and complete digital marketing campaign.

Context is King: The Power of Real-Time Marketing

Something interesting has happened in the build-up to this year’s Super Bowl. Ahead of the world’s most iconic marketing opportunity, several of the game’s traditional powerhouse advertisers have backed out of big-money TV commercials. Take the auto industry: 11 carmakers paid for ads in last year’s Super Bowl, down to just 6 this year. Brands like Volkswagen, GM, Audi, Hyundai, and Honda are all sitting out.

Cost is definitely a factor—30 seconds of commercial airtime during the big game is estimated to cost $4.5 million—but why else would these massive brands give the cold shoulder to one of the world’s largest audiences?

The answer, at least in some form, comes down to a little thing called real-time marketing: utilizing digital marketing and social media to leverage live events and current trends. See: Oreo.

What many brands are realizing is that, though TV advertising has its obvious benefits, digital marketing and the power of real time—more cost-effective options—can be just as formidable in terms of reach and impressions.

Here’s why:

Context
Social media’s enormous brand potential is all too often wasted by an excess of bad content—from useless clickbait to forced promotions. The only way to truly stand out in the online crowd is to make meaningful connections that actually matter.

Real-time marketing, unlike many other strategies, achieves this connection by creating messaging around social context: branded content that consumers can personally relate to.

For Super Bowl advertisers, this context involves whatever is happening during the game—for example, the blackout two years ago. For other brands, it could be current events—most recently, the blizzard in New York or awards season in LA. For hotels, it could be a guest who is currently visiting or planning a visit—giving heightened relevance and impact to hyper-personalized messaging.

The key here is emotion. People connect with messages that hit close to home—humor, relevance, usability—and real-time marketing leverages this better than almost any other channel.

To put it simply, context has the potential to turn a dull marketing message into a powerful human connection.

Reach
Once an emotional connection has been established, we all know how quickly online content can spread. Virality is a powerful phenomenon and it gives digital marketing a brand awareness potential to match any other marketing channel, including Super Bowl ads.

Let’s go back to the Oreo example. These numbers say it all:

One simple message during the Super Bowl was shared on Twitter and Facebook more than 20,000 times, thereby earning more than 525 million media impressions—-5 times the amount of people who tuned in to watch the game.

The Takeaway
The biggest takeaway from real time marketing is the power of context and its overarching impact on digital marketing as a whole. As the online space continues its exponential growth in coming years, the only way for brands to strike a chord with consumers is to leverage context both correctly and creatively. Those that don’t will be, quite simply, lost amongst the masses.

Context is king.

2014 Year in Review

My 2013 word of the year was “Proud.” As the founder of AZDS I can certainly say it has been one amazing ride. After eight years sailing this ship through mostly calm Caribbean waters (with the occasional shark spotting), I couldn’t be more proud of where we are as an organization and where we stand in terms of our industry and the hospitality sector.

The word of 2014 is “Remarkable.”

Webster’s defines remarkable as: “worthy of being or likely to be noticed especially as being uncommon or extraordinary.” Google says, “worthy of attention; striking.”

I say this next statement without any hubris. I have the most remarkable team in the digital marketing industry. I am honored to be able to work with consummate professionals who are both innovative and design-centered. Everyone in our organization has a similar forward-thinking mindset that simply doesn’t fizzle out. Our direct aim is to revolutionize our clients’ interactive products and ensure that we are providing beautiful, yet trackable solutions that drive new business opportunity.

This year we did just that.

One of the most exciting projects of 2014 was the Montage Hotels & Resorts domain migration. Montage was setup on individual domain names for every property and business unit (i.e. montagelagunabeach.com, spamontage.com, montagedeervalley.com). As the much needed foundation for a site redesign, we took each existing website and migrated them into an entirely new content management system with information architecture that fit the bill. The entire site, including the booking engine was setup for a 2015 redesign that is currently underworks. If you are interested in beta testing the new website, send us a note.

In addition to the migration, our team helped launch Montage Kapalua Bay, The Inn at Palmetto Bluff, and continued our digital marketing work as the Digital Agency of Record. Montage Impressions, the luxury lifestyle editorial that our team created in 2013, also had a tremendous year of successes and milestones. A significant amount of our content was shared socially by other leading luxury brands such as Malin & Goetz, Sprinkles, Thomas Keller and St. John Knits to name a few.

2014 marked the acquisition of several new exciting clients, one of which was Le Sereno in St. Barths. In November a few lucky members of the team headed down to the Caribbean to explore the resort and the magnificent island. It is a young property that is doing some extraordinary things. Mark my word; it will become a legendary property, one for the ages. 2016 will mark the opening of its second property, Il Sereno on Lake Como.

I would also be remiss not to mention our strong work for some of our longtime signature clients, with continued projects for Shutters on the Beach, Casa del Mar, Petit Ermitage, and the Starwood Luxury Collection.

Lastly, we have an exciting black-box project in the works for 2015 – stay tuned to our blog for more details on this innovative new solution that is going to bring the hospitality industry into the 23rd century. It will be the way of the future.

As 2014 comes to a seemingly roaring finish, I’m thoroughly enjoying reflecting on where AZDS started, where we are now, and where we are headed. This ship certainly isn’t on auto-pilot.

Wishing you and yours a healthy, happy, and prosperous holiday season and New Year.

Here’s to a remarkable 2015!

Adam Deflorian
CEO

Tools of the Trade

For every Kobe Bryant in the world, there’s always a supporting cast to make sure the show flows in a timely, effective, and generally epic manner.

Here at AZDS, the MVP is certainly our team, but the sixth man award goes to our collection of digital marketing tools. Simple, insightful, and time-efficient, these apps are an indispensible part of our daily lineup.

SEM Rush
SEM Rush collects massive quantities of keyword data and presents it in a very accessible, user-friendly manner—making it our favorite SEO analytics tool. Whether researching keywords, analyzing rankings, discovering search trends, preparing paid search, or scouting the competition, this service is the best SEO service on the market. Especially useful for our monthly client analytics reports.

Email on Acid
Email marketing became exponentially simpler (and less risky) when we found Email on Acid, a unique tool allows us to see what our finished emails look like in every application—from Outlook to Android to iPad to Gmail. With keen insights into design, titles, headers, images, and sizing, Email on Acid helps us prevent any eblast mishaps before they happen.

Crazy Egg
As simple as it is useful, Crazy Egg offers heat map and scroll map reports of any website or ad. In doing so, it allows us to understand how visitors engage with our clients online and what they find interesting/useful. Especially useful when designing new layouts and testing new placements.

Hootsuite
Essential in any social media marketer’s toolbox, Hootsuite wins our trust for its multiple-account dashboard and simple usability. With this ever-popular tool, we can manage all of our clients’ social profiles, schedule posts, track brand mentions, and even access social media analytics for each account.

Offerpop
Offerpop is our preferred service for social media contests. From photo contests to signups to quizzes, Offer Pop is a great way to drive social engagement and access analytics. Plus, it’s very simple to use, easy to connect with social accounts, and good value. Honorable Mention: Strutta, a similar tool that can accommodate even the most complex of contests, albeit at a slightly higher price point.

Flip.To
Specifically designed for the hospitality industry, Flip.To helps us personalize our clients’ social interactions with guests based on their exact stays, reviews, and experiences. Directly connected with the booking engine, this “magnetic marketing” tool promotes engagement from the guests’ end and thus allows us to reach out and engage with them. A great tool for increasing social reach, personalization, and brand advocacy.

Taboola
Before you’ve established a loyal following of followers, readers, and visitors, your content may need a little extra push to reach a wider set of eyeballs. This is where we use Taboola, a great tool for distributing content across major publishing houses. We’ve been impressed by the results—great reach and surprising engagement.

Twitter, Google Trends, FB Newswire, etc.
As social media and content marketers, one of the best ways to stimulate engagement is by connecting content to relevant topics. There are many ways to discover what’s trending in the online space, but some of our favorites are Twitter (hashtags), Google Trends, and FB Newswire.

Zen Desk
Zen Desk has made a massive difference in our customer service operations—from website edits to online changes to general questions. Our clients can submit requests as “tickets,” which will then appear in our Zen Desk dashboard as a very organized list of tasks. From there, we can complete each request and ensure that we stay on top of everything that needs to be done—without getting bombarded by emails!

Social ROI

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of joining Adam out in California to give a presentation on social media marketing. The audience: an assorted group of luxury real estate agents who are associated with one of our newest clients, Hilton & Hyland.

There were many (fascinating) questions asked during the course of the presentation, but one stood out as an especially important issue to address: How does social media impact the bottom line? In other words, how can you tell if a social campaign actually delivers a worthwhile ROI?

It’s a question that many digital marketers face, especially when financial executives are around. We all know that social media is a critical piece in the digital puzzle; virtually all major brands in the world allocate some serious resources to the development of a social media strategy and campaign. ROI is clearly there for the taking, but how can we measure (or even prove) it?

The most tangible measure—and the most instantly gratifying for that aforementioned financial executive—involves social revenue. Google Analytics can pinpoint exactly how many conversions were generated socially, thus offering a specific amount of revenue attributable directly to a social channel. What’s more, it can also pinpoint social channels as touch points within a visitor’s multichannel conversion process. If social media generates an assisted conversion—combined with organic search and direct traffic, for example—this offers as much proof of social ROI as you’ll ever find. See the chart below for an example of how influential social can be as a multi channel revenue touch point.

Multi Channel Revenue

Another important byproduct of successful social media, and thus further proof of its ROI, is the positive effect on a brand’s SEO. In today’s world of merit-based SEO—generally centered around inbound links, traffic, and engagement, not stuffing keywords—the creation of an engaged, passionate, and loyal social fan base has a significant impact on search engine placement. For any revenue-driven folks reading, this in turn translates into improved organic visibility, more traffic, and ultimately higher revenue.

Having said all that, social media really comes down to one simple fact, one that we have mentioned in a previous post: people are the most powerful distribution channel in the world. The world’s largest brands—from BMW to Samsung—leverage the power of social media because they know that its potential brand exposure far exceeds any other marketing measure, both on and offline.

When fans engage (i.e. like, comment, share) with a brand’s social campaign, they are instantly exposing that brand to thousands of new eyeballs. Furthermore, since those new eyeballs likely belong to friends of current fans—sharing similar interests, demographics, and tendencies—the brand is reaching a pre-segmented audience that is already more likely to convert and become loyal followers. I might add that this mass online reach is virtually free of charge, meaning potential ROI is really through the roof.

Different platforms have different terms for this concept: impressions, reach, visibility, etc. Whichever you prefer, social media success is a huge asset for any brand. Yes, it can be a little trickier to quantify in the short term, but its impact goes further than instant gratification. It holds the key to online growth, brand awareness, and ultimately, future conversions.

When a brand is familiar/recognizable to a consumer (after having seen a friend engage with it on social media), that brand will have a huge advantage when the consumer is looking to make an online purchase. And there we have it: social media impacting the bottom line by facilitating direct, quantifiable revenue.

Sounds a lot like ROI to me.

Driving Online Conversions through User-Generated Content

User-generated content.

You may have heard this buzz word at a digital marketing conference. Or—if you’ve ever walked by the AZDS office—you may have heard it thrown around in a heated ping-pong table conversation.

As the name implies, it encompasses any content that is created/produced/shared by a user of non-branded affiliation. It could be created on social media, on a blog, as a review on Yelp, as a comment on a site, or really any medium where users are able to engage interactively.

Here at AZDS, we think rather highly of user-generated content. So highly, in fact, that we believe it could be a centerpiece in the future of digital marketing.

Here’s why, in one simple explanation: Few, if any, channels have more influence in the consumer process of online decision-making.

When you or I go to plan our next vacation, for example, we will likely utilize a wide variety of online channels for our research. Official websites for our potential hotel or restaurant destinations, for one, give us a good idea of what to expect from each possibility. Content platforms like hotel magazines/editorials or restaurant blogs, for another, are also incredibly powerful in transmitting influential information and emotional appeal. Even social media accounts are pivotal, offering a glimpse into the daily atmosphere of our destination options.

For the vast majority of online consumers, however, nothing finalizes an online decision like the words, recommendations, or opinions of our fellow consumers. Whether it’s through a word-of-mouth recommendation, a comment or picture through social media, a tip from a friend, or a review on Trip Advisor, people are naturally inclined to trust other people. Hearing opinions from others who have previous experience gives us that all-important feeling of confidence, trust, reliability, and ultimately, loyalty.

Studies have been done to back up this concept. From a digital marketing perspective, Mashable finds that millenials (a key demographic in the hospitality industry) trust user-generated content (UGC) 50% more than other types of media. Furthermore, with an average of 5 hours spent every day with peer-created content, this generation finds user-generated content 20% more influential in terms of purchasing power and 35% more memorable than other types of media.

Quite simply, human connection is trustworthy for everyone, leaving user-generated content as a major player in the future of the online space. As digital marketers, our objective is clear: we must find a way to leverage the power of user-generated content to drive in a new era of consumer powered marketing. The focus needs to shift to the people, not the channels; to the relationships, not the reach.

There are many creative ways to go about doing this. From a big brand perspective, consider the case of American Airlines. Last year, this airline launched an initiative granting access to their Admiral’s Club (VIP lounge with free wifi and complimentary booze and snacks) for travelers with a Klout score of 55 or higher. The premise: by offering a luxurious service for free to their most socially impactful travelers, word will spread on social media. People who have powerful social reach will promote a positive message about American Airlines, triggering a positive impact on online brand awareness, reach, and loyalty.

At AZDS, we have also harnessed the power of user-generated content. As part of the content marketing efforts for Montage Impressions, the online editorial portal for our client Montage Hotels & Resorts, we have added a collage of photos that is completely driven by hotel guests. Visitors of Montage can take a picture during their visit, upload it on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #MontageMemory, and find their photos featured on the website. This is a very simple concept, but not only does it empower the hotel’s previous guests, it also drives action for potential future guests—exemplifying the great memories people have made while visiting Montage.

Ultimately, these are just two examples out of countless possibilities with user-generated content. From guest blogging to social media contests to outreach campaigns, this up-and-coming concept can make a serious difference for the online presence of a brand. It all comes down to this one, simple fact of digital marketing: when push comes to shove, people are the most powerful distribution channel in the world.

Adjusting to a New Era of Email Marketing

Email marketing has enjoyed a long ride atop the world of digital strategy. With a 4,300% ROI, a conversion rate that is 40 times higher than social media, and a definitive impact on consumer loyalty, it leaves little doubt as to its immediate effectiveness.

In this moment, however, email marketing finds itself in a state of unprecedented flux. When opened, its ability to convert users remains unchanged. Open rates, however, are becoming increasingly difficult to come by.

Part of the reason for this, of course, lies in the fact that consumers’ inboxes are simply becoming too cluttered. In 2013 alone, the world produced a total of 838 billion marketing emails. The consequences of this staggering number is that people are having to delve through loads and loads of useless content, leaving your useful content lost among the masses.

Adding to this visibility problem is the advent of recent email filters, designed to protect the consumer from excessive promotional emails. The prime example of this, of course, came last year when Gmail introduced its much-maligned email tabs—filtering by promotional and social emails. The results? As feared, open rates dropped significantly: 18%, to be precise.

Understandably, digital marketers were up in arms, declaring email marketing all but dead.

A year later, however, email marketing is clearly still alive. What have we learned since then?

Here at AZDS, two things have become increasingly clear:

First, the importance of responsive design and captivating content has become more important than ever. Every aspect of your email creation has to be strategically thought out in order to make your message stand out amongst the clutter:

• Lure them in with an intriguing title—often something that evokes emotion. Remember, emotion drives action.
• Optimize your design for both desktop and mobile—since mobile now makes up the majority of email views.
• Captivate their attention (drawing on emotion) in ten seconds or less—using clean design, concise copy, compelling calls to action, stimulating images, and absorbing videos.
• Personalize your emails according to segmented demographics—customize by birthdays, anniversaries, gender, location, season, time, etc.

Second, the time has come to re-evaluate our email marketing priorities. When measuring email analytics, is open rate really the most indicative metric? Yes, it offers a useful measure for overall reach, but in the grand scheme of your email marketing campaign, click through rate (engagement) and conversions (revenue) are much more effective for measuring brand impact and profit.

By this logic, if open rates are decreasing, but click-through rates and conversions are increasing, your campaign really should be considered a success. In all likelihood, the users who are not opening your emails in the filtered Gmail tabs are probably the users who would not have opened your email anyway. Consequently, you have scaled down your target audience to the people who actually matter, leaving your more valuable readers to improve your quality of visit metrics.

(Side note: this is also why you should not hide your “unsubscribe” button and even "clean up" lists by removing long-term unengaged users)

The takeaway from all this?

Email marketing is, by no means, dead. Its ROI potential is still through the roof; it just requires a bit more strategic planning than before. As with any type of content in today’s oversaturated digital space, the trick is to stand out above the rest. With a revamped curation method and a re-evaluated analytics strategy, this step doesn’t need to be as difficult as it sounds.

A Content Marketing Process Map

In the multichannel puzzle of today’s digital world, no medium is more interconnected than content marketing. A true buzzword in the interactive space, it has the power to not just shape online brand personality, engagement, and loyalty, but also to empower social media reach, SEO placement, and much more.

Only one question remains: How can you create the type of quality content that truly leverages this considerable potential?

At AZDS, we have developed a process map for creating effective content for our clients. The following steps help maximize our clients’ content marketing ROI:

Step 1: Plan Relevant and Timely Content

The first step in crafting effective content lies in getting to know your potential readers and developing personas for those readers. Before any other planning or writing, it is essential to identify and analyze your target audience for key demographic insights like interests, priorities, geographic influences, typical online behavior, and more. Once you know this information, you can optimize your editorial planning accordingly to create content topics that are relevant to what your readers will find interesting, emotionally stimulating, and ultimately, engaging.

Working with luxury hospitality clients, we have found that our target audiences value fine cuisine and refined culture. With this information in mind, our content marketing efforts have focused around comfort and luxury, ultimately aiming to establish our clients as leaders in the luxury lifestyle conversation. From fine dining to exclusive beverages and from upscale fashion to cultural experiences, our clients’ editorial articles firmly reflect the segmented interests of their clients.

Equally as important as creating audience-relevant content is creating timely content. Readers will relate to information that matches both happenings in their daily lives and trending worldly topics, so it becomes vital to tailor your editorial calendar around these specific factors.

The first, and most obvious, step in this timely process considers holidays and events—for example, Valentine’s Day, the Sundance Film Festival, or summer hiking ideas. The second step considers trending topics, many of which can be found through social media—for example, gluten free recipes, hairstyles, and yoga. Crafting content around relevant and timely topics exponentially increases the interest and engagement of your online audience.

Step 2: Establish Partnerships with Other Brands

The last step of the planning phase calls for a coordinated outreach strategy with external brands. For example, if planning a piece on summer fashion tips, contact brand-relevant designers and ask whether they would be interested in promoting socially if you include their brand as a reference or recommendation.

Ultimately, the goal here is to establish a mutually beneficial relationship where the external brand receives recognition from you, while you, in return, receive online and other social engagement to boost your awareness. Why settle for just your own social sharing when you can benefit from others’ as well?

Step 3: Craft Engaging Content

With your editorial calendar fully scheduled, it’s time to transform potential into reality. Ideas and partnerships are all good and dandy, but without the ability to craft engaging content, your strategic planning was all for nothing.

Creative writing is, of course, at the center of the engagement formula—be sure to write in an active voice, featuring captivating imagery and persuasive calls to action. Not to be overlooked, however, is the importance of visual engagement. According to studies by Zabisco and Digital Sherpa, 40% of people will respond better to visual information than plain text, while 80% of your online visitors will watch a video, compared to only 20% who will actually read your content.

To accommodate for these statistics, aim to create a healthy mix of concise content, compelling images, and if possible, well-produced videos. Also, keep in mind that you will want to maintain a consistent tone, voice, and layout throughout your content—this will establish the specific personality you want associated with your brand.

Step 4: Monitor and Repeat

Once published, your pre-planned engagement strategy should kick into gear. Ensure that your partners share your content, engage with your fans socially, and promote your content through visually engaging email marketing efforts.

Done correctly, your content will be engaging, stimulating, and wide-reaching—all factors that will improve brand identity, SEO, and online conversions.

Assessing the Future of Social Media Marketing

Over the past 8 months or so, the world of social media marketing has been dealt a real Zuckerpunch.

Following the recent changes in Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm, social organic reach for brands (both big and small) has plummeted dramatically. According to a study by Ogilvy, organic reach for smaller brands on Facebook has dropped to roughly 6% (down 50% from October). For brands with over 500,000 likes, the numbers are even grimmer: roughly 2% organic reach.

But here comes the real dagger: experts are predicting 0% organic reach in the foreseeable future. Let that sink in for a second.

So, what does this plummeting organic reach mean for the future of social media marketing?

Well, for one, it means that Facebook is officially declaring that the days of free ride online marketing are long gone. No longer will brands on Facebook be able to reach a large share of their online fans without paying a cent.

But more importantly, this change signals a transition into the growing field of paid social search. For social media marketers, it essentially just means that all the previous benefits of Facebook are still available; they just come at a price. And, in all likelihood, a price worth paying.

Social ad dollars allow a brand to attract a higher quality of visitor, perhaps more so than traditional organic reach. Due to the fact that only so many ads can show up at one time, paid advertising can actually decrease the amount of “noisy” content available on social platforms. Combined with the fact that ads have the ability to target in specifically on a desired demographic, paid social advertising—if utilized correctly—can be more visible to the particular readers who will actually want to consume a brand’s online content. In the long run, spending ad money on attracting this type of quality visitor is a very worthwhile investment.

Of course, this is not to say that organically well-positioned content earned through Facebook’s Edgerank algorithm is not effective in reaching a quality audience. In today’s system of limited organic reach, any content that appears on a fan’s newsfeed does so because it is well-targeted and sticky. However, if we are truly heading for a “0% organic reach” Facebook platform, paid search will become the only way to reach a desired visitor, thus reducing the aforementioned “noise.”

It all essentially comes down to this: social media, specifically Facebook, remains one of the best ways to drive online engagement. Yes, the decrease in organic reach will result in a drop in post visibility, but through strategic paid search, it could also result in a higher quality of visitor.

Mobile Traffic and Bookings: The Untapped Frontier of Hotel Ecommerce

Over the past few years, mobile traffic has absolutely exploded as a source for online pageviews. According to a study by Statista, visits through smartphones accounted for 17.4% of global web traffic in 2013, a growth of more than 6% from 11.1% in 2012.

What’s more, this continual spike is nowhere close to finished. Another study concludes that mobile traffic is expected to increase elevenfold by 2018.

Nowhere has this transition to mobile traffic been more apparent than in the hospitality industry. Studies of Q1 2014 industry averages confirm that desktop traffic decreased 10%, while mobile visits increased a considerable 35%. Likewise, revenue through desktop bookings decreased 3% while revenue through mobile bookings increased nearly 50%.

All good and dandy for mobile traffic, right?

Not so fast.

Yes, mobile traffic is increasing dramatically and though desktop traffic still dominates in terms of total traffic, the quick catch-up from smartphone visitors presents a huge opportunity for hotel marketers.

But what these numbers don’t show is that this mobile opportunity remains largely untapped in terms of revenue. Though mobile visits make up 21.5% of total hotel industry traffic (compared to 63.8% for desktop), they only make up 2.65% of total revenue (compared to 86.46% for desktop).

Translation: The transition to mobile bookings is still only a promising opportunity. Sure, a lot of mobile visits may later turn into multichannel desktop/tablet conversions, but there are still a worrying amount of mobile visits leading to nothing. To truly capitalize on the massive switch to mobile traffic, hotels need to be seeing a relatively proportional increase between visits, bookings, and revenue. Right now, that is not the case.

So what should hotel marketers be doing to trigger these changes?

There are some who say that mobile will never truly have the ecommerce potential that desktop has, simply because desktop is more optimized for conversions. They would point to facts like the following: Mobile search is primarily used for research purposes, leading 88% of smartphone users to continue the shopping process on their desktop platform.

This doesn’t have to be the case, however. The reason why people would use mobile exclusively as a research platform is because they are having a poor mobile experience. Mobile sites simply aren’t user friendly enough to instill a sense of booking confidence.

For hotel marketers, there’s a way to fix this. The potential for mobile confidence is already here, indicated by the fact that 47% of users start planning their trip on a smartphone. The key to triggering the final mobile conversion step lies in creating a more hospitable mobile experience by building a fully optimized, content-integrated mobile site with naturally responsive design.

This may seem like an obvious step, but judging by the fact that 50% of online advertisers still do not have mobile optimized landing pages, it’s still a profoundly overlooked step. The massive increase in mobile traffic simply will not provide the same level of mobile conversions until mobile users are free of frustrating desktop-optimized sites on their smartphones.

When optimized and designed correctly, we may just have uncovered the new frontier of online hotel marketing.

Measuring Content Marketing Success

For most digital marketers, picking between pageviews and time on page is like picking your favorite child. Both are incredibly beneficial to your success in the online interactive space.

In the world of content strategy, however, marketers have recently developed a certain ruthlessness on this matter; experts are passionately voicing their opinions on their preferred metric for measuring content marketing success.

Here at AZDS, we are very transparent about the identity of our favorite child. Time on page takes the cake every time.

Why?

Because time on page has the ability to track the single most important objective in content marketing: simulating an emotional connection.

Consider a content marketing campaign that, over the span of a month, generates 10,000 pageviews and an average time on page of 30 seconds. Does this content strategy deliver an emotional impression that enhances brand loyalty? Should this be considered a success?

The answer is no. Thousands of readers may have seen your content, but the vast majority of them did not feel captivated enough to truly consume it. The sheer quantity of pageviews does nothing to enhance the true value of your content marketing, since content, inherently, is not selling a product; it’s selling an emotional connection to your brand.

Now consider a content marketing campaign that, over the span of a month, generates only 2,500 pageviews, but an average time on page of 2 minutes.

Fewer people may have actually seen the content, but as the increased time on page indicates, these people actually found the content to be much more captivating. Something in your content simulated a sense of emotional connection—evoking feelings of excitement, joy, passion, or empathy—which captivated their attention for a longer amount of time.

Ultimately, this is the difference between seeing and consuming. Pageviews indicate that readers have simply seen your content. Time on page indicates that they have actually consumed it.

In the long run, the difference between seeing and consuming is huge. The value of content marketing lies in its ability to deliver an emotionally engaging experience. When readers truly consume your online content, they associate your brand with engaging content and an exciting sense of place (in the hospitality industry). The result? Increased sharing, increased online conversions, and most importantly, increased brand loyalty.

Two minutes of engagement to 2,500 readers is thus significantly more useful than thirty seconds of engagement to 10,000 readers.

One scenario [pageviews] shows quantity; the other [time on page] shows quality. Quality wins ten times out of ten in our book.

#BringMePappy

I have the good fortune of staying in the world’s best hotels and resorts. What’s even better is that a number of them are our clients and our team has the opportunity to help establish their brands digitally and communicate their level of sophistication throughout a variety of digital channels. There is a great book by Robert Scoble titled the Age of Context (thanks to Michael Myers for the recommendation). In the book Robert describes a situation where hospitality is entirely integrated with the social media ecosystem and is able to improve guest experiences based on social context. In other words, if I am staying at the Mandarin Oriental Barcelona and send a tweet saying that my flight is going to be two hours late and that I’d like dark chocolate and Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon upon arrival, theoretically this should all be doable. (The hotel would know that my flight is two hours late so the car service would be alerted of the delay and the concierge team would have the time to get the goodies.)

The ideal hospitality experience is not simply established once the guest arrives on property, as all good hoteliers know. It is from the initial interaction with the hotel (whether that be booking through the direct website or a travel agent, the pre-arrival experience, the arrival experience, the stay, the departure experience, followed by the post-stay experience). If all of these things are perfect, then you likely have received value in a $1,000 per night hotel. Because modern guest expectations are sky high, it is challenging for the stars to align. Having said that, social integration in the hotel experience is absolutely critical to providing stellar service (and marketing) in today’s five star hotels.

Our team is working on exciting software, which as promised, is going to create a more effective and revolutionary hospitality industry. We started from scratch and are challenging the paradigm of guest personalization, customization and retention. In 2014 stay tuned for more articles on what we believe will be the future of personalized hospitality marketing.

Adam
CEO

Our Year in Review

Proud is the one word I can think of to describe 2013. We had another tremendous year at AZDS, working with a variety of new clients and helping propel our partner brands through spectacular interactive work and viral story telling. Our business took us to all corners of the globe from California to Singapore, Shanghai to London, and all the way back to the glorious mountains of Colorado. We also opened a small office in sunny Los Angeles to help deliver our stellar level of service to our California clients.

Our team continued to grow in size as we added two new rock stars to our extremely fine tuned arsenal and we welcomed back one of our financial operations guys, Matt Briefer. Matt grew up with me in Tucson, so it is with tremendous happiness that I can welcome Matt back to the AZDS family. As we grew in human power, we also outgrew our old digs in the Cherry Creek neighborhood of Denver. In March we moved to sleek new space in the RiNo (River North) district of Denver. Along with our new space came a ping-pong table, new gym, swimming pool, food trucks, a cycling club, a yoga studio and more! I think I can speak for the entire team that no one at AZDS is exactly roughin’ it anymore.

Most importantly 2013 led to some extraordinary new work transforming the luxury hospitality sector. There are too many to highlight all, but I would be remiss to not mention a few.

  • Launch of a new ski reservation website for Montage Deer Valley that was mentioned in Robb Report as one of the best ski rental websites in existence. It takes less than three minutes from start to finish to create a reservation (in part because of the significant automation that the user never notices). Check it out and book your Spring Skiing at MontageSkis.com.

  • Launch of MontageImpressions.com, a digital luxury lifestyle editorial with significant authored content and social integration. The site is also used on property to promote events both on and off property.

  • New personalized e-mail creative for Shutters on the Beach and Hotel Casa del Mar that allows for customized e-mail messaging based on each guest.

  • Launch of Arts Integration Teacher Tools, phase one. The portal was built for Arts Integration Solutions and was sponsored in part by JP Morgan Chase. It allows for educators to find, create, curate, and collaborate on lesson plans with a focus on Arts Integration and STEM. ArtsIntegration.com/portal

  • Significant progress in our customized e-mail software for luxury hotels that is integrated with the hotel’s property management system to deliver personalized messaging to every guest.

  • Large remarketing; search, site, and social campaigns, that integrate throughout a programmatic process from top to bottom.

As the leader of this wolf pack, as I’m called around the office, I think it is quite clear why I couldn’t be prouder of my exceptionally talented team and the work that they deliver on a daily basis to our impressive roster of clients. A special call out to our Director of Client Strategy and Growth, Ian Cornish for his invaluable contributions to the continued success and growth of AZDS Interactive Group. I’m certain all of our clients will certainly attest to his yoda like abilities.

I would like to close with a big thank you to all of our existing and new clients for their continued business, and more importantly trust in our team and vision for building a more effective and revolutionary hospitality industry.

Here’s to what is already shaping up to be a magnificent 2014,
Adam
CEO

A Content Strategy

I was recently inspired by a content promotion campaign we have been running for a luxury client and its integration with content promotional advertising such as Taboola and nRelate. To be entirely transparent, I don’t believe we have figured out the perfect balance of content advertising with organic social growth and viral online sharing (if someone truly has, I would love to hear about it), but I think we have uncovered an interesting case study and balancing act.

For luxury brands, it seems many of the visitors we receive from content promotion (Taboola, etc.) aren’t very good. They are averaging a very low time on site and the other stats are quite poor. See below for a snapshot during a campaign. I’m intentionally not showing dates or full data (and skewing some numbers for integrity), but this is a good representation of the visitors that we are receiving from the promoted campaign.
Promoted on Taboola

Having said that, below are sample analytics from when we sent an e-mail showing select content to a specific segment of e-mails. The results aren’t great, but response clearly looks better than the promoted visitors. This makes sense since the e-mailed visitors are connected to the brand directly vs. new acquisitions off of Huffington Post, Time, etc.
Email

Last if you take a look at the organic visitors (direct or promoted to directly), organic search, and referred sites you can see the vast difference in visitor quality and engagement.
Organic

This brought us to a number of internal discussions about whether we are hurting ourselves by promoting our content or whether we were simply concerned about the final reporting showing performance of a campaign. I think this can be answered twofold. Most importantly, if you are promoting to visitors who clearly don’t care about the content, then you are simply wasting money, which could be spent in other marketing channels. Secondly, the ROI and quality of visitors are key in creating a benchmark as to what is working and what isn’t.

The ticket, in my opinion, is a strategy that incorporates third parties into the content so that it can be promoted externally to “like-minded” individuals. If this is done successfully (think Nowness, etc.), it can create vast reaching roots that touch a variety of new prospects and quality visitors.

Game of Search

Search and the process of tracking keywords have changed again. We may sound like a broken record, yet constant flux is simply the norm in the digital advertising industry.

Google’s newest algorithm, Hummingbird, has moved to make nearly 100% of keywords (not provided), virtually making keyword-based SEO a thing of the past. While Google’s motivation for this radical overhaul is still unknown, professional web marketer John Doherty predicts it could be a “seemingly evil (but smart) way to get people to buy more ads, which probably will work.” With statistics obtained from paid search now being more precise than organically related search terms in the post-Hummingbird world, it isn’t hard to see how John came to this conclusion. Within AdWords campaigns the ‘Search Terms’ report will be the closest way to track specific keywords and how those keywords are affecting conversions and time on page.

As a matter of fact, nearly all-remaining Google organic keyword data (through Google Analytics) should be considered inaccurate and unreliable according to Annie Cushing. In an industry where many companies are extremely dependent on Google, Bing certainly deserves a shout out for continuing to provide analytics users access to organic keyword data.

Rest assured everyone: the SEO industry will not die. The practices and methods will need to evolve, but at the end of the day, the Internet still exists which means that opportunities to track data still exist. This will allow for better data and analytics-driven marketers to prove that they can add tremendous value in driving online business and brand awareness (through a variety of channels).

That said, one of the major changes to the industry will be the shift in noting the traffic of keywords to recording the traffic of pages.

Keyword-driven SEO will be taking the backseat to content-driven SEO, leading to higher quality content. As Ruth Burr of Moz states, it is all about building “topical authority” or in other words, becoming “the source” for information on a particular topic. SEO can no longer simply be “done” to the page, but it must be incorporated in the process of content strategy when building a site.

With that, let the “Game of Search” continue. More strategies to come.

The Future of Email Marketing

Google’s revolutionary changes to its new Gmail inbox have turned the world of e-mail marketing on its head. Many CEOs and CMOs across the globe are beginning to question if the era of e-mail marketing is coming to a close before it even got a chance to blossom.

But what is all of the fuss even about?

Over the summer, Google began rolling out significant changes to the Gmail inbox; the main one being a 5 tab layout that is sophisticated enough to categorize emails as they arrive in your inbox. The tab categories and their descriptions are:

  1. Primary = the majority of your emails
  2. Social = emails relating to social media such as Facebook and Twitter
  3. Promotions = emails from retailers, newsletters, offers or anything “promotional”
  4. Forums = messages from online groups, discussion boards, etc.
  5. Updates = confirmations, bills, receipts

You guessed it! The Promotions tab is the tab that is causing online companies to react like anyone who was unfortunate (or fortunate depending on your viewpoint) enough to witness Miley Cyrus’ eye-opening performance at the VMAs.

Google is very good at what it does, making it nearly impossible to get a mailer to show up in the primary tab (which is exactly what companies are trying to do). The concern is that users will treat the Promotions tab like a spam folder and let all of its contents go unnoticed. Therefore, many people are prematurely expecting e-mail marketing to see a major downturn. However, after looking at some of the initial findings, we at AZDS believe it is far too early to make such an egregious statement.

According to three major e-mail marketing service companies (Yesmail Interactive, MailChimp, and 3DCart), the open rates of ecommerce emails have only decreased by 1% since the new inbox was introduced. In addition, it is clear that the new design is causing an uproar of disapproval among current Gmail users which has been labeled “confusing as hell.” For these users, opting-out of the new tabbed layout can be done with the click of a button.

Oh, and then of course add in the fact that Gmail only accounts for 12.9% of general email usage by liberal estimates.

While the launch of the new Gmail interface was an initial cause for concern, it is just another hurdle that the savvy and talented email marketers must be able to navigate around (a light pat on our shoulders here at AZDS).

Mobile E-mail Responsiveness

Why should you care about mobile responsive e-mail design? Not because your mother is still on the Palm Treo (and still asking you questions about how to display images when she reads her e-mails), but because e-mail is read on mobile more than on desktop or via webmail. Let’s dig in.

Courtesy of emailmonday:
  1. Mobile email will account for 15 to 65% of email opens, depending on your target audience, product and email type
  2. 90% of smartphone owners access the same email account on mobile and desktop
  3. Daily we spend 9 minutes on email via a mobile device
  4. More email is read Mobile than on a desktop email client or via webmail
    1. Stats say 44% of email is now opened on a mobile device
  5. Only 11.84% of newsletters use responsive design techniques to optimize their layouts for mobile devices
  6. The number of mobile e-mail users is predicted to grow 28% in 2014 and 23% in 2015

Wow. If you aren’t thinking that this is a monumental opportunity then stop reading now. Of the stats above one should really jump off the page: only 11.84% of e-newsletters use responsive design techniques. Seriously? A mobile responsive e-newsletter is the difference between immediate deletion and a user actually reviewing the message (since they likely won’t have to bust out the pinch and zoom techniques).

The first step is detecting screen size and using different CSS. AZDS creates fully optimized mobile versions of emails around a single column layout (especially vivid in newsletters). The idea behind this is that the user no longer has to zoom in or zoom out to see particular content on a mobile device. Instead, the user simply scrolls down to view the content (that has been scaled properly). Moreover, it is critical to effectively curate the user through the same digital experience that is established on the desktop version of an email by highlighting the same important attributes through its design, but simplifying functionality and navigation. Be sure to keep in mind where each element is in the desktop design and how that might differ in mobile design. For example in mobile design, is your CTA (call to action) below or above the fold and how large is it? We will write an entirely separate blog post on mobile CTA’s vs. desktop CTA’s.

Other notes to keep in mind (the specifics) from our buddies at Campaign Monitor:
  1. Single-column layouts that are no wider than 500 to 600 pixels work best on mobile devices. They’re easier to read, and if they fall apart, they’ll do so more gracefully.
  2. Links and buttons should have a minimum target area of 44 × 44 pixels, as per Apple guidelines. Nothing is more unusable than clouds of tiny links on touchscreen devices.
  3. The minimum font size displayed on iPhones is 13 pixels. Keep this in mind when styling text, because anything smaller will be upscaled and could break your layout. Alternately, you can override this behavior in your style sheet (do so with care).
  4. More than ever, keep your message concise, and place all important design elements in the upper portion of the email, if possible. Scrolling for miles is much harder on a touchscreen than with a mouse.
  5. When possible, use display: none; to hide extraneous details in your mobile layout. Elements like social sharing buttons may be great in the desktop inbox, but aren’t always easy to use by the recipient on mobile devices.

A recent email we created and sent for Shutters on the Beach illustrates the above. The first thing to notice is how font size is consistent regardless of device:

Laptop/Desktop Version:

Mobile/iPhone Version:

The navigation and logo are at the top of the screen, but notice how “Insider” is not included in the mobile navigation. This is strategic. The Insider page does not have a mobile landing page and therefore it would be foolish for us to drive users to that page. Don’t forget about the landing pages. Make those mobile responsive too! (Many people never think past the initial design and drive users from a mobile responsive e-mail to a desktop landing page).

For this particular email campaign, the mobile responsiveness certainly contributed to the overall success of the blast which saw significant improvements in the open rate, click-through-rate, and overall interactions (reservations, etc.) in comparison to older Food and Beverage e-mails that were not mobile responsive. To increase performance further, we are also implementing triggers that send follow-ups to individuals who have shown particular interest (clicked, but didn’t reserve for example).

Some other great tips from friends of AZDS:
Anatomy of a Mobile Email
Your Email on Mobile
Time Responsive Email Design

In Sight, In Mind

There are many types of retargeting (seven to be exact). Let’s focus on Search Retargeting, which is the only type of retargeting that is customer acquisition rather than customer retention. If managed correctly, search retargeting can be one of the most effective game changers out there.

The key to search retargeting is using an agency (like AZDS) that partners with a great search remarketing company like Chango. Chango is the biggest and the best. They have more search data from Google than total searches on Bing and Yahoo combined.

With search remarketing, the customer has yet to visit your website, but has demonstrated interest by searching for a keyword that directly applies. That user is then logged and display advertising for your brand is displayed throughout the web on a variety of ad networks. For example, if you search for “airplane tickets to Marrakech” and you begin seeing South African Airlines banner ads showing specific pricing for flights from New York to Marrakech, you have been retargeted.

When designing the ad creative it is pertinent to use a funnel to understand how far along the user is into the purchasing process. Are they simply browsing or are they actually ready to convert? This is what influences the customization of the creative. If a user is still researching, then the creative should be more geared towards brand, and if the user has already been to your prices page (shopping cart or reservations) then it is likely that you need to entice with a ‘special’ offer.

Chango is not only able to identify users who are searching for those generic keywords, but it also is able to track how long they are searching and how many sites they are looking at. This is what designates a user “hot” in digital advertising lingo. The more a user searches for related keywords and visit related websites, the hotter the user is and the more likely they are to convert.

Becoming Organically Social

Social media at AZDS has been the source of a lot of activity over the past few weeks and no, I’m not talking about how Adam, Viktor and I have been debating on which teams were the winners and losers of the recent “Dwightmare” fiasco. As a matter of fact, the activity stems from the success we are seeing from a social media contest that we are running for one of our clients. While the campaign was performing fairly well over the first half of it’s duration, the second half is producing spectacular results. What’s more, over the past 3 weeks alone, we are seeing something that all interactive agencies aim for, but can rarely achieve: viral online growth.

Although the number of Facebook likes doesn’t always translate to direct revenue opportunity, if we can help connect a brand to its customers through social we give ourselves an opportunity to create value. Success of a social campaign can mean looking at intangibles like SEO benefits and increases in online exposure. With the most recent algorithm adjustments from Google, social is playing as large a role as ever before in contributing to page rank. Google understands that if a large number of individuals are talking socially about a particular topic, brand, or story, that it must have some sort of relevant importance. Google is primarily looking at Google + and Facebook in regards to their impact on search results.

At AZDS, we have found that a key tactic in using social to benefit your inbound marketing is to create and then market relevant and engaging social media contests. They are a useful medium for gaging online brand awareness and online brand exposure, which then leads to improving organic search results.

Therefore, as opposed to simply focusing on the number of new likes from our recent contest, we were more concerned with number of shares per visitor and the number of votes. Both of those measurements are associated with virality and participation, respectively, which means that the fans are actively involved with the brand. In fact, users are so engaged that they are sharing it with their friends, which ultimately resulted in the viral growth we identified. To measure whether the online presence has increased, refer to the organic search traffic reports in Google Analytics to see if the number of visitors has gone up since the beginning of your contest. It can also help to create and set Google Analytics goals based on social activity. Google Analytics has a variety of social ROI tools in place that allow you to help measure the value of social and how it is contributing to your bottom line.

In short, adding value through social is essential. It isn’t just adding a fan count, but rather creating your support and brand evangelists online.

Content. Buzz. Buzz.

We all know that content is the buzz. Some say content is king. Others say content is equal to revenue or online opportunity. This new content revolution is especially big in the world of inbound marketing (SEO) where it is assumed that you can improve your keyword positioning through creating and purposing excellent content that is relevant to a particular topic that you are interested in targeting. Now, Google tells us that if we want to rank for highly competitive keywords, we need to create exceptional interactive experiences/quality websites (which at AZDS we have been doing since the beginning) and to create exceptional (and therefore useful) content (video, images, text, social posts, links, etc.) that inspires social sharing. If the content is shared online through a variety of social networks, then it is considered of quality and of relevance and therefore will help you rank for a particular keyword. Before companies begin creating a plethora of content, simply to create content, we want to share the importance of creating a content strategy.

A content strategy is not just a content plan or an outline that plans out the copy you are going to be creating. The content strategy is a plan of tactics that will help you produce exceptional content. It will help you understand how often to produce content, and what content is actually relevant and helpful to your customer. There is a great slide deck on SlideShare. It does a great job of discussing why simply creating more content is going to lead to a deluge of crappy content, and why we need companies to create content plans in order to establish what is worthwhile.

Establish a real content strategy with your brand and don’t think of content as simply copy, images, or video. Think of content as the tool that allows us to learn, understand and clearly follow the information that we are after. Likewise, just as important, establish a content strategy at the beginning of a website, social, or interactive development. The content is just as important as how it is going to be delivered. We challenge our clients to reshape the paradigm of “fitting your content” into the platform. Build content that doesn’t fit inside of a box, but surpasses the boundaries of the box.

The bottom line is that content should be shaping your platforms and you shouldn’t be building platforms or interactive experiences that aren’t geared towards delivering quality information. Build, establish, create, and propel brands through the delivery of valuable content.

True Love

It was looking like we needed to build it ourselves. Basecamp worked, but didn’t have everything we were looking for, and the variety of other project management suites we tested were just too complicated for our needs. How could we find a simple online solution that could streamline our process and help us be as productive as possible?

Then one day we saw her. It was love at first sight. Just like the senior prom.

She is a web application called Podio and in the first few weeks of using Podio, it has been a miracle worker in helping us to streamline operations and communication across the entire team, and has immensely improved overall productivity. Everything we do as a team is now done on Podio. Take, for example, when a client sends over information/images for a proposed e-blast. We immediately create a task within Podio, put in the information that was sent over in the email, and begin working on the e-blast. Periodically, we will upload the latest version of the PSD that we are working on so that the rest of the team has access to the file and can work on it.

It is an entirely collaborative online workspace. Because our team is often traveling to see clients it allows for everyone to be active on any given project. Oh, and everything is searchable and indexed (forget losing anything or any piece of communication). It also streamlines the approval process.

The business development app allows for you to keep track of sales and communications. The best part, wait for it, is everything in Podio syncs up with Google Apps so it appears on your existing calendar.

A new chat function was just released that organizes conversations by task (and saves to each task) so even your chat windows can stay organized, and are searchable. If anyone has questions about a task they can post a comment in the comment section below each task or start a new thread in chat on the topic. In addition, it has excellent project management applications such as creating deliverables for major projects, tracking time spent on each task, integration with Go-to-Meeting and other Citrix applications, the list goes on.

Podio isn’t paying us, in case you were wondering. We just really dig it.

To learn more, visit the Podio website at https://podio.com/.

Which Social Fans are your Customers?

I was recently in a discussion with someone who helps lead the social media team at Porsche. We talked about a variety of different social content topics and other strategies, and it was evident that through our work with traditional luxury brands, we have faced a similar challenge. That challenge is convincing executive leadership of traditional brands that people on social networks are in fact your customers. So many of our clients say it is great we have tens of thousands of fans, but what does that mean in terms of our bottom line? How much revenue have those individuals contributed to us? In answer to those relatively simple questions, you just need to use analytics properly to track direct revenue and multi-touch revenue. This will help prove that social is actually providing an ROI and is therefore worthwhile. Of course it is also important to explain how social contributes to SEO and the entire digital landscape. The more interactions and social mentions of your brand obviously contribute drastically to your customers being able to find you.

With all of that said, there is often still dubious thinking.

The only way to prove that your fans on social networks are your direct customers is to show people directly. With a hotel, walk the executive director through the lobby of the hotel at happy hour and point out how many people are on their smartphones. Then have him or her walk around different people to see their screens. Of course many of them will be checking e-mail, on Google, etc., but there is going to be many on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They will be checking-in, taking photos of one another, tagging those photos, etc. With Porsche they walked through dealerships. Sure enough people were sharing photos and communicating with friends.

This same method works for luxury stores. Walk the executives through the store and show them how many people are on social networks on their smartphones.

Our Ping Pong View

Although the fourth floor of the Drive building at the Taxi Project had previously been filled with sounds of typing on a keyboard or the clicking of a mouse (some people still use mice!), a new sound now echoes through its skylit hallways: the steady rhythm of a game of ping pong. While we are the newest company to join the floor, we are quickly becoming the most popular due to the fact that we have come bearing the gift of ping pong. Every so often we will hear a gentle knock on the door of someone who introduces themselves and then welcomes us to the floor. Almost every time, the very next remark tends to be something along the lines of, “So will you guys have time to play some ping pong today?”

However, the functionality of the table isn’t limited to it’s social attractiveness. Whenever we have time for a quick break, we love to let our minds relax and hit the ball back and forth. For us it isn’t about staring at a computer screen trying to figure out how to better arrange a new design layout, interactive strategy, or how to further develop social media strategy. We uncover successful ideas by setting our minds free and allowing our imagination to "swing."

So, if you need a break from the daily grind, just look for our WiFi network name, PingPong, and you will know where to find us.

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New Digs

After our ridiculously long year and a half space search, we have finally moved!  We were outgrowing our old space in Cherry Creek, and were on the search for something ‘younger,’ more innovative, and brighter.  We ended up landing at the Taxi Project and couldn’t be happier.  Some photos of our new digs are below!  We host ping pong tournaments for our entire floor.  We even project old school ping pong videos on the wall (at least that is the plan once we find some on e-bay).

Site Navigation and SEO

As UI/UX geeks we study site navigation.  For the most part, site navigation is very poorly structured for SEO.  If your goal is to improve your overal keyword placements (and why wouldn't it be), then you need to be sure to index your content in a manner that is easy for search engines to find.  Distilled wrote a great blog article with a Guide to Site Navigation for SEO.

The general idea is that your navigation shouldn't be treated as a contents and rather a guide of where you want to drive your visitors.  Maybe use the pages that get the most traffic as your primary pages.  Or look at your analytics report to see what keywords are driving significant traffic to your website.

Breadcrumbs might be an older style, but are still an effective way to show individuals where they are within the site.  Google might even use breadcrumbs instead of your URL, which looks super clean.  I especially like using breadcrumbs.


Another important note, seemingly obvious.  Be sure to test.  Use tools like Google Analytics and Crazy egg (heatmaps) to see where individuals are clicking from certain sources and how they are interacting with your content.

Happy March!

Using Facebook Search Outside of Facebook

The big new release for Facebook about a week or so ago (in Beta form) is a tool called Graph Search.  Graph search allows you to search for friends or places in a more sophisticated algorithm.  It allows you for example to search for a friend that is friends with another one of your friends.

You can also search for specifics, such as friends of a particular friend that also attended a certain event.  I suppose it is quite useful for sophisticated Facebook stocking your friends.  Please do SEO ignore my dry humor.

Honestly though from a marketing perspective this tool could be useful in that you can find out people who are fans of two particular pages (those might be excellent individuals to specifically market to).  Another idea is to then look at what those people are fans of and capture that information for remarketing (both in Facebook and outside of Facebook).  As Graph Search matures, and is rolled out to all of Facebook, I am sure we will discover tools that can be useful for finding out potential customers and also allowing for better personalization of advertising messages.


The most powerful search tool that Facebook provides, however, is the similar interest search within the Ad Manager (see below).


This tool can allow you to see similar interests as you narrow down potential customers.  You may think that the list would be common sense, but it isn't always.  The example above might be for the most part what you would expect people liking BMW, Porsche, Four Seasons, etc., but we have had combinations of travel experiences where Nickelodeon for example was a similar interest.  We tested certain ad creative and revised based on performance.  We figured out that people's children were using their Facebook accounts, which was triggering the similar like of Nickelodeon.  We then captured children's TV to remarket within the Google Display Network and found a surprisingly high conversion rate.  We never would have thought that children's TV and luxury travel were correlated without using this tool.  The tool can be as useful as you make it, and as sopshitacted as you want it to be.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to look at correlation within the ad tool and that of graph search.   It'll be interesting to see how the interests line up using multi-filter searches and I'll write a blog post, likely on my personal blog, with the results and findings.

The New Luxury Consumer

First and foremost, Happy New Year!  It was an exciting 2012 for AZDS with several new clients and strong growth for our long-time customers.  2013 should prove to be another exciting year with us kicking off some very new, remarkable client work in quarter one.  More details to come in early spring.

There was an interesting interview recently published in Forbes with Robert Rippee who is the SVP of Marketing for the Venetian and Palazzo in Las Vegas.  He discusses the changing landscape of the luxury world and its collision with the digital world.  The thesis isn't new.  It is simply that digital and social media allows for brands to communicate in real time with their customers, creating personal relationships (before the brick and mortar experience occurs).  What is new (in this thinking) is the adaptation of luxury brands and their desire to move into the digital landscape.   So many luxury brands, especially in our space of luxury hospitality, are sitting behind the eight ball in using general messaging, rather than personalized messaging.  Digital allows for customers to get personalized offers, brand communication, and media that actually fits their interests and desires.  Just as a luxury hotel is able to provide exceptional service on-property, where they learn about their guests and personalize stays (both current and in the future); digital communication allows that level of personalization to take place before the stay begins.  An example of this personalization with digital advertising is interest, funnel, and other forms of remarketing, which allow for brands to display different creative based on certain factors.  With social media, the brand is able to see interests and tastes, and then communicate directly with customers based on what is most important to them.

At AZDS we strongly believe that the wave of the future for luxury brands is going to be using digital and social to communicate personalized messages to guests.  The goal is not to simply advertise (as people are intelligent and see through messages), but to create a true form of conversation with potential guests and customers, which has the potential to expand organically and virally.  This changing paradigm excites us, because it allows for strategic and creative content to be unique and truly sophisticated.  This way of thinking is placing digital at the forefront, with traditional media (not going away anytime soon), but supporting the digital communication.

How Do We Use Analytics to Better Design?

AZDS is as much a design agency as we are an analytics organization.  We strongly believe in using analytic data (which is in actuality a combination of online and offline information) to better communicate the client's message with the audience that they are targeting.  Online analytics show one part of the equation (with proper analysis of the data at hand such as multi-channel funnels, using attribution modeling to better understand how the users are converting, reviewing how users are reacting to your content, and using heatmaps to see if users are clicking where you want them to be clicking, etc.).  The other key piece of the puzzle is offline analytics, and actually comparing online analytic data to actual business models and process.  This is what we call a form of business intelligence.  It is linking particular events to the root cause, so that you can replicate what you are doing that is spurring new business opportunity.

By taking a deep look at the opportunity and setting up advanced segments and custom analytic reports, you are able to compare how certain online "successes" actually relate to increased revenue.  It is possible that online analytics show that a certain ad campaign derives a specific ROI, however the big question is 'how as a company do you replicate what just occurred?'

As an interactive agency it is crucial for us to then take the data that we analyze and adjust, tweak, and edit our design to ensure it is communicating the proper message to the audience.  Because design is so powerful in itself it can oftentimes communicate the wrong message to an audience.  We have to ensure that our content is in sync with our design and that they both are propelling the proper message maximizing potential for growth.

The New Innovation Model at AZDS

Over the past six years our innovation model at AZDS has evolved. We have always been an intelligent and limber team, but over the past year our team has truly become best in class. We have grown into a group of some of the top digital folks in the luxury sector adding to brand value and generating new revenue opportunities for our clients.

Our innovation model is relatively simple:

  1. Brainstorm outside of the office, and spend time with our clients to understand their brands and what they are after.
  2. Generate a number of solutions and each member of the team tackles a different interactive solution (creative, analytics, SEO, content, etc.). No one has the “right” or “wrong” solution.
  3. We take a step back and from the perimeter analyze what everyone says and how the strategy both pulls on particular brand strengths, but also enhances the brand with interactive that works elegantly.
  4. We develop, revise, develop, and revise until we have a solution that is innovative, clear, sophisticated, and something that will carry the innovative vision to our client's market.

We believe excellent innovation is based off of good content. Good content gives you the ability to innovate and create something of value for the client. Good advertising, whether digital or traditional is centered on good content (get our drift—we aren’t a broken record) that tells a memorable story (like we mentioned last month). People ask us all of the time how to make something go viral or spread quickly. Our answer may not be what you want to hear, but create content that is worth sharing. If you have a piece of lousy content, it doesn’t matter how amazing your agency (digital, traditional, combo, PR) is, the word will not spread. Great content is what spreads virally and globally. Therefore innovation can be the assembly of powerful ideas, products, or services, however it all comes back to a story worth telling.

Daily Blogs from Adam

If you are interested in hearing about SEO, analytics, web development, interactive, entrepreneurship, luxury travel, and food and wine head over to adamdeflorian.com. Our CEO, Adam Deflorian, now writes blogs daily! Of course, stay tuned to the AZDS blog for our monthly article output.

Digital Jabber

Traditional advertising is about telling stories, and good interactive is about telling great stories in even less time than you have with traditional. Our unique analytic services tell stories about those stories. We analyze and sew together all of the statistics to provide valuable business intelligence.

People don’t remember statistics, but they remember good stories that they are told for years to come. Our advice is to ensure that all interactive that you create, whether this is a text ad, display, or rich media, tells a story. We are big believers in actually using digital media as the primary medium in a campaign, and then supporting that digital creative with excellent traditional media. We love using video with great web to push and sell an experience, especially within the luxury hospitality sector.

What makes doing digital correctly so challenging is that in order to communicate with a stellar level of sophistication to your audience, you need to be able to individualize the story. Whether this be through remarketing other tactics, the days of telling one story to all consumers is simply over.

As we work to create this powerful educational portal for Arts Integration Solutions (the fabulous non-profit we work with out of Arizona) we need to ensure that we are telling stories to the educators they are communicating with. We need to tell individual stories that communicate directly the needs of the individual educator. That is our task.

Where The Magic Happens

Summer is coming to a quick close. As I have just returned from Europe, I have personally never had a summer go by quite so quickly. You’ll notice our new home-page graphic change for the month is an illustration of beautiful Paris—the most magical city in the world. I am both sad and ecstatic. I absolutely love summer; the warm weather, the long days, beautiful sunsets, and the list continues. I am ecstatic because our summer at AZDS has been filled with exciting projects with our current and long-time clients, new clients, and new opportunities.

If you missed it, check out this social and mobile marketing article that I co-authored for the 2012 HITECH (Hospitality Technology) Conference in Baltimore, MD this summer: Click here. I think Dan and I did a good job summarizing some of the big-data and analytic trends and how they relate within the current hospitality ecosystem.

At AZDS we are still working on expanding our luxury client’s online presences and increasing revenue, awareness, and overall brand sentiment. And we track it. For more details, let me know, and I can send you case studies.

I have also committed to personally tweeting daily, and you can find me @myTripst3r. Reach out if you have any questions or ever need anything.

SEO Updates

Our world has changed quite a bit over the past several months. I’m not talking about politics, world events, the Olympics or anything of the sort. I’m talking about SEO. Old SEO used to be quite simple. Get as many links, keywords, keyword stuffed titles as possible and you’d be off on your way. With Google’s recent algorithm revisions, Panda and Penguin, Google now penalizes sites that have junk links or are keyword-stuffed. Google rewards good quality content, blog links, and overall website quality (to name a few).

At AZDS, we have always been into “elegant SEO” which consists of content revisions, and not stuffing pages with keywords. Because of this, our clients have had success and observed SEO growth over the past rocky few months. Elegant brands are finally being rewarded for quality websites that are truly experiences (which is what we love at AZDS). Bad websites that are stuffed with text, lack any brand understanding, and have thousands of crappy (excuse my language) 'no-follow' links are starting to notice serious issues.

SEO of the future is beginning to arrive. It is unique, challenging, and rewarding for those of us that believe in the power of content, and delivering that content in an elegant fashion.

A few of neat tools to help:
blogdash.combloggerlinkup.com, and guestr.com to reach out to relevant bloggers.

Mozcast.com to see the “Google weather report” (the hotter and stormier, the more changes to the algorithm Google has made. (Huge props to our pal Dr. Pete at seoMOZ for creating this!)

Use attribution modeling with your analytic stats.

Hope that is helpful, and contact us with questions.

A Mobile World

There is more to mobile than QR codes. Mobile is a complex ecosystem that allows businesses to interact with their customers on a personal level.

In a marketer's world it is a powerful tool because it allows for you to capture the geographic location of the consumer. Individuals also have their mobile devices with them at almost all times, which means you have direct access to them at the most applicable of times.

In our opinion, the most important mobile hints are:

  1. Don’t bug people. They will uninstall an app or never visit your mobile site again. Simply reach out when you have something of value to add.
  2. If you are using a QR code, ensure that the resulting page is entirely mobile optimized. Nothing is a bigger buzz kill than arriving at a website from a QR code that doesn’t work or isn’t mobile friendly.
  3. In our world (hospitality) include concierge functionality. Talk to AZDS about creating a mobile concierge feature that ties in with property management to keep track of personalized interests and requests.
  4. Use mobile tracking and analytics. Know when users are visiting your mobile site and feed them content that is relevant and timely.
  5. Mobile is not separate. Include mobile as a major part of the entire interactive ecosystem. Ensure everything fits within the brand parameters and is coherent.

On an entirely unrelated note, it is finally raining in Denver! We certainly need the moisture.

Social Value

It is interesting to use some of the new social analysis tools within Google Analytics (GA). At the end of March, GA released the new social dashboard. It includes the bigger picture of the social relationship along with traffic via social and conversions assisted via social. It also includes a great social visitors flow map which allows you to see how visitors that arrived via a social network are interacting with your website. From that information you can get a better grasp on both traffic patterns as well as the conversion funnel and how you can better guide your users to completing a conversion on your site (for those in e-commerce).

Now just released in June is the “activity stream.” This allows for you to track (in real time) trackbacks, blog posts, additional links, etc. It can be a very useful tool for monitoring your brand online as well as watching for blog PR.

At AZDS we are using these tools along with other social analytics to provide our luxury hospitality clients with relevant social ROI as well as well as how social plays a roll in their interactive marketing ecosystem.

Display Advertising: Getting out of the Rut

Online display advertising (primarily banner advertising) is not what it used to be, and most often does not provide adequate or even positive Return on Advertising Spend (ROAS).

Wow, what type of interactive advertising agency actually says something like that?

It is simple. We don’t believe in simply spending money on advertising that isn’t effective and isn’t going to provide high ROAS.

All banner advertising is not bad. It is critical to look at your target market and then think creatively about what websites they actually browse on. Even more then that, what websites would they be inclined to in order to actually interact with your brand (which could lead to a possible conversion/booking)?

Too often I still see major brands that use the Google Affiliate network (or similar networks) incorrectly and just place banner ads on millions of irrelevant websites. This sort of advertising is a total waste of money and ad space. It could even tarnish your brand after appearing on an irrelevant website.

One of the most successful display campaigns we created was for a luxury boutique hotel aimed at increasing the number of online reservations and covers at its five-star restaurant. We ran very targeted display banners (with excellent creative featuring both the restaurant and live music in the hotel lobby) on Open Table. The campaign led to over $8 generated for each $1 spent, a large boost in reservations, and more brand exposure into an audience of actual guests and future guests.

EdgeRank

At the most basic level Facebook EdgeRank is Facebook’s version of Google’s PageRank. The EdgeRank algorithm analyzes Facebook content based on relevance, interest of your friends, and past browsing trends. It is then essentially the decision maker in what posts/images/videos appear in the newsfeed. The formula for EdgeRank is included above, but simply put it is the affinity based on the viewing user multiplied by the weight of the edge type (photo, video, and posts have different weights) multiplied by the time decay (how old is the post).

The affinity score is the affinity between the two users or the user and the brand. For example if an individual interacts with a particular brand more often, then they would have a higher affinity score with that brand. Thus the post would appear higher in that individual’s newsfeed. Weight and time decay are explained above and are more self-explanatory.

Facebook also offers Sponsored Story advertisements that allow a user to push a story higher on user newsfeeds via paid advertising. Some Sponsored Story campaigns can be quite effective in furthering reach (paid reach vs. organic or viral reach) as well as ensuring that the target market of your brand gets exposed to your posts. We can then provide ROI for a particular Sponsored Story campaign based on fan growth, purchases, etc.

At AZDS, we offer custom services that help luxury brands understand how to best reach their markets and use social media effectively to compliment other interactive solutions leading to new revenue opportunities.

Tracking Social Media ROI

Many of our clients come to us and ask what the ROI or ROAS (in the case of social media advertising) is for their social media efforts. This is a tricky question to answer. They expect a quality response from us, since we are analytic gurus and give you detailed analytics, revenue, conversion rates, etc. from pretty much every other form of interactive advertising or mobile solutions. First, lets take a look at several pillars that make answering this question challenging.

  1. We aren’t always driving individuals from social to the website.
  2. Facebook’s privacy policy and terms of service strongly limit what information advertisers can get, and how they can use it.
  3. How much value can you place on social media awareness (for example the “talking about” metric on Facebook)?

So, taking these challenges into account, there is a basic definition for social ROI (provided by Dr. Sid Shah of Adobe). The definition is Social ROI = the measure of efficiency of marketing efforts in a social sense. This measure of efficiency has a couple of key measures. Those include of course fan growth, but also shares, likes, etc. One way you can monitor your efficiency is by looking at posts and then seeing the response in insights from that type of post (on that particular day/time). This is one way to better tailor your posts to what is specifically working and providing your best ROI. Next month we will discuss the Facebook Edgerank algorithm (Facebook’s version of Google’s Page Rank) and how it relates to ROI.