Alan Hart
October 27, 2014

Story-based Marketing Moves, Wins at Expedia

Digital marketing is the future, but it’s also the present. Instead of wondering whether digital marketing will take over, companies such as Expedia, who started online more than a decade ago, want to know the future of digital itself.

Vic Walia, senior director of brand marketing at Expedia, spoke to Keen about the future of digital and how Expedia’s “Finding Yours” campaign was effective enough to win a 2014 Effie Award.

The Finding Yours campaign brings travel down to its personal base. Expedia, previously reliant on marketing through price, isn’t only at competition with similar traditional travel sites, it’s at competition with couch-surfing sites like Airbnb.

“There is just a proliferation of online advertisers who are taking some share from Expedia and it’s becoming a very commoditized game,” Walia said. “We’re all competing on price and inventory.”

But with the Effie award in hand, Expedia is proof that story-based, personal marketing moves units.

“When we started looking at the future, we realized that’s not a long-term sustainable proposition to just continue to be in a price war with our competitors,” Walia said.

Consumers have come to assume each site has low prices, so to set itself apart Expedia maintained those prices, but also took a more human marketing stance.

“What you’ll notice in the work that’s been the most successful, and the work that’s actually helped us achieve the Effie award, is work that is user-generated, very authentic stories,” Walia said. “There’s stuff out there in the world, and all you have to do is find it to help craft your message.”

The most successful stories for Expedia have been those with the most genuine emotional content. Instead of telling customers that they want cheap vacations, Expedia tells stories about what customers actually want – a fantastic experience.

“All the stories that we’ve been able to show are stores where we’ve proven that travel does have the power to transform you, and so those are the ones that resonate most,” Walia says.

One such story documents a father, Artie, coming to terms with his daughter’s marriage to another woman. In the brief documentary, we see Artie traveling in various ways across America. Off-camera, he discusses coming to terms with his daughter being a lesbian, until he arrives at the wedding. The footage is real and the story is touching.

“These are authentic stories, and that wedding happened just as we documented it, so it was great to be a part of that,” Walia said.

The choice to include the LGBT community was a natural one, albeit strategic with its timing.

“We know that travel appeals to everybody from any walk of life,” Walia said. “We don’t try to target one group or vice versa, we don’t try to alienate a group.”

He partially attributes that particular ad’s success to timing and placement on social media, particularly YouTube and Facebook. The ad was released in congruence with the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, which helped lift its views, shares and dialogue.

Of course, Expedia’s goal is ultimately site traffic and travel sales, where the ad was effective. If anything, it proves that controversy (particularly one Expedia was on the winning side of) can generate a discussion, and a discussion can generate results – even if it isn’t directly related to the product.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Walia looks up to the marketing strategies of tech companies such as Google and Uber. Marketing intangible products such as websites, applications and software often takes that emotional connection to succeed, because ultimately, that is what they’re selling. Customers can’t hold their products, but they can use, enjoy and ultimately pay for them.

Beyond that connection, Walia said big data is already beginning to revolutionize digital marketing.

“[Expedia is] very deep in data sciences right now, understanding big data and developing some predictive models,” Walia said. “It’s revolutionary. It’s really allowed us to do things that we weren’t able to do before.”

Judging Walia’s success, we at Keen think that’s pretty revolutionary too.

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