Chad Taylor | GM, Utah.com, DDM | July 1, 2016
People frequently see me in a Utah.com shirt (I have five of them) and ask me the same question time and time again, “So what’s Utah.com?” Sarcastic me sometimes quips, “It’s a site about Idaho.” The follow-up question is always the same: “So, are you the state’s official tourism site?” Some get the long answer, and some get the short one. You’re getting the long one.
Utah.com has been around since the dial-up days of the mid-’90s. Over 20 years, thousands of pages of content were added and the site ruled organic search results for virtually any Utah travel term. Tourism-related businesses throughout the state relied on Utah.com as their most viable source of traffic. In 2012, after a few years of stagnant revenue, the founder/owner was looking to sell. Serendipitously, Deseret Digital Media (DDM) was looking to dabble in the travel space after achieving incredible success with local classifieds and business directory verticals through KSL.com and a deal was struck in August 2014. Two years later, our team embarked on a massive rebrand, site redesign and business model overhaul. So how did we do it?
We asked ...
... Our users: What do you want from a travel website? The first thing we did was follow Eric Bright’s mantra of asking our users about their experience. We traveled to Colorado, California and Utah to conduct usability sessions. We asked people to complete specific tasks on Utah.com and observed their process. Here’s what we found out: Utah travelers want authentic information, useful (rather than encyclopedic) content, better photography, a better mobile experience, and they don’t want to bounce around between different websites to plan and book their trips.
... Our advertisers: How can we become a more effective marketing channel? We rented an RV and set out on a statewide client research mission. We had a lot of questions, and you better believe they had a lot of feedback.
They were frustrated because of a decline in performance, the lack of advertising options and the difficulty of uploading/managing inventory on the booking engine we had implemented (more on that later). We had our work cut out for us to find an advertising model that worked for our advertisers, and of course, was conducive to revenue growth.
... Ourselves: How was our old business model insufficient? Utah.com had been serving up a bland advertising menu consisting of a directory with a side of display. The directory model was unimaginative and inflexible. In essence, advertisers could choose from a gold, silver or bronze business listing, each with a different price and feature set. Utah.com would send them traffic — in some cases a little, and in other cases a lot — but the pricing never adjusted. We also tried implementing a booking engine in place of the directory model, but soon found that competing in the online booking space was not the most viable path. We didn’t have the traffic volume and couldn’t procure the inventory necessary to generate significant revenue.
... For a lot of help: The Marketplace division of DDM is unique in the fact that multiple teams touch each one of our products. Design, product, development, content, sales and marketing all played critical roles in deploying the new user- and client-inspired Utah.com.
Mobile-first: The new Utah.com was designed mobile-first, creating a responsive product accessible across multiple devices.
Better content: All of the content is being rewritten in a fun, witty, conversational tone. Our deft content manager, copywriter and crew of contributors publish pages people actually want to read.
More, better photography: The new Utah.com proudly shows off the state with big, beautiful images sourced mainly from local photographers.
The three P’s: Of course we had to build a site that would make money because, you know, we like to make money. Here’s what we came up with:
• Pay to play: We created a simple, fair directory model. No more tiered levels of listing pages. Every business pays the same affordable annual fee and we build a comprehensive page featuring photography, video, room/trip types, etc.
• Pay for performance: This is the key to the new model. Instead of paying for an annual listing and hoping for the best, advertisers now only pay when Utah.com sends them calls, clicks or emails. They love it because they can easily measure their ROI and control their spending. And with a growing trend of wanting direct, noncommissioned bookings, the qualified traffic we send is extremely valuable. We love it because the onus is on us: The better the job we do connecting users with advertisers, the more money we make.
• Pay to promote (organic promotion): For those advertisers who want to boost their exposure on Utah.com, we offer organic promotion as opposed to traditional display advertising. We weave client messaging into our content, providing a seamless experience for the user. Instead of sending the user directly to the advertiser’s website, we send them to the advertiser’s Utah.com listing page. This ensures that the user isn’t jumping around to multiple sites (remember, they said they didn’t want to do that) but instead allows them to engage with the business in our environment. Additionally, it’s an opportunity for the advertiser to tell their business’s story naturally.
Online bookings: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Instead of trying to go head-to-head with the big online travel agencies, we secured a partnership with Booking.com to supply inventory for our users to book online. While not our primary source of revenue, this is a useful tool for our users who make it all the way through the sales funnel and are ready to make a lodging reservation on Utah.com.
So far, so good. Since launching the new Utah.com in September 2015, revenue is up 44 percent. Click-through rates on organic promotion spots are up between 1,700 percent and 3,200 percent compared to display advertising on the legacy site. Lead volume has increased every month.
Utah.com is a work in progress. We’re committed to making it the most comprehensive and useful trip-planning tool for locals, out-of-staters and internationals. To that end, we’ll keep doing what we do: asking, testing, measuring and iterating. And we’ll do it together, as the state song suggests.