With each year, the gap existing between the increased complexity of markets and the capacity of businesses to market their products or services widens. While such factors as market fragmentation and exponential change affect organisations on a regular basis, the dependence on the Internet is considered the critical driver associated with the increasing gap. As the 1990s were considered the decade of e-commerce, the beginning of the 21st century marked the period of social media commerce, with the increasing value of marketing through digital channels (Fader and Winer, 2012). According to recent research, four core factors challenge marketing in the digital age and include the explosion of data and big data, social media use, the proliferation challenge and shifting consumer demographics and their associated expectations (Leeflang, Verhoef, Dahlström and Freundt, 2014).
Thus, the Internet has transformed into one of the most prominent and widespread marketplaces for the transaction of services and goods between businesses and customers, with content to which populations are being exposed to influencing their purchasing decisions.
The challenges to digital marketing prevent organisations from successfully promoting their products or services to potential customers. In the digital world, organisations are challenged by such issues as the capacity to create and leverage essential customer insights, the need to work on brand reputation in a marketing environment where social media plays an integral role, as well as the assessment of digital marketing effectiveness (Leeflang et al., 2014). This study aims to discuss and evaluate the barriers in marketing in the digital context with a focus placed on a travel agency in Hong Kong, Exploring Tourism. While organisations have established an online presence to communicate with potential customers, there is a lack of understanding of how to market themselves effectively and stand out against competitors.
Exploring Tourism Hong Kong: Company Overview
Exploring Tourism is among the leading Hong Kong travel agencies that work on helping customers get their trip planned. According to the company’s website, Exploring Tourism plans “not just trips, but exceptional trips filled with exciting and life-enriching experiences” (Exploring Tourism, no date, para. 1). The organisation positions itself as a service in which travel agents and experts work on handcrafting and coordinating complex itineraries to customers. The services encompass a broad range of aspects such as logistics, accommodations, transportations, guides, insider access, as well as twenty-four seven support throughout clients’ trips. Exploring Tourism offers packages that customers can purchase depending on their interests in destinations in Hong Kong or their budget. In addition, the company has an Exploring Tourism network in more than one hundred countries, which allows clients from around the world to choose new destinations for travel working with the same service provider.
Apart from its official website, Exploring Tourism in Hong Kong has social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube. This gives the company easy access to new online audiences and opportunities to advertise and market its services. However, due to the significant saturation of travel agencies in the market, the challenge to stand out against competitors on social media is relevant for Exploring Tourism as a company. Thus, despite the extensive presence of the company online and related social platforms that are popular among potential customers, there is no distinct strategy that the organisation employs to differentiate itself among other travel agents that promote their services on the Internet. Therefore, the issue of challenges associated with web-based marketing is significantly relevant for the organisation because of the need to stand out from rivals in the industry and attract potential clients.
Marketing Challenges in a Digital World
The understanding of the use of digital channels is required for companies to effectively implement strategies that would enhance their marketing capabilities in their relevant industries. According to the latest Statista (2020), as of July 2020, around 4.57 billion people were active users of the Internet, which encompasses 59% of the total global population. Importantly, India, China and the United States are in the lead of the countries in regard to Internet use. Due to the importance of the web presence among the global population, company homepages, e-mail and social media are now commonly used, with more and more companies investing in mobile applications as a potential area for growth and expansion. Firms have begun increasingly adopting the available technological channels in their marketing processes to engage with customers (Morgan, 2019). With the increased influence of mobile devices in the sphere of purchasing, smartphone users have become reliant on their devices in order to make decisions on what products or purchases they want to buy. Because of this, marketers are expected to move beyond mobile tactical efforts to develop transformative mobile strategies to increase the success of their web-based marketing efforts that capture large and differentiated audiences.
The increased digitalisation of businesses presents significant challenges for marketing specialists who are continuously confronted by an increasingly complicated and continually changing market that cannot be controlled. As a result, companies have to comprehend the impact of exponential changes to develop strategies that would be effective in coping with them. According to the study by Leeflang et al. (2014), the marketing tensions or challenges are differentiated into such categories as business strategies and customer insights, go-to-market operations and execution, as well as organisation and capabilities.
Each of the challenge categories requires marketers to develop effective strategies that will help their organisations to stay relevant in the digital sphere. For instance, the digital expansion can be embraced with the help of such strategies as social media platforms, adopting strategies that include cross-channeling or pursuing such defensive approaches as increasing service levels in existing non-digital channels such as physical stores. As suggested by Leeflang et al. (2014), companies are expected to gain an understanding of the digital marketing challenges, assess the impact of each challenge on their business and develop strategies aimed at addressing them effectively. For businesses that deal with travel services, the addressing of digital marketing challenges is expected to meet the need to make the services known to potential audiences while also standing out against rival companies in the travel industry, which does not have any limits.
Within the sphere of strategy and customer insights, the first area of concern is the digital revolution and its impact on business models. With the wide reliance of potential customers on digital vehicles, business models as systems of interdependent structures would change, with relevant processes and activities having to shift in order to facilitate value creation (Ruggieri, Savastano, Scalingi, Bala and D’Ascenzo, 2018). Thus, offering customers to search or purchase online will re-specify business strategies while marketing efforts will have to align with such efforts. The second challenge in the strategy area is strategy insights, with big data offering vast opportunities to understand customer journeys when they purchase products or services online.
However, companies that have not embraced the use of big data to gain customer insights remain ineffective in marketing their products or services online. The third challenge is the stifling of creativity and innovation in marketing due to the overreliance on hard facts and data (Leeflang et al., 2014). Fact-based decisions are challenging to marketers because they reduce out of the box thinking when promoting products or services to clients, which is essential for developing new marketing initiatives.
In the area of go-to-market operations and execution, the first challenge associated with social media and brand health. While the strong effects of social media use on customer retention and acquisition have been widely accepted, companies are challenged by the need to take control of their brand reputations online (Khadka and Maharjan, 2017). Marketers have to continuously develop value-added content while also monitoring both positive and negative customer sentiments that may affect purchasing decisions. The second challenge in this area is online targeting, which presents issues when it comes to marketing products or services to different demographics that have varied preferences. As a result, marketing decisions are challenged by moving to digital channels that leave other audiences, such as older people, behind (Su, 2017). The third challenge is price transparency, which has become widespread due to increased Internet use. Companies have to be transparent with their prices while also maintaining them on a competitive level as customers always look for the best deals on the Internet (Turban, Pollard and Wood, 2018). The fourth challenge is the automated interactions which have become popular online due to their cost-saving opportunities. There is a need for marketers to monitor the impact of automated interactions with clients for ensuring that they do not limit customer experiences which are usually based on personalised services. The fifth challenge is difficulty managing online metrics as related to marketing actions. Therefore, marketers gave to determine the relative influence of specific measures on the sale of products or services within the respective channels.
In the final category of organisation and capabilities, there are such two challenges as the talent gap and company-related issues. The talent gap is essential to consider because it limits the capacity of marketers to promote products or services online effectively. Thus, there is a need to hire marketing intelligence specialists that will enable firms to use analytical knowledge effectively (Branda, Lala and Gopalakrishna, 2018). Organisational challenges also influence online marketing efforts, especially for companies that are not equipped digitally. This challenge is associated with the need to facilitate the cooperation between multiple organisational departments such as product development, customer service and marketing, in order to develop a transparent system of governance that would promote rather than limit marketing efforts.
Reaching an Integrated Marketing Approach
As a result of the challenges associated with marketing in the digital age, such companies as Exploring Tourism are presented with the need to adjust their marketing practices to remain successful in promoting their products and services. Transformations in the technological and social environments require marketers to develop an integrative approach, which implies creating a seamless experience for potential customers to interact with a specific brand or enterprise (Boudet, Gregg, Rathje, Stein and Vollhardt, 2019). An integrative approach to marketing combines all components such as sales promotion, advertising, public relations, advertising, direct marketing and social media that would work as a unified force. The framework of processes within the integrative approach is designed to ensure that all communications and messaging strategies are the same across all channels that an organisation uses. Most importantly, the interplay of channels is cantered on the target client.
As traditional channels have become overshadowed by digital solutions, organisations are now working on strategies that would be customer-oriented. As one of the critical aspects of an integrated approach, content personalisation represents a point of transformation in the marketing strategy that places clients at the forefront. Marketing personalisation refers to the practice of using data for delivering brand messages associated with individual prospects (Kotler, 2019). This strategy can be used as an answer to such challenges of digital marketing as customer insights, metrics and the digital revolution, all of which require organisations to be prepared to adjust their models of promotion to meet the demands of the digital sphere (UN, 2019).
Thus, Exploring Tourism should work on the strategy of personalising their advertisements online by tracking customers’ preferences, engagement and interests. Using analytics, which has become more sophisticated, marketers can use customer data to increase the prospects for promoting the products or services. Personalisation is achieved by knowing customers’ needs, understanding their profiles, anticipating future demands and engaging in two-way communication with them to establish trusting relations with clients. The benefits of personalised marketing for Exploring Tourism include getting relevant content, offering a valuable suggestion to customers and acquiring vital information that can be used for forecasting and strategic planning.
As a response to the increased digitalisation of marketing, companies are expected to use metrics to drive marketing effectiveness and overall business improvement. This strategy is essential to integrate because of the increased accountability of marketers to show positive results in return on investment (ROI) as campaigns require money, and there should be an outcome to drive profitability. Important customer metrics that marketers should consider include the overall traffic acquired by the organisation, channel-specific traffic to its different online channels, customer conversions, search trends, as well as new and returning visitors. By acquiring information on relevant metrics, the organisation can use data to develop strategies that would align with the latest customer-based trends.
Social media marketing is an essential component of the integrated marketing framework to which organisations have started adjusting. While Exploring Tourism has a significant social media presence on a variety of channels, the company’s following is limited, which means that there is no specific strategic plan associated with its presence. An effective social media marketing strategy implies knowing the target audience, the understanding of the goals and objectives that the company is planning to reach, as well as the establishment of a clear mission and vision that will be attractive to potential clients. In the e-commerce travel business, social media marketing has become highly visual, which means that companies have to strengthen their presence on Pinterest and Instagram and develop a strategy that will include the improvement of visual content that can help attract customers (Appel, Grewal, Hadi and Stephen, 2020). For instance, both Pinterest and Instagram allow the company to showcase the latest photos from locations around the world while also linking the images to the company’s website that has all information on travel services available to customers.
Online advertising strategies range from effective web design to e-mail marketing depending on the needs and objectives of businesses. Marketers should reconsider website design at Exploring Tourism because the company’s website looks outdated and may not look attractive to younger audiences. A well-designed website is necessary to make its visitors stay longer and become interested in what the company has to offer, building trust with potential clients. In addition, the website can be linked to search engine optimisation (SEO) efforts imply the increase of a website’s ranking in the search engine. The goal of an effective SEO strategy is to get the ranking as high as possible to ensure that the company’s website is noticed by potential clients (Belton, 2017). Investing in SEO is expected to boost exposure and conversion rates that are detrimental to a successful digital marketing strategy that attracts clients. The change in social and technological environments causes brands to work on being noticed in the over-saturated digital sphere.
Brand identity is a component of an integrated digital marketing strategy that aligns with the previously-mentioned aspects of digital marketing. Having a distinct brand reflects the company’s identity, which is associated with conveying the sense of what the organisation is doing and wants to achieve on a long-term basis. According to Smale (2016) for Entrepreneur, a distinct brand logo allows companies to get easily recognised online. Another way in which the company can promote its brand is concerned with influencer marketing, which implies working with social media personalities to promote products and services. For instance, Exploring Tourism can pay for trips for influencers, who, in exchange for the trips, will advertise the company on their social media channels. According to Appel et al. (2020), social influencers represent a relatively new form of digital marketing that is driven with the help of opinion leaders. For instance, the value of an image shared by a social media influencer who has 140 million followers can be estimated at around $3 million (Appel et al., 2020).
Despite the critical role of effective digital and social media marketing through a powerful brand identity development, the company at hand has not shown particular success in this area. This issue is associated with the lack of understanding on the part of managers regarding the ways in which such strategic resources can be used to gain a competitive advantage. In terms of its brand recognition, the logo of Exploring Tourism is not distinct enough to stand out against competitors, which means that the company will have to reconsider its branding strategy to develop a strong and recognisable brand. Besides, the company has not gone beyond the creation of social media profiles and has remained invisible within the highly saturated market. This points to the need for the organization to invest into hiring a marketing specialist who is competent in developing effective online marketing campaigns.
An effective online marketing manager will work on creating a distinct brand identity that would help Exploring Tourism to stand out. From increasing content development on its social media platforms to creating a new logo, there is a need for the company to increase its online recognition and presence. As mentioned in the discussion about marketing through influencers, there is a potential for the company to find local influencers in Hong Kong that have large audiences of followers. However, such a strategy is more likely to work for the target customers of younger generations who tend to follow social media influencers. The social component of marketing is especially important for the organisation and hand as travel agency services are often recommended from some customers to other customers, which means that a sense of community is needed to establish a strong brand presence. As of now, Exploring Marketing has not created much of a community around itself as a brand, which could be integrated into the future digital marketing efforts.
To conclude, the integrated approach to digital marketing for a travel agency includes a range of steps due to the multi-dimensional nature of the Internet and the patterns of social channels used by the population. The proliferation of various websites and applications that used to serve different purposes have allowed companies to capitalise on opportunities to embed social media’s functionality into marketing efforts (Appel et al., 2020). As the Internet is omni-social, the integrated marketing strategy will allow a company specialising in travel services to influence the decision-making process of potential clients. From developing a new and recognisable brand logo to collaborating with influencers, there are numerous digital marketing opportunities for Exploring Tourism to expand its client base and make customers stay with the company. Despite the complexity of digital environments, the recommendations regarding the transformation in marketing practices can be implemented by organisations gradually and depending on their needs, which means that there is no single approach that would fit all companies in the travel and hospitality industry.
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