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Hey, Hotel Marketers: What’s Holding Mobile Bookings Back?

What's holding mobile bookings back? Guest shopping for reservations on mobileLooking to drive results for your business? Click here to learn more.

If anyone you're talking with describes 2019 as "the year of mobile," or some other such similar statement, I'd like you to smile at them, nod your head politely, and casually walk away. Why? Because that individual has no idea what they're talking about. 2019 is decidedly not the year of mobile. Not even close. The "year of mobile" has already passed us by.

In reality, we're not in the year of mobile; we're in an era of mobile, of shifting behaviors and business models alike. Uber and Airbnb and Venmo and Instagram all grew up in a world where mobile is the norm, not the new. And if you're genuinely committed to driving direct reservations for your hotels, you must accept mobile as the norm too. Whether you work for a property owner, management company, or brand, you must focus on providing an outstanding experience to guests – current and potential – on mobile all throughout their journey.

In case you missed it, a key data point underscores this reality. Mobile internet activity exceeded desktop internet use in October…2016, over two full years(!) ago. In fact, according to Stone Temple Consulting, mobile traffic now accounts for roughly 63% of all internet use, which is truly astonishing. Most hotels are seeing mobile traffic represent at least 35% of their total traffic and my own experience shows mobile traffic accounting for well over 40% of all sessions. And this shift creates significant opportunities for hotel marketers. Because one area where mobile has not bypassed desktop is its success — or more properly, its lack thereof — in delivering reservations.

Data from SmartInsights suggests that mobile conversion rates average only around 0.7%, compared with well over 2% on desktop. That's a significant decline relative to desktop with real-world consequences for reservations and revenue.

Consider a hypothetical hotel company that receives 12,000 site visitors per period (that period could encompass an entire year for a small hotel or a single day for a decent-sized hotel group; you can choose whichever is appropriate to your situation). If this hotel received only 40% of its traffic from mobile, it would potentially give away 62 reservations each and every single period (for you math wizards in the room, 96 desktop reservations from a 2% conversion rate minus 34 mobile reservations from a 0.7% conversion rate equals 62 "lost" reservations to mobile behaviors). Obviously, these numbers would be higher if your share of mobile traffic is higher. Given an average reservation value of $200, that's the equivalent of $12,400 in lost top-line revenue every period. Even if, by some miracle, 100% of those guests end up picking up the phone or booking your property via an OTA — which would be amazing…and unlikely — you're increasing your cost for those reservations by either the cost of the call or the OTA margin. That's not good. Like, seriously, not good. And that also ignores the fact that you already paid for the performance media or SEO efforts necessary to get that traffic to your website in the first place.

So, why are we losing bookings on mobile relative to desktop? What's holding mobile bookings back? Several reasons come immediately to mind.

Ineffective Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Even with increasing competition from hotels and OTA's, organic search typically represents a significant driver of traffic for most hotel websites. But beginning in March, 2018, Google began splitting its search index into separate versions for desktop and mobile, favoring sites for mobile searchers that specifically take mobile usage into account and penalizing those that work poorly in a mobile context. In fact, mobile-first is now the default for new sites Google finds.

While this change doesn’t directly affect conversion rate, it impacts your business all the same. Google's split of its index has left hotels providing a subpar mobile experience in a sad state, losing traffic and, of course, reservations.

Slow Web Performance
Your website's overall speed also plays a significant role both in SEO rankings and in your guests' website experience. Research from Akamai shows that "…fifty-three percent (53%) of mobile site visitors will leave a page that takes longer than three seconds to load" and that "…bounce rates were highest for mobile phone shoppers." And Google has publicly acknowledged that they now use site speed as part of their mobile search ranking algorithm. The search giant offers more favorable placement in mobile search results to hotels featuring websites that load speedily and help guests find the answers they need quickly and conveniently.

Poor Mobile Web Usability and Design
Of course, poor mobile experience isn't a negative solely from Google's point of view; it's bad for guests and bad for your business too. Many hotels are seeing significantly higher bounce and exit rates from guests visiting their site on mobile devices. Wonder where your low conversion rates come from? It should be apparent that guests bouncing off your site aren't converting. Again, speed plays a crucial role. But the need to improve usability and decrease bounce rate overall should be equally apparent.

Lack of Trust
As has been true for the better part of two decades, trust continues to play a key role in influencing conversion online. Slow, insecure websites with limited or outdated content – or most any subset of these issues — frequently fail to convert visitors to bookers. Screen real estate on mobile is limited and valuable. It must be used wisely to assure guests that you are the right choice for their stay and a trustworthy partner who will protect their information and payment details. Along with other elements, Google has also announced that trust plays a significant role in driving SEO ranking. OTA's invest heavily in content designed to reassure guests at each stage of their journey, but especially during the booking decision. Clear rates, quality content, and high-resolution images focused on answering guest questions represent key components in helping site visitors choose your property. Great hoteliers make guests feel comfortable no matter the situation. Helping guests feel comfortable that you represent a reputable option for their next stay is key to providing hospitality online. It deserves your full attention.

Complicated Checkout and Few Payment Options
Even given the current woeful state of mobile usability, checkout and payments present a particularly vexing challenge for users. The checkout process on mobile for many hotel websites remains far too difficult. A recent review of mobile booking engines showed that hotel websites typically require guests to fill in no fewer ten to fifteen form fields across three or four separate screens while completing a reservation. Given that the average guest must manage this while holding their credit card in one hand, a several-hundred-dollar piece of aluminum and glass in another, and type in these fields with, I don't know, a third hand, that's hardly the height of positive user experiences. Why are we making it so hard to do the one thing we most want guests to do?

Further,'s head of product marketing Morten Larsen recently wrote that "…one in five customers don’t complete a reservation due to unavailability of their payment method of choice." Mobile wallets, such as those from Apple Pay, Google, Pay, PayPal and others can streamline the checkout process and can increase the options available for your guests. So, why are these so infrequently offered?

Improperly Configured Analytics
A fair percentage of guests visiting your site on mobile are likely to book via voice since, after all, they are holding a phone in their hands. But are your analytics properly configured to track clicks-to-call? For that matter, is your site properly configured to support click-to-call at all? Now, in fairness, this is less about improving conversion rate and more about measuring alternative reservations channels. But experience suggests that you may be receiving more reservations on mobile than you know, which can be skewing not only your metrics, but also any decisions you're making based on those skewed metrics about media spend or marketing efforts.

How to Make Mobile Drive Bookings for Your Hotel

Once you've identified the issues limiting your mobile website's effectiveness at driving direct reservations, you must establish an appropriate plan to correct these limitations.

First, focus on three key areas:

  • Site speed
  • Quality content
  • Rate parity

Why these three? Well, as discussed, site speed helps with both Google's mobile search index and improves overall usability — or at least perceived usability — by helping guests find the answers they need quickly. This often helps improve your search rankings and traffic, as well as helps lower bounce rate, retaining more of the traffic your site receives and lowering your costs for guest acquisition.

Quality content, both text and visuals, further enhances the guest experience. Content provides answers to the questions your potential guests may have and helps demonstrate the quality of your product. Clear, relevant content also builds trust among site visitors by addressing concerns they may have about your property and its fit for their individual stay. Content also plays an important role in overall search engine optimization and, if properly targeted and authored, may help your site rank better for specific guest queries.

Rate parity delivers multiple benefits for both you and your guests. The diffusion of disparate rates has taught guests that, if they keep looking, they're likely to find a better deal. Offering varying rates across OTA's, metasearch, and hotel websites damages trust in your direct channels by reinforcing the benefits for guests of continuing to shop around. And, when guests continue to shop around, you not only increase the likelihood that they'll book your hotel on a higher-cost channel, you also increase the risk that they'll book a different hotel altogether.

At the same time, make sure that your mobile site displays your reservations phone number prominently and that your phone number works correctly when a guest attempts to click-to-call. While many web browsers automatically convert phone numbers to clickable links, not all do. Automatically converted phone numbers may also fail to match your site's style and typically lack any tracking that shows whether they're being used. Work with your website developer and booking engine provider to put the proper code in place for your guests and for your business benefit.

Finally, work with your IBE providers to incorporate mobile payments and seamless checkout from digital wallets such as Apple Pay, Google Pay, PayPal, and the like. Experience shows not only a better mobile experience overall, but also conversion rate increases for each new payment option added.

What's Holding Mobile Bookings Back? Conclusion

We've clearly entered "the Era of Mobile." Mobile represents a large and growing segment of your site visitors. And guests expect a quality, seamless, and, yes, hospitable experience when researching on mobile. They're not going to book your property directly on mobile until and unless you can satisfy their needs there. Google recognizes this fact and actively penalizes poor mobile experience. And OTA's have invested heavily to provide guests with the information and experience they demand. Your mobile web experience — in terms of site speed, quality content, trust, and usability — must meet or exceed their expectations. Or you can continue to muddle along and keep losing traffic and transactions to OTA's and others who do take mobile seriously.

Hotel owners, management companies, and brands alike have a vested interest in addressing these concerns if they're legitimately concerned with increasing direct bookings for their properties.

Mobile bookings aren't "next year's problem." They're not a trend you can afford to ignore. Lost mobile bookings dramatically influence your business right now, pushing guests towards OTA's as their first, last, and only choice for bookings, and driving up the cost of guest acquisitions both in the near-term and down the road. Fixing the problems takes work. But it's work that's well within your capabilities. Plenty of effective solutions exist in the marketplace to help you address these needs. But you've got to begin. Right now. Because if you continue to ignore the importance of improving your guests' experience on mobile, the thing holding back mobile bookings might just be you.

Past Insights from Tim Peter Thinks

If you’re looking to learn even more about how changing customer behavior will shape your marketing going forward, be sure an register to receive a special report I’ve produced in conjunction with hotel marketing firm Vizergy, “Digital Hotel Marketing in a Multiscreen World.” While it’s targeted specifically at hotel and resort marketers, the lessons apply to just about any business. You can get your free copy of the report here.

You might also want to check out these slides I had the pleasure of presenting recently about the key trends shaping marketing in the next year. Here are the slides for your reference:

Finally, you might enjoy some of these past posts from Thinks to help you build your e-commerce strategy and your digital success:

A version of this article originally appeared on Hotel News Now as "The Distribution Trend You Care About Most in 2019"

Tim Peter is the founder and president of Tim Peter & Associates. You can learn more about our company's strategy and digital marketing consulting services here or about Tim here.

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