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Q&A: Thomas Cook Airline's Online Partner Marketing Manager, Helen Atkinson
Image Credit  Andy Mitchell Creative Commons license

Q&A: Thomas Cook Airline's Online Partner Marketing Manager, Helen Atkinson

There is less than a month to go before the biggest players in the industry gather at London's Grosvenor House to celebrate the most innovative and memorable performance marketing campaigns of the year. With affilinet sponsoring the Best Brand Engagement Campaign category, they took the opportunity to speak to a client of their own ahead of next month's ceremony. 

Vicky Bruce , affilinet's senior international account manager spoke to Helen Atkinson, online partner marketing manager at Thomas Cook Airlines, about marketing an international brand, keeping up with the competition and the constantly evolving nature of the travel industry. 

You oversee the online performance marketing activity for Thomas Cook Airlines Group in 14 markets worldwide. What are the main challenges you face as a cross-border merchant, and how have you leveraged performance marketing to help achieve global growth for the company?  

Helen Atkinson: Each market is completely different from one another, which is both a challenge and an advantage.

The biggest publishers in one market often don’t work in any others, so each territory has a different performance marketing mix and we have to adapt to the different strengths and needs. We can also learn from each market, sharing the successes and strengths with our other programmes whilst learning from any mistakes or pitfalls that one territory might be facing.

We are very focused on positioning ourselves as one airline group across all markets, so this will be key for how we develop and grow over the next 12-18 months.

Finally, language is my own key challenge – my German lessons seem to be going well though!

The affiliate channel clearly plays an important role in the Thomas Cook Airlines Group business. Do you think this gives you a competitive edge compared to similar merchants that are reliant on more traditional means of advertising?

HA: I think any merchant that spreads their marketing across effective channels will always have an advantage. Simple marketing mix strategy tells us that we should use whatever tools and channels are available in order to maximise return, and for us the affiliate channel is a key part of that.

The essence of the affiliate channel is what makes it so attractive: you pay only on what is driven and only on a last click basis.  In my opinion no other marketing channel can so cost-effectively deliver incremental sales and therefore it makes perfect sense to have it as part of any online strategy.

It’s no secret that many online travel merchants are very dependent on price comparison sites. Do you have any suggestions for travel advertisers looking to diversify their publisher base?

HA: I think most merchants in all sectors are reliant on price comparison listings to some extent, but particularly in travel where the tools used to provide the customer with accurate pricing are second to none.

To diversify, I think content is key.  The average customer searches on over 20 sites before booking a holiday, but by providing high quality content you are enhancing the customer experience and giving them the information and confidence they need to complete their booking.

This also allows more partnerships with content sites, which is often considered the ‘holy grail’ of the affiliate longtail, no matter which industry you operate within.

How do you deal with the complexity of today’s tech-savvy consumer, particularly given how competitive the online travel industry is?

HA: As mentioned, customers can search on a huge number of websites before purchasing and this also now happens across several devices.

Thomas Cook Airlines don’t have a mobile app yet, but we were the first UK airline to have a fully mobile optimised website, making the research and booking journey a smooth and easy process for our users. We’ve continued to improve and develop this to ensure customers experience a streamlined journey no matter which device they are using to search and purchase. 

This is especially vital when partners such as Skyscanner have such easy-to-use mobile apps and websites, as we want that ease of use to continue when the customer reaches our own site.

You’ve recently mentioned that one of your key goals this year is to increase brand recognition for Thomas Cook Airlines as an airline carrier. Do you think that the performance marketing channels are well suited to building brand engagement?

HA: In a word, definitely!  The performance marketing channel isn’t traditionally seen as a brand engagement channel and so utilising it in this way does involve a change of mind-set.

As we all know, branding activity isn’t as easily measurable for last click bookings but the strength that the performance marketing channel has is that we can still see what and where the customer has viewed, clicked and purchased.

To that end, we can then assign different KPIs for brand engagement activity and then use the performance marketing channel in a completely new but extremely effective way.

We started doing this around 18 months ago when we launched some new Caribbean and USA routes.  The results were fantastic and have led to us ensuring that our performance marketing channels are always fully integrated into our more ‘traditional’ brand engagement strategies.

One of the main challenges facing all airline affiliate programmes is the narrow margins available on flights. How does Thomas Cook Airlines remain a commercially competitive merchant when other players in travel industry such as package and hotel providers enjoy more comfortable financial breathing space?

HA: This is really the crux of everything we do within the affiliate channel – how do we engage and incentivise our partners but still remain cost effective? We are always keen to test and trial new activity, use our experience of past campaigns, affilinet’s knowledge of the market and sometimes a bit of gut instinct to guide what we do.  

We know not every piece of activity will be as cost effective as we need it to be, but as long as we understand the reasoning why and determine how we can improve, we would never deem such activity as a ‘failure’, but just ensure we learn for next time.

This all leads to creating an extremely exciting and constantly changing environment as we test new things and improve all of the time, whilst still hitting our KPIs. 

affilinet are also in contention to take home this year's highly coveted Industry Choice of Partner award. As the voting deadline approaches they are on the campaign trail

Vicky Bruce

Vicky Bruce

Vicky is an International Account Director at affilinet and heads up the large portfolio of Thomas Cook brands across Europe. She has five years’ experience in marketing, three of which have been spent successfully managing blue-chip travel and retail brands on an international scale.

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