Expedia vs. Priceline -- Whose Media Plan to Book?

Optimedia's Antony Young Analyzes the Media Strategies Behind Rival Travel Sites

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Antony Young
Antony Young
As schools break for summer, some families -- like mine -- are still planning their vacations. So I took a look at two prominent travel sites, Expedia and Priceline, to see which one's media strategy is likely to attract more trip planners.

Their media plans are especially important as the travel industry picks up after a tough 2009. Demand for flights and hotels are rebounding and so, too, are airfares and room rates. With slimmer margins on airline tickets, hotels have very much become the major battleground for Expedia and Priceline and this is reflected in the focus of their advertising. Online Travel Agencies (OTA's) accounted for 34.7% of all U.S. hotel bookings in the first quarter of 2010, up from 27.8% in 2009, Priceline CMO Brett Keller said in a recent speech.

Creative executions

Expedia launched a new branding campaign for 2010. Its tagline, "Where you book matters," accompanied a new logo incorporated into its creative messaging. The campaign, which targets frequent leisure travelers, launched Dec. 26 with commercials featuring a visual metaphor of building blocks as a way to demonstrate how consumers interact with Expedia. The first spot starts with upbeat soft-rock music narrated by an unseen woman dictating her specifications for the perfect "girls' weekend." She talks about having multiple hotel options and the ability to compare dates for the best savings. Expedia's signature "dot coooom" jingle ends the spot. A spot with a man's voice and trip goals was launched in February.

Priceline has built its position in the market on the opportunity for customers to name their own price, brought to life through some hilarious spots fronted by pitchman William Shatner. This year, Shatner introduced his new sidekick "Big Deal," a 520 lb 6'5" character who helps persuade hotels to take a deal. In February, the Big Deal ads were joined by new creative that featured the Negotiator's "Evil Twin" (played, of course, by Shatner). Priceline takes a karate chop at Expedia.com (and Hotels.com), claiming that Priceline can get prices 50% lower.

The strategies of the two companies differed noticeably. Expedia.com attracted 16.7 million unique visitors in May, 59% more than the 10.5 million who visited Priceline.com, according to ComScore. And Expedia media seems to reflect this, promoting the site as the generic travel brand for a broad audience and highlighting its full range of services and travel destinations. Priceline is more single-mindedly focused on price, and its media appears to target lower down the purchase funnel with an emphasis on converting transactions.


5 stars Outstanding
4 stars Highly effective
3 stars Good
2 stars Disappointing
1 star A disaster

Television strategy

Expedia.com 4 stars
Priceline.com 3 1/2 stars

Outside of online, TV is the primary medium supporting both advertisers' efforts. From January through April, Expedia placed $16.1M vs. Priceline's $13.7M, according to Kantar Media. But their approach to TV placement was very different.

Expedia's TV mix is 52% cable, 23% network and 20% syndication. Its cable buy is heaviest on The Golf Channel, The History Channel, SyFy and FX. Its network schedule includes a heavy mix of talk shows and new programs with regular placements in morning TV -- "The Today Show," "Good Morning America" and "The Early Show," plus late night programming on "The Late Show with David Letterman," "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and "The Tonight Show."

In contrast, Priceline placed 80% of its TV buy in cable, outspending its larger rival on many of the high-profile cable stations. Sports programming featured heavily on Priceline's schedule, including spots in FOX's NFC playoffs in the last quarter of 2009, ESPN's "SportsCenter" and some Winter Olympics buys on NBC -- showing a more male skew compared with Expedia's buys. Priceline opted out, however, of this year's Super Bowl. Comedy was also a strong theme in its TV plan, which gels well with the style of creative messaging. Interestingly, Priceline year-to-date has avoided the Travel Channel.

Expedia ran a nice collection of relevant branded integrations as part of its TV buy. Some examples include: On the Great American Country (GAC) channel it ran two vignettes encouraging viewers to go online to book their next vacation in order to do "side-to-side" comparisons to get the best deal.

I really liked their Travel Tips vignettes that screened on National Geographic in March, April and May. The jointly sponsored spots from Expedia and National Geographic offered helpful travel tips that tie back to Expedia's key promotional messages such as booking online because of speed and efficiency, mixing and matching airlines to get the best deals and using sites that send alerts for the best fares. Another spot suggests tips for booking "green hotels."

Expedia also sponsored two branded entertainment skits on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live." One example featured Jimmy and his studio security guard Guillermo discussing how Jimmy should book his summer vacation. The skit included the usual send-ups about Guillermo's exaggerated accent, as Jimmy asked Guillermo to say "Free Night and Fee-Free Flights" fast 5 times.

Online display media

Expedia.com 4 stars
Priceline.com 3 stars

Both Expedia and Priceline ran online display advertising promoting multiple offers and product messages. The various banners were booked on a combination of major portals such as MSN.com and Yahoo, travel-idea sites such as AreaGuides.ne, and specific destination sites for cities such as Boston, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Orlando and Los Angeles. Ad network buys driving traffic to their sites featured widely in their plans.

Expedia created a cool series of travel-related content sites such as 100OrlandoSpots.com, Cruises.net, Vacations.net and BigWorldTrips.com. These standalone sites offered detailed travel information and ideas on different travel experiences and opportunities to recruit new customers -- and of course drove visitors to Expedia.

In May, Expedia launched a summer sale promotion via a Facebook poll. The cities that featured highest on this list were promoted with hotel discounts of up to 40%. Expedia's YouTube channel shows some of the company's latest ads and brief travel-tip videos starring Expedia staff. The page currently features a demo video for Expedia's iPhone App "TripAssist 2.0." Expedia's Twitter page features tweets about the latest deals from the site and customer services reps answering questions.

The Priceline Facebook and Twitter pages for Shatner's "Priceline Negotiator" character feature both the most recent travel deals and promotions from the company. Its YouTube channel features several of the newest Priceline TV spots starring Shatner and his Big Deal sidekick.


Expedia.com 4 stars
Priceline.com 3 1/2 stars

From January through March, Expedia spent significantly more than Priceline on paid search across the three main search engines. But Priceline outspent Expedia in April and May. Both brands primarily focused on branded search words, e.g. "Priceline Hotels," but Expedia.com has a significantly stronger presence in paid search on top non-branded travel terms.


Expedia.com 3 1/2 stars
Priceline.com 4 1/2 stars

Expedia's Trip Assist mobile app allows users to track all the details of their itineraries, wherever or whenever they booked their trips. The app provides text and e-mail updates free of charge. There's also an option to book via a stripped-down interface. Approximately 55,000 trips were booked through this app last year, according to Expedia.

Priceline's Negotiator iPhone app launched in November 2009. Unlike its competitor, Priceline's app provides the functionality of its website, allowing users to view hotel rates and last-minute deals. The app also features an impressive "radar" function that wouldn't look out of place on an episode of "Star Trek." Using the electronic compass built into the iPhone 3Gs, travelers can hold up their phones in a desired direction and the radar will display specific hotels' availabilities, ratings and accepted price bids in that immediate vicinity. Users can then book the hotels through their iPhones or by calling Priceline's booking specialists. The app also provides some comic relief with The Priceline Negotiator punching his way through the screen as it vibrates.

Sponsorship and partnerships

Expedia.com 4 1/2 stars
Priceline.com 4 stars

Expedia has partnered with the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association to create a microsite devoted to GLBT travel events, festivals and hotspots. While Orbitz.com was the early mover in targeting the GLBT community, this has helped Expedia position itself more firmly before this market.

Expedia also created a site for the National Parks Foundation that promotes travel to U.S. National Parks. The site offers travel information, itinerary suggestions, downloadable maps and in-depth articles on "Can't Miss National Parks." Expedia also used the site to promote Ken Burns' PBS documentary, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," by running video clips prior to its premiere last fall.

Priceline, on the other hand, became the "Official Travel Partner" of Ticketmaster.com. Tickemaster.com buyers are offered access to Priceline.com's collection of travel services, including customized hotel, airline and rental-car offers, to complement their event purchases.

Priceline also sponsored "Seth MacFarlane's Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy" web series, shown on YouTube and other web outlets, and sponsored its corresponding channel on Hulu as well. The "Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy" YouTube channel features animated ads for Priceline using the "Negotiator" character along with several comedy web cartoons from MacFarlane, the creator of "Family Guy" and "American Dad."


Expedia.com 4 1/2 stars

Priceline.com 3 1/2 stars

I love Priceline's TV ads. They have a personality and tongue-in-cheek humor that makes this brand stand out wonderfully. William Shatner's Priceline Negotiator character was integrated consistently across TV, online, print and the Priceline.com assets. The media plan is very robust and I like how the TV plan had a clear point of view about who it wanted to connect with and how to do it. Expedia, however, seemed to bring a little more creativity at each stage of the plan. Its online content strategy, developing multiple travel-related sites, provides additional access points for the brand to deliver traffic to its main site. Yes Expedia outspent Priceline, but Expedia also seemed to do a more complete job of leveraging the media.

Expedia's brand media strategy to target higher in the purchase funnel also seems to be paying off as the market begins to pick up. According to Google Insights, search interest in Expedia has shown a healthy increase year to-date vs. the rest of the travel sector. This appears to be reflected in the travel bookings on the sites. In recent financial reports, Expedia's first quarter U.S. domestic bookings are up 20% over the same quarter in 2009, ahead of Priceline, up 16%.

Research and data compiled by Nora Scullin at Optimedia.

Antony Young is CEO of Optimedia US -- a Publicis Groupe-owned media-planning and -buying agency headquartered in New York. He is a regular contributor on brand media strategy for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @antonyyoung.
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