I'm always fascinated by the various ways people all over the world are using content marketing to promote themselves and their businesses. It's interesting to see what works – and equally what challenges they have to face and overcome.
In this case study, I focus on the content marketing journey of Stefano Raffo, co-owner and manager of Tambo Blanquillo Lodge in beautiful Manu, Peru. I'll also get some additional insights into the process from Matthew Barker, owner of I&I Travel Media who have helped the Raffo family with their online marketing.
Before we jump in, this video gives a flavour of the outstanding natural ecosystem where Stefano's business is based:
Interview: Stefano Raffo
Content marketing from paradise might sound like a dream job, but getting visitors to such a remote location requires a sound strategy and hard work to build a coherent online brand.
And although the many attractions of this incredible landscape are obvious to everyone, it can be a different matter if you're charged with turning that general level of awe inspired interest into real-life bookings.
That's why Stefano and his family are engaged in a continuous process of content marketing and online brand building, so more people than ever before can be exposed to this amazing piece of Peruvian paradise.
I'll hand over to Stefano to give us the background on the business, and tell us about his content marketing work:
Tell me about your business at Tambo Blanquillo
A long time ago, my father asked the Peruvian Government for the concession of a big area in the Manu Region. He has always been a pioneer in the tourism industry, and he wanted to explore what the Manu had to offer to visitors.
He discovered five different attractions in an area of approximately 800 acres. One, and the most important attraction, is that we have one of the biggest Macaw clay licks in the world. Approximately 80 to 100 Macaws come down daily to eat clay out of the cliffs.
The interesting thing is that before them, parakeets and parrots arrive in that order. Every species keeps its distance and doesn't interfere until the other one has finished. This can take about two to three hours – it's a really amazing part of the tour.
Then we have three oxbow lakes with giant river otters, caimans, monkeys and red deer (some jaguars are spotted now and then). Actually, Manu is one of the only places in Peru that has giant river otters as they are an endangered species and almost extinct.
Also, we have an observation tower that is built 50 metres (165 feet) up in the canopy of an amazing ancient lupuna tree. It's over 400 years old.
Then we have a mammal clay lick next to the lodge – plus a few more little oxbow lakes which people can visit free of charge as they are not part of the main attractions.
Tell me about your father, he sounds like an inspiring man?
Yes, he is an inspiring man. His name is Luis Felipe Raffo. He started his tourism career with a company in Cusco that created Inca trails and offered tours to Machu Picchu.
But he saw a need – what can people do after Cusco? So he focused on the jungle, especially in Manu. He's really into bird watching, and approximately 1,000 out of the 1,700 species of birds that exist in Peru (the country with most bird species along with Colombia and Brazil), can be found in Manu. So it was a no-brainer for him.
The lodge in Manu didn't actually start out as a lodge. We began by just renting the attractions to the neighbouring lodges, but the direction we're now going in today is actually letting clients sleep in our lodge. We have therefore added bedrooms, and next year we'll have private suite bungalows.
How many people do you sleep, and do they come from all around the world?
We have 20 rooms in the Tambo and there are soon going to be six private bungalows. So in total, we can cater for about 60 people.
We get visitors from all around the world. The country we get the most people from is the UK, then from Italy and Japan. We have a lot of American guests as well, but try to focus our attention on the European markets.
This is a special place. It kind of sells itself if you get enough people interested. That brings us on to the question of content marketing. I know you've been working with I&I Travel Media on it. What gave you the idea to start using content marketing?
My sister did her MBA at Stanford, and got to know Matt Barker there – and we then started working with his company.
He offered to help us with all the SEM, SEO and content marketing, and we then produced a new website and various guides with him. Things have been going really well as a result.
In terms of content marketing, what type of thing have you done to attract more visitors to the site?
We write regular blog posts, and try to include the most popular keywords that people will look for if they were trying to book a trip to Manu. You know, keywords like ‘Manu Lodge', ‘jungle experience', ‘bird watching' etc – you get the idea.
In terms of offline work, next year we're going to the Bird Fair in Rutland, UK. Actually, my father and I went to last year's one as tourists, but we want to go back to the show in 2015 as participants and have a booth there so we can distribute our marketing material and specialist guides.
Do you use your blog posts to drive people onto email lists, so you can then keep them up to date with what's happening over there?
Yes we do, and it's a really important part of our business. Actually Matt suggested it, so he can give you all the statistics about that.
We're also really active on social media. Until recently we had a young ornithologist working for us, but he went to study abroad in Canada. He's been helping with the social media by posting articles, videos, pictures and news about the Manu Region and the local bird watching community.
How many followers do you have on social media?
Around 2,000 across all channels, but that number is growing everyday.
How often are you posting on your own blog?
Once a week at the moment, but we plan to do more in future.
I also saw Trip Advisor on the site. How important are reviews in what you're doing?
They're really important. People really get into Trip Advisor to discover what each location is all about. We actually implemented a Trip Advisor widget on our home page, and have some excellent reviews – but everyday we're trying to get even more as it really helps the business.
We haven't talked about the types of packages you offer, can you whet our appetites?
We have two different packages, both including transport, accommodation, three meals a day, the guide and entrance to all the attractions.
One is for three nights and fours days, the other is over four nights and five days – with the only difference being that one leaves from Cusco and the other from Puerto Maldonado.
I personally prefer the trip from Cusco as it gives you another perspective of the Peruvian Highlands along the Interoceanic Highway and through the Cloud Forest into the Manu.
That sounds fantastic!
Yes it is. In Manu, the best things you can do are offered by our company, so we always want to attract more people to stay in our incredible lodge. It's fair to say that content marketing is a growing part of our strategy to do this going forward.
Interview: Matthew Barker
So we've heard from the owners of the business, now let's look at this from the perspective of the media agency taken on to help get this content marketing campaign off the ground.
It's fascinating to be able to look at this project from both the client and agency side, so let's hand over to Matthew:
What’s the backstory of your business I&I Travel Media – and what services do you offer?
My background is in PR and media relations, but I jacked it in and left the UK with vague ambitions of becoming a travel writer.
It didn’t end up working out as intended but I did get a job in Lima, Peru managing a large marketing team for an online travel agency (OTA) which was a baptism of fire that brought me up to speed on SEO, SEM and web content development very quickly.
It was in that job that I met my co-founder and our designer, and we’re all still working together today. We launched out on our own around 2010, originally focusing on SEO for travel companies, although with a strong content-bent since that was our core strength.
We pioneered high value guest posting long before it became fashionable, producing top-notch contributions for major publications, blogs and other outlets.
As Panda, later Penguin and now Hummingbird started to put “content” at the forefront of everyone’s mind we found ourselves in a very fortunate position, with a growing name for ourselves as content marketing specialists within the travel industry.
As the industry’s grasp of digital strategy has matured away from tacky, outdated SEO practices and towards more holistic content strategy we’ve been able to offer some very exciting solutions, all of which loosely revolve around brand publishing.
Our flagship model is asset creation and promotion, as you’ve seen with the Tambo project, but we touch on any channel where content can be a driving factor, which is pretty much *every* digital channel these days.
We’re also a founding force behind the vibrant Outbounding community, a forum of content creators, publishers, brands and others involved in quality digital travel content.
You recently worked with Tambo Blanquillo on their content marketing project, what was their brief?
Tambo Blanquillo is a classic case of a brand that has all the raw materials for effective content marketing, but lacks the strategic framework to bring it all together.
This is very common in the travel business: it’s often the smallest, independent, family-owned businesses that have the best expertise, passion and enthusiasm for the destination, i.e. all the things you need to be a good content marketer.
But knowing how and where to begin can be an impossible challenge when you’re also your own sales team, operations department, human resources manager, etc.
For Tambo and all similar projects our main job is to identify those kernels of unique expertise that are locked up inside the brand and figure out how we can extract that knowledge, translate it into digital content and put it to work.
How did you go about doing the research and preparatory work for the project?
Firstly and most importantly we have a deep knowledge of the destination and the product, so we’re approaching it from a strong position.
That’s one of the advantages of specialising in this industry and being lifelong travelers ourselves – we really know our stuff and can work confidently on things like audience modelling, but also with an innate understanding of things like peak seasons, consumer demand, and how that will impact marketing projects.
Secondly we work very closely with the client to unlock all their inherent knowledge of the target audience, their informational needs, their research and booking habits, and also the basis of the content itself.
As I mentioned above, this is actually much easier for a smaller brand than with a larger, regional or international outfit as the expertise and knowledge is much more accessible and apparent – these guys know exactly what consumers they’re aiming at and what they want, and no one knows their audience better.
We do a bunch of audience modelling exercises to understand what type of information the consumer is looking for. This reveals itself in various places – search queries in Google Analytics, the most common questions/concerns heard by the sales team, and so on.
For this project, a bird watching guide was almost a no-brainer – it’s the main reason that anyone would visit this destination and it’s the single biggest draw to this particular property.
In terms of the content creation process, could you explain how that panned out?
Again, content creation is often less of a challenge in this context than with larger clients. In Tambo Blanquillo’s case they have resident nature guides and a dedicated ornithologist – all the core knowledge is there, stored inside the brand and its people.
Extracting that expertise can be a challenge though. We would start with a very specific, detailed brief and ask their team to provide as much information as possible around a series of very precise content sections.
Even with the instructions to provide “as much info as possible” you invariably get nowhere near enough, so our editor will go through several review phases, asking follow-up questions and for more details wherever needed.
Collaborative tools like Google Docs make this process much easier than it used to be.
Once all the raw material is collated our editor reviews, fact-checks and drafts everything, ghostwrites any missing sections, and prepares a final draft. This is the most time consuming stage in the entire process.
What promotion techniques did you use to get more eyeballs on the content you were producing?
Earned and paid: We ran a modest PR campaign aimed at bird watching publications, blogs and groups which got a decent amount of coverage and some solid new links.
But paid channels are always more reliable and, crucially, offer predictable returns, which is important when budgets are tight.
We did some content amplification on Outbrain, ran Reddit ads and targeted some Google Display campaigns at a bunch of relevant placements.
Then all that traffic, plus the earned audiences, were added to remarketing lists for Google and Facebook ads.
What was the main conversion metric you employed during the campaign?
Hard conversions: inquiries, booking requests, etc (email only, no call tracking was set up).
Soft conversions: content downloads, email list signups.
What have the results of your content marketing work been in terms of meeting these metrics?
Hard conversions up by 290%.
Email subscriptions up by 661%.
What tools do you use for your content marketing campaigns?
We’re pretty low-tech really. We don’t bother with any unified inbound/content marketing platforms as we’d rather focus on delivering the service than trying to migrate clients over to expensive new platforms.
We use Mailchimp to power email lists, modified with Gravity Forms or Sumome to optimise the download/signup processes.
We use WordPress to create landing pages and do all the UI stuff, and we use Google Analytics and WMT for tracking/reporting.
Give us an elevator pitch that sells I&I Travel Media
We know what our people need and we deliver it extremely well. We know their own products and audiences like the backs of our hands, and we’ve built a brand publishing solution that makes it accessible to virtually any travel firm, no matter how modest.
This, as far as I can tell, makes ours a unique offering – there is a great mass of regular, independent travel firms out there who have been locked out of the “content revolution” and left behind with shoddy SEO techniques and hemorrhaging cash to poorly managed PPC campaigns.
We’re changing things for these guys and it’s quite exciting.
What's interesting for me about this case study is how it highlights the effectiveness of content marketing in helping to build the online brand of a remote business based literally in the middle of the Peruvian rainforest.
This proves that if you have the desire and combine it with a solid strategy and hard work – you can realise long term and continued success with your content marketing efforts from really any location (and by extension in most industries).
Even though I appreciate not all of Stefano and Matt's marketing work has been carried out from deep within the rainforest itself – it's the essence of this incredible ecosystem with its wonderful attractions and wildlife, and the compelling father and son family story that accompanies it – that has informed and shaped this journey into content marketing. Add to that some genuine passion and a fair amount of media agency assistance and you can see why this project has been so successful.
And in the final analysis that's the power of our modern online digital culture. We just need a compelling brand story, a computer or tablet and an Internet connection, and we can communicate globally and market our businesses from even the most geographically remote corners of the planet.
I don't know about you, but I find the freedom that offers to be inspiring.
If you fancy the holiday of a lifetime in the most awesome location you're ever likely to set eyes on, check out the Tambo Blanquillo Lodge website to book your stay.