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Aug 25, 2003
Case Study

Continental Improves Online Sales 90% by Launching a Best-Customer-Pleasing Site Redesign

SUMMARY: Instead of trying to make their Web site please as many visitors as possible, Continental airline switched to focus on their most valuable customers. It is an eye-opening strategy that should work for any industry.

The resulting site has won awards and caused the entire airline industry to rethink their online tactics. Definitely worth reading.

"A few years ago, there was a new travel site being
launched called Orbitz," says Kevin McKenna, Managing Director of
Electronic Marketing for Continental Airlines.

"We felt we needed to make an effort to keep our high-value

However, Continental's Web presence was far from perfect.
Consumers wereo nt sure which of the airline's several sites to
visit. Also online reservations and frequent flyer OnePass
accounts were separate, so users had to remember two codes.

Continental knew that, to keep (let alone increase) online
ticketing market share, they had to give customers exactly what
they wanted in terms of site usability and features.

What, exactly, would make their best customers happy?


Instead of merely studying site traffic patterns as a
whole, Continental decided that all online visitors are not

If you try to optimize a site experience for absolutely
everyone's tastes, you may end up with design features that
please lower-value buyers at the expense of your most loyal

In addition to site stat research, Continental conducted a
usability lab study to see what their frequent business-class
passengers wanted from a site.

OnePass club members were offered $50-$100 as a thank you if they
came in to review the site at usability labs set up in one of
Continental's hub cities. (Much smarter that just conducting one
lab in one part of the country.)

The usability team developed a prototype, posted it to a PC in
the lab, and then interviewed users as they interacted with the
site. As the team learned from user reactions, they revised the
prototype and tested the revisions, slowly optimizing the site
over a series of tests and tweaks.

With each revision, the team tested two groups of users to cross-
reference and ensure consistency.

The winning design changes included:

-> Change #1: Changing focus from ticket sales to travel sales

McKenna's team learned that frequent flyers do not think of
themselves as purchasing a plane ticket so much as they are
purchasing a entire trip.

No matter how wonderfully easy the Continental site made it
to buy plane tickets, frequent flyers would never consider the
site to be remotely convenient unless it obviously served their
other travel needs. Therefore, adding ease-of-purchase took far
more work than merely upgrading cart design for usability.

Continental already offered some hotel and car booking services,
but now these were promoted much more noticeably on the site and
moved to higher-visibility navigational spots. This was a fairly
brave move -- Continental was bumping content promoting its own
ticket sales in favor of ancillary service offerings.

To enhance as a travel purchaser site rather than
merely an airline ticket ecommerce site, the team also added more
trip-related content including:
o mini-guides on travel destinations
o maps
o weather information
o passport, visa and health information for international

-> Change #2. Special features for loyal customers

The team discovered the best way to make OnePass customers feel
special, and to keep them from switching allegiances to the
Orbitzs' of the world, was to offer Continental-only services,
such as:

o Online check-in allowed OnePass customers to bypass long
lines at the counter by checking in and printing out a
boarding pass online.

o Special Continental-only deals for repeat customers. For
example, "Fly 3 and the next one is on us."

o Frequent flyer ticket booking online. (Previously, OnePass
members could only get tickets in exchange for the mileage
by calling an 800 number and waiting on hold for awhile.)

o Frequent flyer mileage auction. Originally hosted by eBay,
the auction moved to the main Continental site. OnePass
members could bid with their miles for fun goodies such as
box seats at Yankee Stadium, an all-inclusive vacation
package to Aruba, Broadway season tickets, etc.

"We have partnerships and sponsorships with sports teams and
fine arts disciplines and had the opportunity to share some
of those with our loyal customers," McKenna says.

-> Change #3: Ease of navigation, search, booking

Loyal customers were easily lost and frustrated when trying to
find what they needed from the old site.

First, the team made sure the most important customers had the
most prominent entry-point from the home page. OnePass account
sign in was moved up to the top right of the site. Continental
also merged its back-end databases so customers could use the
same registration code to access both OnePass accounts and
booking information.

Next, the design team improved the rest of the site's navigation by adding more tabs and drop-down boxes to enable one-click
navigation from the home page to almost anywhere on the site.

Plus, they added a navigation "breadcrumb trail" to the top left
of the page to show users where they were within the site at all
times. Example: Home > Frequent Flyer > OnePass News & Offers

The usability studies revealed that frequent flyers knew airlines
better than anybody else, even sometimes the airlines themselves.
Flyers knew where the stopovers were, what the air traffic was
like, types of planes, etc.

These flyers wanted a search capability that would encompass
more than just price, or simple search term results.

Continental enhanced the search to include searches by class
(economy, business, first class), by number and age of children,
by nonstop routes, by specific class of fare (non-refundable,
etc.), or by specific type of plane.

Plus, users had the option to sort their results further.

Last but not least the booking process was enhanced to include
best practices from e-retail shopping carts. The team added
icons to show users how much they had to do each step of the way.

-> Final touches

The design team also upgraded the look of the site to be more
visually appealing. For example, they:
o Replaced rather muddy site colors with close-but-cleaner
o Added a number of "people" pictures (since we all know that
people respond to people).
o Took everything on the site above the fold.

The revamped site launched in September of 2002.


Within nine months, online ticket sales per month...

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... were up by more than 90%. Some of this rise can be attributed
to the improving economy b,ut much is due to improved design.
For May 2003 alone, online sales were $102,223,835.

According to a January 2003 NPD Group survey of more than 40,000
airline customers, Continental's site was rated the highest
overall by its visitors.

The mileage auction in particular has been an interesting success
that other company rewards programs might consider copying. In
the past year almost 6,500 OnePass members have bid on auction
items. Plus, many auction winners purchased additional flight
tickets (with cash) to fly to events they won. Awinner of
box seats at Yankee Stadium might buy tickets to fly in for the

"We felt like we set the new bar for airline Web sites," says
McKenna. In fact, he says, this year two airlines have come out
with features on their site that mirrors the changes Continental
has made. has incorporated drop downs and in fact, looks
quite a bit like in other ways.

Another airline,, actually told McKenna that they
stole some of their presentation and design concepts.

Useful links:

Older versions of Continental's site search for

Current site:

Semaphore Partners, the interactive agency that helped
Continental with the usability study and site redesign:

Sponsor: New! Consumer Packaged Goods Marketing Online
Stop wasting money & get measurable results from your
online presence. New guidebook includes:

- Biggest CPG Web site mistakes
- Top 10 CPG online ad formats that work best
- How to measure results from each tactic
- Campaign data from 20+ CPG brands

Get your copy of MarketingSherpa's CPG Guidebook:

or call (973) 895-1717
See Also:

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