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Feb 23, 2007
Case Study

How Travel Site Enticed Consumers to Pay for Digital Content Downloads

SUMMARY: With niche travel growing and time-to-market becoming a challenge for traditional guidebook publishers, one marketer wondered if paid digital products could bridge the gap between printed guidebooks and the massive amounts of content online already.

The question is: would customers be willing to open their wallets, and what kind of content made sense in a downloadable format. We’ve got the lowdown on what worked.
Despite a loyal following among scruffy backpackers looking for the world’s remote destinations, Lonely Planet hasn’t approached their travel guide business with an off-the-grid mentality. For years, the Web site has been chock full of interactive features -- traveler forums, photo and trip journals, blogs and podcasts -- to draw traffic and market the company’s guidebooks.

But the travel industry is changing. Shorter trips are becoming the norm, making people less likely to need a guidebook for an entire region or country. Niche or themed travel is on the rise, with travelers seeking more granular, less general advice. Then, there’s the need for publishers to develop and bring new products to marketing more quickly.

Online Marketing Manager Adam Noonan faced a critical question: “How is technology going to fit with and support changes in travel patterns and fit with and support our guidebooks as well?”

Noonan and his team realized digital content downloads could address issues of timeliness and niche focus, but they had to find out exactly what kind of content to present for download, how much to charge for it and whether travelers would jump at the new format.

First, they created a Download Shop section on site as a beta test for special, pay-per-download audio and print products. Knowing it would be a test that could inform the growth of future digital guides, they adopted five strategies to help answer key questions:

-> Strategy #1. Assess customer interest

Although industry trends were pushing the company toward downloads, Noonan surveyed his customers to see if a digital guidebook or other product was something they would be interested in -- and be willing to pay for.

Noonan had the customer service team comb through the thousands of email messages for instances in which customers requested a downloadable format.

Next, he turned to Lonely Planet’s “Talk to Us” team, which had relationships with frequent travelers and Lonely Planet customers and surveys that group on key issues. The Talk to Us team scheduled online focus groups to discuss the concept of downloadable travel products.

-> Strategy #2. Offer content that complements (not competes with) guidebooks

Because Noonan wanted to test new types of content along with ins-and-outs of the digital format, the team didn’t simply digitize existing guidebooks. They created unique products intended to appeal to certain niches:

o Guides for special events. In advance of a total solar eclipse visible in Libya, they created a downloadable travel guide to appeal to tourists who planned to flock to the North African country for the event.

o Short-trip or one-city guides. Aiming for travelers who were only spending a few days in a particular location, they developed new “City Breaks” -- 10-11 page guides organized around themes, such as food, art & architecture, culture and budget travel, for six European destinations: Bilbao & San Sebastian, Bologna, Granada, Marseille, Nice and Seville.

o Audio products. The team created audio phrasebooks to help travelers with foreign languages. Again, they chose a limited number to test, creating phrasebooks for French, Italian and Spanish.

o Maps. Downloadable maps were created as the kind of product a traveler might need while already out on a trip but after adding a new city to his or her itinerary, and needed quick access to some reference materials.

Much of the content for those products was repurposed from existing guidebooks or online destination guides. However, the team made sure each new product also contained unique and timely information to match the immediacy of the downloadable format. “There’s an absolute expectation that content online is up to the minute,” Noonan says.

-> Strategy #3. Choose content formats to test

Noonan knew plenty of options existed for digital content, ranging from eBooks to text-only email delivery. But for the beta site, they settled on simple formats that would be easy for travelers to use from any computer:

- City Breaks and other guides were offered as PDF downloads, which allowed for images and graphics alongside the texts.
- Phrase books were created in the familiar MP3 format for easy replay.

-> Strategy #4. Experiment with marketing channels

With the Download Shop online, Noonan’s team marketed it through all of Lonely Planet’s online and email properties. Initially, a link to the Download Shop was featured on the home page, announcing the new service.

The team also featured a link to downloadable City Breaks on the appropriate “Destination” pages on the site, which offer general facts and travel tips about countries, cities and regions around the world.

Notice of the new service was included in Lonely Planet’s subscription email newsletters sent to travelers. They also experimented with a limited paid search campaign, particularly for the audio phrasebooks.

-> Strategy #5. Test pricing and track online purchasing behavior

Noonan wanted to price products appropriately in the context of guidebooks and other products, but make them affordable enough so they would get enough downloads to make the test meaningful. Compared to the typical $17.99-$21.99 for a city guidebook, the team settled on the following prices for digital products:

o $2.30 for maps
o $3.75 for City Breaks
o $4.99 for a regional guide, such as a 96-page travel guide for Israel and the Palestinian Territories
o $5.99 for MP3 language guides

To get the download shop online quickly, they chose a vendor specializing in small online transactions, rather than integrating the Download Shop into their ecommerce system. Links at the bottom of the page offered shoppers other relevant products to buy, such as hard-copy guide books, or other parts of the Web site to visit.


Pleased with the results so far, Noonan sees the beta download shop as the foundation on which to expand their digital products business. “At the end of the day it’s very much about providing content to travelers in a way that suits them, and that’s going to continue to change.”

Results for timely or event-focused travel products look promising: more than 65,000 people downloaded the special Libyan travel guide in advance of last year’s solar eclipse, but Noonan notes that they made it a free product in order to test the concept at the outset of the download shop.

Lower price doesn’t automatically mean higher sales, though. The most popular paid product is the guide to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, which costs more than maps or the City Breaks.

Digital maps also are popular, with map downloads now nearly equal to sales of hard-copy maps from Besides tracking products, Noonan’s team also gathered demographic data on customers who choose digital products:

The highest percentage of download sales (46%) came from the 26-35 age group. 25% of downloads came from the 36-45 age group, and travelers ages 18-25 bought 13% of downloads. 66% of downloads were bought by men, 35% by women. That’s a big difference from the site’s traffic breakdown along gender lines, which is close to 50-50.

81% of download sales came from five countries: Australia, Germany, United Kingdom, France and Italy. With the exception of Australia, those countries are not surprising, given the European and short-trip focus of much of the digital content. 90% of download buyers also visited the corresponding destination guide page on Lonely Planet’s Web site.

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples of Lonely Planet's digital content:

ClickandBuy - Lonely Planet’s transaction processing vendor:

Lonely Planet:

See Also:

Comments about this Case Study

Feb 24, 2007 - chrisco of says:
I don't like this new page format... It doesn't print as nicely as the old one (that you had up to a couple of weeks ago, I think). Other than that, LOVE YOUR STUFF!

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