Andrés López-Varela

Tourism Australia’s journey of discovery

In Examples by Peter Gearin

Former content leader Andrés López-Varela explains how data helped transform Australia’s top brand.

When Andrés López-Varela left Tourism Australia as its global content editor, he went on a solo road trip to help clear his mind. He packed up the car and headed for the Victorian high country, then travelled through Gippsland to Adelaide and Kangaroo Island before driving down the NSW coast. The man who for three years was responsible for managing content for “Brand Australia”, helping to turn from a popular publishing platform geared for social media into a destination marketing colossus, took just over two weeks to see what the real thing was like.

“I love the Great Ocean Road,” he says. “I think it’s my favourite spot in Australia. Kangaroo Island is great. I was fascinated with that ever since I started working at TA. Outback NSW is just a totally different, different place. It was just nice to get out and see some of the places we created content about for the past few years.”

Federal Government agency Tourism Australia is the country’s biggest content and social marketing success story. Through the website and its myriad social channels – its Facebook page has almost 8 million likes – it has phenomenal levels of brand awareness and engagement. Any metric proves “Australia” is the most liked brand in the land.

The job of leading TA’s content planning fell to López-Varela, whose marketing career until October 2014 centred on strategy, engagement and data. At Sydney-based agencies Weber Shandwick and One Green Bean, he worked with national and multinational clients on integrated campaigns, and gradually moved towards more strategic roles involving communities and content for owned and earned media. When the TA role came along, understanding marketing-related data became a bit of an obsession.

López-Varela says TA prior to 2014 excelled at social media but was not doing so well with content on its other channels. “It certainly wasn’t looking at integrating the various channels in a way that was more meaningful and aligned to the consumer’s needs or pushing them along the path to purchase,” he says. “At that stage, we were excellent content publishers. We were getting stuff out regularly. It was high quality, it was engaging, it was telling a great story.”

He says that over his time at TA, the content team shifted from being mere publishers. “Instead of us being about the brand and about top-of-funnel content pieces, it was about aligning content through the path to purchase,” he says. “It was used to drive engagement and conversion as well. The biggest way we did that was an increase in data-driven content marketing – going from just being really great at publishing to being really great at marketing content.”

Content ‘fit for purpose’

In 2016, López-Varela led TA’s content realignment project. He wanted to ensure that any content TA published was in line with some aspect of the buyers’ journey, and connected them directly with the right tourism organisations or vendors. It also needed to focus on what made destinations unique, using superior storytelling. To help do this, he partnered with publisher Fairfax Media and content business Storyation, co-founded by Fairfax’s former travel general manager Lauren Quaintance.

“It was probably the first time we looked at those things in an integrated way,” he says. “If you looked at our website previously, it was pretty obvious that the user experience was designed in isolation from the content. The idea of the project was to realign the content to consumer needs along the path to purchase, match what the consumer was looking for with the information we could provide in a format that was useful, valuable and actionable so they could actually use the site as a planning tool.”

The result was a record number of site visitors and a 46 per cent jump in engagement rates.

“Much of the work I’d been doing in agencies previously was about making sure that whatever we produced was coherent with the rest of a brand’s strategy,” he says. “And using data, where possible, to align consumer needs with the content you’re putting out in market – ideally at the same time – so you were kind of present at the right time with the right message. A lot of people think of marketing as just executing well when, in my opinion, the idea of being good at marketing is so you can be good at business. You really need to align your marketing with your commercial objectives to have success.

“Our objective was to go from that awareness to the conversion.” Andrés López-Varela

López-Varela says that this was the principle he applied to TA’s content strategy – making sure stories were meeting a commercial objective, rather than just building or maintaining the brand. “We wanted to stimulate engagement and conversion. We wanted to connect consumers with the industry [so they would] book flights, book holidays, book hotels and book winery tours and tables at restaurants and private road trips. The content really needed to be fit for that purpose.”

TA’s biggest challenge

He admits that being a content lead for Brand Australia isn’t a particularly tricky assignment. The product has many natural advantages and appealing features – especially its golden beaches, temperate climate and cuddly looking animals.

“As a marketer, it’s not often that you have the opportunity to work on a brand with such a comprehensive presence,” he says. “There really was very little awareness problem for Australia.”

López-Varela says his main challenge was trying to convert that brand love into hard cash. He uses the example of the UK travel consumer, who consistently places Australia as the top destination they want to visit. But when it comes to actual bookings, its ranking drops to No.6. For Brits, Australia is often the place to come to “one day” or “when we win the lottery”.

“Our objective was to go from that awareness to conversion,” he says. “That is where content and social, I believe, really help because it might take three years to convince someone to come to Australia for two weeks. For whatever reason, they start planning one year and then they get pregnant and have kids. That takes up a few years, and they change jobs and other things happen. They buy a house and then finally they’re like, ‘You know what, it’s time to actually do that holiday’.

“Even though people are not actively in the purchase phase at that time, we’re still keeping them conscious, aware, engaged with our message and giving them opportunities to act on their desire to come visit us. We’re giving them opportunities to engage directly with the industry, to either take our itineraries or suggest trips or build their own.”

López-Varela says, though, that there’s no point embarking on a content strategy – whether it’s to convert likers into subscribers or customers – unless its impact can be measured. “Why should content just be about brand building? If content is to really grow in the marketing mix in the future, and we’re talking particularly with owned channels, it needs to be measured like the other kids. It’s got to have numbers and data attached to it to even hope of having a similar kind of footing and reputation.

“The challenge [of content marketing] is to not become the new PR in the sense that it must not become the land of soft metrics. Soft metrics are fine but it needs to be attached to a commercial objective.”

He emphasises that while the wishes of the tourism industry were important in formulating TA’s content strategy, customer needs were paramount. “We put the consumers first … before the stakeholders,” he says. “We did that deliberately because, at the end of the day, if you get people through the door of the tourism business, that’s all that counts. We assembled a framework with data around the content, making sure we had a defensible, clear position about our intentions.”

Common principles

López-Varela says the TA team tried to adhere to strong principles to ensure the content was relevant to the right audience. “One was being ‘radically consistent’,” he says. “That was about creating consistency in the content, formats, templates, styles, words and pictures we used so a consumer would quickly and easily understand it and could easily go through it.

“The second was to test and discard freely. If things weren’t working, we wouldn’t just hammer at them over and over again but simply look at the data. We’d try something new. It might only be a small alteration; it might be an itinerary. We’d only ever do those things because we had a data framework that helped inform our decisions.”

The content also had to be based on fact: “an honest representation of you could do; what a traveller could achieve”, he says. “We used a lot of social-media galleries. We called on social-media contributors to create little video guides. Some of it was existing content that we adapted, some of it we asked those contributors to create. A good example was a video we made from Blues Fest in Byron Bay. We took some of the best footage from the event organiser and then took some drone footage of the area from social media, particularly from somebody who had posted a video to our Facebook page. We said, ‘Hey, do you mind if we use this for a small fee on our website and cut it together with this?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, great, sure’.

“Likewise, there was a story we did about the renovation at Rae’s On Wategos in Byron, which was a really great collaboration. We took images a social-media influencer had taken for Rae’s, posted them on Facebook and Instagram, wrote a story about it for and used that to pitch out to PR [here and globally]. Integrating the social content and going back and forth in a more frictionless way between the social platform and our own channels was the key to unlocking that honest approach. So people could look at the content and go, ‘Yeah, that’s actually how it is’.”

López-Varela says that using data also helps resolve arguments over favouritism that government organisations such as TA might have with tourism regions and operators. “The data allows you to take a position and that tends to resolve around 90 per cent of conversations and disagreements,” he says. “Over a three-month period, six-month period, or whatever it might be, you can see the evidence. It’s not just your opinion. Consumers are either responding or not responding to that place or activity or experience. There is always that one time out of 10 and you just have to do your best with what you have while still serving the stakeholder.”

López-Varela says that unlike other corporate content teams, those attached to didn’t need to directly address industry issues, negativity towards tourism operators or customer pain points. “We were managing Australia as a brand and one of the key points of Australia is that it’s good news,” he says. “It’s good news for us to film a place; communicating negatives was really off brand.

“I doubt there are many marketers who would really include negatives as part of their own branding. It’s every marketer’s job to find the best angle for their brand, their organisation and their product or service.”

He thinks many travel marketers have an “endless obsession” with messaging “frameworks”: they only talk about what is important about their destination, product or service. “You need to know that your brand is increasingly irrelevant because there are so many other voices out there,” he says. “You need to know which channels are delivering at different stages of the path to purchase – which channels are really connecting with the consumer and which channels are delivering results.

“It’s difficult for marketers because there’s a lot of internal pressure about putting the brand front and centre. I don’t think we need to do away with brand messages all together but I think we need to be better at channel planning. We need to be a better at balancing the different channels and we need to be more deliberate with where we place our content.”

Stepping away

Having gone solo after leaving TA in July, López-Varela now sells himself as a digital, travel and destination marketing consultant. He is also soon to add “co-host” to his list of roles, launching a podcast “for the modern travel marketer” called The Destinationalists with Quaintance. “We couldn’t find a podcast like that, so we started our own and are focused on delivering listeners insights and advice that can be implemented in their travel and tourism business,” reads his LinkedIn bio.

López-Varela certainly looks back on his days at TA with great fondness. “I loved working at TA – it was such a great team,” he says. “It’s tough, high-profile work. There’s a lot at stake. It’s a very high-performing culture, which is good. It really felt like I’ve done five years of work in the three years.”

In the end, he says, a government body – even one as successful as TA – just couldn’t tickle his commercial marketing itch. “There’s a layer of marketing performance that’s potentially not as prevalent at a government organisation or a not-for-profit,” he says. “Finding different customers, increasing the audience by X amount …

“I’m really looking forward to getting back to the challenge of serving a business’s commercial objectives and working with challenger brands, too. That’s really adrenalising. It teaches you a lot about being MacGyver-esque about the way you do marketing.”

Links & references

Brand Tales’ Q&A with Lauren Quaintance

Eccentric stories sell Tasmania to the world

95 reasons why Qantas went AWOL

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