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Digital Marketing Strategy for Airlines: DM Audit- Established Airline (Etihad Airways)

Somebody asked me that if you are given a challenge of scaling any top company with revenue in billions would you be able to do so… say if an established airline comes up to you to scale up its branding and revenue via online marketing, would you be able to do it??


Well, I took up the challenge…


For the sake of this project, I took the famous “Etihad Airlines” as an example. (Maybe I am making the worst mistake of my life 🙂 but still, I would like to test the waters.)


  • I won’t be using traditional tools of management or marketing i.e. SWOT / MARKETING MIX (4PS), this project specifically concentrates on Digital Marketing.
  • There is more to Etihad business i.e other websites like (dealing with cargo business), (dealing with customer loyalty programme) but I cannot cover everything under the cloud in a single project so I will stick to the anchor website for the sake of this project

How should Etihad Airlines work upon their Digital Marketing strategies to scale up their market share & revenues



Let’s research a little about airlines before starting up my quest, At least we should know what we are dealing with…


As Wikipedia articulates, The airline operates more than 1,000 flights per week to over 120 passenger and cargo destinations in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas, with a fleet of 119 Airbus and Boeing aircraft as of August 2015. In 2014, Etihad delivered revenues of US$7.6 billion and profits (EBIT) of US$257 million. Etihad Airways is the third largest airline in the Middle East and it is the second largest airline in the UAE.


Phew! am sweating, it’s a real challenge i.e. without access of analytical data, website statistics, current marketing initiatives & outcomes, this is a real tough job, in an ideal scenario it is near to impossible to come up with some groovy ideas.


Anyways in this report, I will talk about:


  1. Budgets (numbers for the sake of this project)
  2. Website Structure, Statistics & Analytics
  3. Digital marketing Channels (Budget allocation) 
  4. Innovation (UGC, Augmented Reality)
  5. Conclusion


1. Budgeting:


It’s the toughest part and is a collective decision of any company, marketing budgets vary as per industry and there is no golden thumb rule. It includes 100s of factors, evaluations and aggressive brainstorming.  But am not a financial guy, I am neither an insider nor I know anyone who could provide me marketing budgets of the company, (specifically digital marketing budgets), so I will take a hypothetical figure derived from an article of Forbes i.e. company between $1-9 billion of annual revenue are spending approx 6.7% (of revenue) in marketing.


6.7% of $ 7.6 Bn is $509.2 Mn i.e. total marketing budget (Please don’t take it literally, numbers are filled for better understanding, main focus is on strategy)


As per WebStrategies Inc., Richmond, VA the ratio of TV: Digital: Print (between 2012-2018) would be 35.7%:37.3%:14%  (again it will differ as per industry and would be custom for each organization but for the sake of the project we are taking standard values).


As this project is concentrating on Digital Marketing, to be precise “Paid Digital Marketing”, we will consider 37.3% as our ideal share i.e. $190 Million. 

2. Website Structure & Statistics:


Jumping into analysis part with statistics, we can grab from Similarweb, analysis of “What we have & What company is doing digitally”


Below is just an idea i.e. tentative traffic which we can get from the tool, it would not even be close to the original traffic but I need a starting point. From my experience, SW shows 33% of original traffic and 80% of original bounce rate (this is also variable). Top line report suggests everything is good with the website.


1. Healthy Traffic

2. Good Bounce rate

Etihad Airlines Traffic estimation


Traffic Sources gives us an idea of the sources from where website traffic is coming from so we can identify clearly that Etihad has a strong brand presence cause approx 32.54% is direct traffic and 50.41% is searching in which major contribution is of brand keywords, rest are potentially weak areas we can concentrate upon i.e. Social & Display. Referral traffic is mostly from OTAs i.e., etc. (We won’t be covering OTAs and partners in this project)


Below the chart is showing traffic by countries, Etihad is a UAE based airline having headquarters at Abu Dhabi so it is phenomenal that it would enjoy most of the traffic from UAE. But we can research to have more data i.e. which prominent countries are served with direct flights so that demographically customer segmentation can be created and targeted promotions can be executed. 


*This is one area to work upon, a dedicated customer segmentation plan (demographically) for cross-channel promotion (Display/Video/Social/Search) can be executed (I can delve into details but without having the correct statistics it is a waste of time) 

The website is multilingual and multiregional and services are provided in approx 90 countries, the website takes up a simple directory structure with multiple directories for each language/country i.e. agency/SEO manager of the company has done an excellent job in mapping an organized URL structure in terms of SEO.


E.g.   (“ar” stands for Arabic and “ae” stands for UAE i.e. Arabic version in UAE)


Some more e.g.


Search Traffic (Organic/Paid)


*I crawled around 70k URLs of and found approx 80 multiregional/multilanguage URL directories, depending on the traffic and allocated budget for each URL, a retargeting campaign can be created (I will come up with details later in this article)


Social is also contributing to the traffic share, but it is relatively small approx 2.43% of the total traffic, Facebook having the most share i.e. 80.58%. I don’t think a lot of paid efforts are made in getting segmented traffic from Social channels. I can see a huge potential of dynamic Retargeting on custom segmented audiences.

Website Analytics & Subdomains


The website is enjoying huge traffic and am sure remarketing lists for each particular segment is existing as I can see remarketing tags in Google analytics tagging structure. One universal GA Account (UA-36260312-1) is used on all the websites and rest demographically different properties are created in same account i.e. (UA-36260312-[1-25]). 


Other analytic companies used by Etihad are:


  • Omniture (Adobe analytics) (The market leaders, one of the most organized visual analytic solutions for Large companies)
  • Adara Analytics ( (with lot of airlines as customers they are popular in America and Europe ) they are using booking and search data to create powerful advertising prospects and solutions
  • Mixpanel (Mobile analytics platform)




There are approx 15 subdomains on in which most important is, it is enjoying good traffic levels, i.e. 210k as per similarweb (but mostly search traffic) is created to pull search traffic onto the website. Basically, the flights to all destinations are covered in this domain, approx 2.2 Mn URLs are indexed in google.

71% of traffic is coming via search in which 58.29% is organic and 41.71% is paid i.e. mostly all the search paid ads are transferred onto this subdomain i.e. it is the most important domain after TLD.

3. Digital Marketing Channels (Budget Allocation)


This report is not about technical implementation or how to do, else it will become a 1000 page ebook and will lose its essence. I have made my efforts to analyze current marketing crusades and have tried to give insights to escalate the current doings.


Please note marketing nowadays is integrated i.e. first offline and online should be integrated and then all the channels of online are closely integrated. We have to keep in mind that performance of one platform closely impacts the other, thus it is crucial to understand customer decision journey (CDJ) and accordingly shift your marketing budgets (the process is dynamic). So without understanding the technical data, a robust budget plan cannot be constituted.


Talking about digital Channels and budget allocation again, inputs are not realistic, it is a tedious process based on many permutations and combinations, but  I will create a simple standard plan (derived from industry standard, infographic of Econsultancy)


We will cover PPC (Search), Display Marketing & Social Media in this project.


  1. PPC search 13% i.e. AED 91 Mn 
  2. Display Marketing (Including Branding and Acquisition)  11% i.e.  AED 75.8 Mn
  3. Social Media 4% i.e.  AED 27.6 Mn

PPC Search 


The company is investing on PPC (Paid search), I probed into “Keyword Planner” and identified that company might be investing somewhere around 5-7mn AED on paid search (English), approx 40+56 adgroups (combined in TLD and flight Subdomain) are identified with an average bid between 30-50 aed/click (40 adgroups) (56 adgroups)



  • Total digital marketing budget i.e. $190 Mn i.e. AED 689 Mn, so practically 1% is being spent on search marketing (English) 
  • i.e. in Japanese domain the estimated budget is coming out to be AED 1.34mn aed (google is strong in Japan)
  • All Arabic versions of the subdomains are generating very low impressions giving estimated budgets of AED 10-13k including Jordan, Iraq, UAE etc (Could be a potential GAP area)


Anyways, we can only identify the GAP areas after actual analytical data is researched i.e. all the subdomains with total ad budget spent. Then actually a deeper analysis can be conducted researching on user searches and the ads which have been delivered (I have just demonstrated one). The manual analysis will take ages for me to compile all the data and then present some conclusion which will not be perfect as am analyzing the domain as an outsider.




PPC search can be escalated to get better conversions, but an in-depth keyword research is required on multilingual search terms.

Display Marketing: 


This is one area which has the major vacuum, cause I cannot see much of the reliable traffic coming from Display marketing, neither on SD nor on TLD. We can spend 11% of our digital marketing budget on complete display marketing.


Display broadly consists of: 


  • Branding (all about impressions) 
  • Prospecting (traffic that is more likely to fulfill your objectives) 
  • Retargeting (targeting your website visitors via various integrated modes of marketing)


I would rather divide my budget as 5% to Branding, 3% to prospecting and 4% to retargeting. In retargeting one chunk goes to campaign banners in-sync with our offline advertising activities and second goes to dynamic retargeting i.e. objective as conversions. (Again these all are just assumptions, actual scenario may differ as per requirement)




It’s all about “Eye Balls”, the more people see it the more they know about you. A high-level branding campaign is measured by engagement i.e. how many actually clicked on the banner, how many viewed your video, what percentage of a video was played etc. So if an offline campaign is planned i.e. say Etihad airways is sponsoring an XXX sports team in YYY event, they need to get eyeballs.


So ideally you will go for programmatic buying from any display marketing jargon like “Yahoo” or “Google” ( I won’t be getting into technical details of programmatic buying),


Video marketing, Interactive banner ads like “Youtube mastheads” will also play a huge role in such type of campaigns.


On current Etihad website I could see tags of below display agencies:


  • Doubleclick Floodlight (Google) 




Prospecting is the technique by which programmatic algorithms collect data of a particular segment of your website’s visitors and then search new prospects matching the same data i.e. people who added a booking to checkout is a segment, then prospecting will identify more people who are more likely to perform the same action.


This technique is level 2 of display marketing where chances of conversion are little better. Segmentation plays a very important role in prospecting to identify potential buyers.


Am sure would be playing with 1000s of segments but just for an example, say you want to pick only business class frequent fliers for some campaign and then find more potential customers who are more likely to travel by business class, prospecting will come into the picture.


It will target your display ads to “Look-alike & contextual” audience.


Etihad is collecting data via various tools i.e. GA, site catalyst and Adara.


The strategy here is to create segmentation of different dimensions i.e. demographics/Geography/Interests etc. and then create separate adgroups with targeted creatives/campaigns. 




It’s important to first distinguish between prospecting & retargeting. Prospecting is any activity in which you target users who have not yet visited your site. Retargeting, in contrast, is targeting users that have been to your site; this is achieved by leveraging cookie pools collected on site.


This is the weakest sibling in all marketing kids of Etihad, neither static nor dynamic nothing is exploited to the optimum level, am sure remarketing list is being created for each landing page on


Scenario 1 


i.e. Remarketing list of customers who travel from Abu Dhabi to Delhi (people selected via booking/searched data or who landed to


A custom display marketing campaign can be designed for above segment with banners/offers/slogans to attract that customer base, a dynamic interactive ad can be created via dynamic feed which can insert names of searched cities in the ad template and pull the flight prices on the go, most of the companies are targeting their customers dynamically nowadays. I do it in both FBX and DPA via Smartly/Adroll


Scenario 2


Dynamic feeds have to be created in different languages to create multilingual ads i.e. say you want to dynamically retarget people who are intending to fly from XXX to Abu Dhabi, where XXX could be Beijing, Tokyo, Osaka or say any city of Japan. So dynamically ads are created in the Japanese language which is then retargeted to your specific visitors.


Likewise, there are 10000 different permutations and combinations of flights and destinations which visitors are searching all over the globe. An automated campaign can be created retargeting all those visitors which is more likely to bring in substantial conversions.




The Sky is the limit, if Branding, Prospecting and Dynamic Retargeting work in an integrated pattern i.e. in funnel approach, results could be miraculous. Segmentation and retargeting lists will play a very significant role and here experienced marketer will create a difference.

Social Media


Welcome to the world of Facebook, Twitter & Instagram. Etihad has a commendable presence on all of them, we can use ads on every platform but totally depends on our objective, i.e. branding, User acquisition or conversions i.e. bookings.




With 1.6 million fans they have done applaudable job, and they do get engagement but as compared to fan base it is nothing, with an extensive experience in FB (both paid and organic) I am watching organic reach and traffic declining considerably from past 9 months, it has dropped to such a level that many posts die without having any engagement and sometimes they are not even visible on the business page to the fans (weird but this is true) i.e. you can view them only as managers.


My point is, paid is absolute and if brands are not exercising paid advertising then they are lacking behind, now what’s the use of such a huge fan base when you have to ultimately engage in paid activities? Well, ideally brands should not spend on like ads and build their audience as it is not worth in current scenario but brands with the accumulated audience can use their fan base strategically.


Albums, Image posts, and Videos still have organic presence and mostly these formats are used by Etihad but (Ad format) Link posts with call to action are most conversion friendly i.e. if you have to run “Customer acquisition”, “offer”, “Festive Discount”, “Subscription” or any other such campaign,  Ad format Link posts are best. (Ad format posts are only available in business manager and Power editor)



Now depending upon the objective, post format is chosen i.e. if you are running a campaign in which you want traffic on your website then link post format is preferred and if only engagement/social amplification is needed then photo post or albums are preferred



You can see album and image posts perform a lot better than link post in terms of engagement. When you gauge that a link post is performing organically well then you can boost it and further run it as an ad to the segmented/targeted audience. So it’s like testing & promoting at the same time.


This is something which can escalate Etihad’s social media strategy. Some essential highlights on FB ads:


  1. When you actually boost or run a post as an ad, CPC/CPM is very low in Fanbase as compared to outside audience and here you can utilize your fan base on an ameliorating level.
  2. Segmented and Lookalike audiences are more likely to give you conversions so if a campaign is promoted in a strategic manner then FB can yield much better results in comparison to other channels.
  3. Dynamic retargeting on FB is much preferred as compared to publisher display network. In FB, the user is interacting with your ad in isolation giving you CTR rates of 1%-5% whereas in display network the best you can achieve is 0.14-0.4 (if you are lucky).
Scenario 1
People visiting  “Abu Dabhi to Delhi” page can be shown a dynamically generated ad created with website feed (as Google fetches the live info) and retarget them on Facebook. I don’t think anybody is doing it but, technically it is possible.  (Tickets with a time gap of a week or more will be promoted below is just an example)


These campaigns can actually increase sales in slow and off-season periods when air traffic is all time low, strategically low-cost tickets can be promoted to Etihad’s website audience with the help of FB retargeting.


Scenario 2


A visitor searched for flights from Abu Dhabi to Delhi of some specific date, can be dynamically retargeted with DPA ads with start & end destinations, tentative rates/discounts, and dates range. technically it is just an idea but if feed can be created then idea can be worked upon.


Just think people planning their holidays 1 month – 3 months in advance getting custom dynamic offers on their Facebook timeline, how cool will that be, it will change the whole diaspora of dynamic retargeting.


*I shifted nearly 90% of display marketing budgets of my current company to FB dynamic retargeting and successfully slashed monthly advertising budget by 66% 


While writing this blog post, I had a chat with technical department of and they concluded that above is possible. FB DPA ads work via inputs we provide in feeds and a simple feed structure like below can provide the dynamic ad template what it needs 



In above feed values like <price> could be dynamically fetched. While defining the target, we can choose WCA pixel event equals to View Content i.e. people who are viewing the landing page respective to particular start and end destination would be targeted with dynamic ads. 


*Facebook will start implementing more dynamic ads features tailored to the travel vertical (such as real-time flight ticket offers) in 2016


Twitter & Instagram:


These both the platforms are good for instant branding, exposure and social amplification, with 337k followers on Twitter and 277k followers on Instagram. Etihad is doing a commendable job. I can list n number of strategies for both platforms in terms of brand amplification and engagement but in terms of direct conversions these platforms are way behind FB, so I won’t be touching them.


YouTube (Video Advertising) 


It’s pure branding and literally, it’s all about content i.e. ideation and creation, so a video campaign is all about creating an image of a brand and beyond the scope of this project, I can run Trueview In-Stream ad and can get better eyeballs for any campaign. I have mastered all video marketing techniques, but they are more towards SMEs.


Etihad has done a laudable job, I as a digital marketer, can execute the content as an ad with the highest level of optimisation and can deploy strategies to get more subscribers.

4. Digital Marketing Innovation


Google has launched Rankbrain (AI Algorithm working on machine learning system) and Tensorflow and is continually innovating upon search technology. The tech giant says you have to do one thing exceptionally well to survive. 


Message is clear “Either Innovate or Die”


Etihad on a broad spectrum is doing good in online marketing but there is always a room for improvement (as highlighted in my whole project) and certainly, a room to innovate which I will be discussing.


  1. CrowdSourcing / Co-creation
  2. UGC
  3. Augmented Reality
This is something which I think is mandatory if any company wants to sustain for long. The customer is the king and if companies are involving them in creation process then success will be long lasting i.e. they will be your brand ambassadors, despite running loyalty programs provide them with social currency.
The beauty of Crowdsourcing & co-creation is customers will work for you and they will be happy to work for you and that too for free (How good is that). 
A perfect model has to be designed in which success comes in a form of Social Currency.
E.g. :


In early 2008, Starbucks started this community website, My Starbucks Idea, designed to collect suggestions and feedback from customers. Other users comment and vote on suggestions. Mostly all the innovative ideas implemented by the company came from this platform only. Ideas by customers, voted by customers and co-created with and for customers (this is future of online marketing)



Etihad can shift budgets and create a platform like above on which all the employees of airlines can engage, submit and vote ideas related to different sections i.e. in-flight experience, Cargo, Food, dress code, marketing, branding etc (you never know when somebody comes up with a million dollar idea) and gradually the platform can be made public, just imagine that even if 1% of 14.8 million users travelling from Etihad become active contributors, it has a potential to build an active community of 148k customers.


UGC (User Generated Content)


Content marketing is future and that too if your own fanbase is creating it then marketing is automated, something like –


“Customized Flying experience” i.e. everyone having their name imprinted on each SEAT, Waterbottle, and other articles giving them personal feel, ask them to share with #memoirsetihad, share your experiences at FB, INSTA, Tw etc


Augmented Reality: 


As debated by most of the industry experts say that augmented reality would be the future of digital marketing, imagine a scenario in which people are holding their boarding pass, scanning the AR logo and feeling the in-flight experience on the phone itself. More and more companies in the US are launching interactive prints.


Right now Augment Mobile App lets you design and work on interactive printing.  See the below videos and am sure ideas will start flowing…




Malaysian airlines using augmented reality:



Brisbane Airport has started working on a similar idea



or say whenever somebody scans “Etihad Logo” he is immersed in the world of Etihad pampering luxury, how cool is that, see this:



5. Conclusion


This is it, when you have to refine perfection then it takes something. Etihad is famous for its digital marketing, mostly social media and many blogs have rated it in top 10, but with my middling intelligence, I have tried to put some of my ideas which can be considered.


To mop up the whole project:


  1. Identify the gap area in multi-language and multiregional keyword searches, align your PPC search strategy accordingly. 
  2. Custom segmented prospecting i.e.  create segmentations of different dimensions i.e. demographics/Geography/Interests etc. and then create separate adgroups with targeted creatives/campaigns.
  3. Dynamic Retargeting/Remarketing (Display) i.e dynamic interactive ad can be created via dynamic feed which can insert names of searched cities in the ad template and pull the flight prices on the go.
  4. Link posts, Static banners ads (retargeting) and DPA ads (Dynamic Retargeting) on Facebook to amplify display marketing efforts. (Same can be replicated on Tw and Insta)
  5. Innovation in Crowd Sourcing/ Co-Creation and User Generated Content.
  6. Building new app based on Augmented reality giving customers a real-life sense of Etihad’s comfort before actually experiencing it.  


 I am well aware that most of the business of airlines come from OTAs and TAs but this post is not about websites like Skyscanner, rather it is about How we can escalate brand Etihad and their own digital marketing crusades. 


Please note, this is just a top line analysis and my personal lame attempt, without access to the current strategies, their outcomes, analytical data (site catalyst, Google analytics) etc, nothing concrete can be substantiated.


Your comments are welcome, I can be reached at:


Gaurav Agarwal