Sheffield-based Horizon Guides is on a journey. Founded by marketing and publishing specialist Matthew Barker, the holiday destination travel guides publisher is looking to innovate in a market that has been changing for some time.
It all began a decade ago when Barker set up an online marketing consultancy serving SME tour operators. It was at the beginnings of the era of “content marketing”, but few business owners knew where to start.
“There was a stage where ‘quality content’ started to become important to digital marketing, but the problem was that many people didn’t know what that meant,” says Barker. “We would help businesses not just create the content but understand how to do it strategically in a way that could turn it into bookings and bums on seats.”
Spotting an opportunity to help businesses navigate the rapidly changing marketing landscape, Barker and his team created a name for themselves over the years while building up a worldwide network of freelance content creators, which would prove invaluable in the long run.
On the horizon
Instead of getting easier, marketing became even harder for SME tour operators over time, Barker says. He cites problems related to two heavily used methods: the ever-changing rules of search engine optimisation (or SEO), and rising costs associated with pay-per-click (PPC) advertising.
“Suddenly the channels that tour operators used to rely on started to disappear,” he says. “As a result they started to churn out ever more content in a bid to capture eyeballs and attention.”
It was here that Barker and his team identified an opportunity to take an alternative approach, one that would eliminate their clients’ need to throw money at content marketing and dramatically cut their advertising spend. Horizon Guides was born.
The startup’s process is simple: they use keyword research tools to identify popular tours and activities. If a tour is popular enough Horizon Guides commissions professional writers from their network to produce an online travel guide. The guides are targeted to prospective travellers, who can download them – for free – while researching their next trip.
This is used as a mechanism to generate leads for tour operators, who pay Horizon Guides for a stream of new customers. The consumer gets free travel planning information, and the tour operator gets to reach their customers for a fraction of the usual cost.
By aggregating both the content creation and delivery to target audiences, Barker says that the company’s guides allow tour operators to benefit from economies of scale.
“Rather than an individual tour operator generating content in an attempt to acquire audiences, we realised that if you bring dozens and soon to be hundreds of businesses together, it makes it infinitely easier and cheaper to acquire audiences,” he says. “Essentially they make a small investment in our product and it unlocks massive efficiencies in the rest of their marketing.”
Barker predicts that the guides can attract up to 60 or 70 leads per month for tour operators that partner with them, in addition to around 600 page impressions, with some room to manoeuvre depending on their aims.
“Having such figures is a key factor as marketing for tour operators is usually filled with such uncertainty – we’re replacing that,” he says. “We essentially say that you can get X amount of leads per month, and here is what you can do with them.”
In order to increase the size of its writing team and hit its target of producing 65 guides – each with a sponsoring partner – within 18 months, Horizon Guides is undergoing a crowdfunding round through CrowdCube in a bid to raise £150,000.
“Our biggest pain point at the moment is the cost of goods sold,” Barker says. “We produce these guides way below the market rate, but it’s still quite a capital-intensive product.”
The founder encourages would-be investors to sample some of the company’s existing guides: “We’ve just put one up of Cuba, and it’s one of my favourites yet. Our Silk Road one is beautiful too. Start there and download some other guides and take a good look and get a handle on how our product works.”
In the future, Barker wants to develop the brand and put “more of a human face” on it.
“There aren’t many touchpoints for our readers to engage with us as a company,” he says. “Customers download the guide and get a transactional email, and that’s about it.”
However, Barker says that the startup’s customers so far have “responded really well” to its business model and product, and Horizon Guides has even drawn praise from Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler, who praised the product’s production values.
“We’ve upsold to one of our 11 current partners who have taken out a second guide,” he says. “Our best feedback is coming from our partners, who love the product. That’s what keeps us going – knowing that the product is immensely valuable for these people.”
By building on the company’s years of publishing experience and adding more writers to the team, Barker is confident that there’s plenty more value to be made.