Guest Post: What does genuinely putting consumers first look like in travel?

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Guest Post: What does genuinely putting consumers first look like in travel?

Question who your users are and what they really want, while suspending your desire that they book as soon as possible, says Richard Harris, chief executive of Intent Media

Fresh from some of the biggest travel conferences of the year, the major buzzwords we’re hearing are: AI, machine learning, voice recognition, and natural language processing.

When you break down how travel brands are using these exciting new technologies, the prevailing theme is: ‘Users First’.

At November’s Phocuswright Conference, Oliver Heckman, Google’s VP of Engineering for Travel and Shopping, said that “Travel companies can get ahead by thinking user-first, embracing automated marketing opportunities, and experimenting with new platforms.”

Expedia chief executive Mark Okerstrom said the brand plans to be a leader in using machine learning and big data to “get to better personalization and real customer-centricity”. Lufthansa, Hilton, TripAdvisor and others shared ambitious plans to put users first.

User experience customization is good for business

Curating online experiences for users isn’t new to travel and hospitality. Expedia, for example, has been using “travel graphs” to prioritise users’ options for years.

Even no-frills players like easyJet and Ryanair have invested heavily in data to better give users what they want.

The industry is, after all, essentially about anticipating and satisfying consumer’s individual desires.

There is another reason companies care about “users first”, though—it makes good business sense.

A 2017 study by The Boston Consulting Group showed that firms who use technology to create bespoke user experiences are growing two to three times faster than those who do not.

Think about Amazon, Netflix and iTunes – their personal recommendation engines drive 80% of their consumption.

In travel, 57% of US travelers now expect brands to tailor information to them based on personal preferences or past behaviours, and more than a third are even willing to pay more for it.

If “users first” works, then why aren’t all users buying?

OTAs typically implement ‘users first’ with a single objective: driving conversions.

Travel brands use technology to customise sort order, alter UX, and make recommendations, all to push people down the conversion funnel. And it works well–for users who are ready to buy.

When you think about it, though, tailoring experiences with the sole goal of driving a conversion isn’t really walking the “users first” talk at all.

It’s like calling yourself generous for giving your spouse tickets to a movie that you want to see. The truth is, shoppers aren’t always ready to pull the trigger.

Sometimes what they really want is help researching destinations or validating prices.

Shoving them down the conversion funnel at that moment won’t work. How do we know? Just follow the money.

Millennials, now America’s largest generation, lead a global travel cart abandonment rate of 82%.

Of that amount, at least 39% can be chalked up to comparison shopping. (I’ll spare you the stats on how many OTAs users visit before booking; they’re all in the double or triple digits.)

Despite all of the incredible advances the industry has made in data-driven user experience customisation, the truth is that in any given online session, most users aren’t going to complete a purchase.

Data is the key to truly putting users first, and to maximizing revenue

Brands need to start thinking about what users really want – and not just about the brand’s desire for users to book as soon as possible.

It requires a bit of a mindshift, but it’s the only way to compete when users expect choice, cross-shopping is the norm, and acquisition costs keep rising.

Every buying journey is unique. Sometimes a user knows what they want and looks for the shortest path to booking.

Other times they’re still dreaming, still shopping around. Maybe a user is loyal to one brand, but visits another to validate pricing.

Another user may be looking at a deal a friend sent, but will probably never come back.

You simply can’t convert all users. The challenge is to distinguish the browsers from the bookers. This is where big data and AI become really interesting.

If you know what to look for, each user produces hundreds of data signals with every visit—things like how many times they’ve completed the same search, whether they’re also searching the same dates for other destinations, whether the search includes a Saturday, how quickly they are searching, and so on.

When you collect, transform and meaningfully analyse enough data, it’s possible to identify a user’s likelihood of booking.

That is a huge advantage. With that kind of information, brands can offer real relevance. They can focus on giving the user the right experience throughout the funnel, based on the user’s true needs, not just pushing to get them to the check-out page.

Understanding what users really want empowers brands to make smart choices

At Intent Media, we identify a user’s propensity to purchase during more than 2.5 billion travel searches a year and help brands decide things like: Can we convert this user into a buyer immediately?

Should we offer a promotion or incentive to give them the nudge they need? Are we better off monetising this user with search-like advertising or competitive pricing?

Should we allocate remarketing dollars to them? Or should we actually help them comparison-shop via our own site by serving advertising for our competitors?

As counter-intuitive as the last choice may sound, travel brands who intelligently monetise by serving comparison shopping ads to users with a low propensity to book perform better, without cannibalising core revenue.

Some visitors are simply using your site for comparison shopping and are highly unlikely to buy from you.

When you recognize them, why not acknowledge this reality and profit from these users in another way? It’s a win-win.

The consumer gets help doing what they came to do, and feels positive about the experience. The brand drives revenue where there would otherwise be none.

Expedia understands this. It’s the reason then-chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi publicly said that “a higher and higher percentage of our revenue is going to come from sources that look more like media revenue”.

Genuine customer-centricity is built on the idea of serving users, no matter where they are in the shopping process.

Thinking about users in terms of who they really are and what they really want—while suspending your desire that they book as soon as possible—is the only way to drive maximum revenue in both the short and long-term.

Truly put user’s first, and the rest will follow.


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