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Why it’s worth recycling data

December 20, 2013

(Published in TTG – 23.10.13)

Travel firms are becoming increasingly serious about recycling user information to help influence and predict future purchases. Matthew Parsons reports

The travel industry is always being urged to recycle. Now one company is taking that ethos to heart with the way it uses data.

New technologies are leading to ever more creative ways of using big data, which two years ago was made possible thanks to advancements in cloud computing.

One such company, Sojern, has based its business on “intent” – put simply, people entering dates in online search boxes – while Sabre, via its Travel Labs unit, is experimenting with “social data”.

Intent to travel

Sojern is specialising in a form of “recycling” data. In the US, it works with nearly all the major airlines, as well as the likes of IHG, Starwood, Hilton and Hertz, among others.

Yet instead of looking into the past, it is harnessing “billions of data points” to predict and influence future purchases.

With airlines, Sojern extracts real-time data from its websites as users search for flights across various dates. Simultaneously, it is feeding that data to its hotel clients, and via Sojern’s advertising platform those same users are targeted with relevant adverts for hotels, which match the dates on which they were considering flights.

Real-time bidding takes place in microseconds and adverts can appear on Google, Yahoo or even OTAs.

“When people search for fights on an airline website, or an OTA, it’s like they’re putting their hand up,” explains Stephen Taylor, vice-president and managing director, International. “It’s better [data] than Google. We’re finding that user again,” he adds.

So what’s in it for the airlines? Taylor says they benefit twofold: they “get a cut of the deal” if that user goes on to book accommodation; and they also “gain more insight” into users.

For example, with Starwood it is letting the hotel group know “when is the right moment” to advertise. “With business travellers, we find out how long they book in advance. We’re finding new revenue streams for everyone,” Taylor says.

It is also in the airline’s best interest to have a website that, at its core, sells flights only – and doesn’t clutter the website with adverts for accommodation.

Taylor arrived in London’s Soho six months ago to open the US firm’s first UK office, and has a team of 10. His previous roles have included marketing director for Airmiles, just after the company launched nearly two decades ago, as well as working for Yahoo! as part of the team that launched Yahoo! Answers.

“I have a passion for travel,” he says, and compares Sojern’s business – which targets the travel industry only – to Airmiles: “It’s the same thing – back then it was all about understanding yield for airlines.”

Sojern was founded in 2007. “A bunch of guys were travelling around, checking in online and printing their boarding passes,” explains Taylor. “In true American fashion, they saw these boarding passes had lots of white space on them, so they thought: how can we fill this? They approached airlines, and asked to place advertising, and useful content, there, and to their surprise they all said yes.”

Now it’s a lot more than boarding passes, he explains, but the opportunity to put relevant advertising in the right place and “the need to understand data” continues.

Privacy concerns
However, as Sojern works across multiple sectors, and with data belonging to rival companies, it ensures that it is “sensitive”. “We don’t feedback on competitors,” he assures me, and “we don’t put our brand in the way”.

As it now sets its sights on the UK, Taylor won’t be drawn on which airlines or OTAs it is talking to, and refuses to comment on whether it is working with, or plans to work with, any of the GDSs.

However, it is looking at UK airlines, as well as those in the Middle East, with the region’s airports “set to become phenomenal hubs”. A combination of a Paris and Berlin, or Paris and Munich office, may also be on the cards.

Sojern is also keen on the idea of working with more tourist boards, and in the US already works closely with Montana’s tourism board. It also wants to work with more operators in the UK.

It’s all part of a development plan for the future, when data recycling is as automatic for businesses as paper recycling is today.

Hierarchies of data and the role of social media 

Sojern’s Taylor says the company is not currently exploring data from social media. “It comes back to intent,” he says. “There are hierarchies of value of data. At the top, there’s the data from the airline website.

Sarah Kennedy Ellis

That search data is our complete focus.” However, Sarah Kennedy Ellis (above), director at Sabre Labs, is experimenting with harnessing social media data and will unveil a prototype tool at WTM this year.

“Over the years, I’ve learnt data is the most important thing with social media,” she says. “It’s not just about marketing.”

Ellis argues that while there is “tonnes of unstructured data”, such as comments, there is also structured data, such as geolocation data and hashtags.

The tool Sabre is developing could help hoteliers drive conversion. For example, it looks at the most shareable photos on the likes of Instagram. It then filters those back into the hotel’s own marketing material.

“At Sabre Labs, we’re all about testing the technology. We put it into the hands of our customers and see if it works OK. We’re always upfront with them, and if a tool works we ask if they think we should develop it and place it into our portfolio.”

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