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Big data gets personal: how to tailor the experience to suit your clients

August 29, 2014

(Published in TTG – 29.07.14)

Amid the buzz about data marketing, it’s all too easy to forget that customers are real people. Sojern’s Stephen Taylor talks to Matthew Parsons about striking the right balance

Stephen Taylor, Sojern vice-president and managing director, international

The big data sector is getting, for want of a better word, bigger.

As more travel companies become aware of the growing amounts of information sets available to them, so too are more technology companies stepping in to help satisfy those needs.

Big data companies can help out in a range of ways, from providing customer profiles to sophisticated advertising platforms, from retargeting to bespoke emails.

The holy grail is to offer relevant, personalised and timely deals.

However, Stephen Taylor, Sojern vice-president and managing director, international, warns that travel marketers must never lose sight of the customer.

“With data marketing today, you can get things more wrong than ever before. You can pretend to know someone,” he says.

One method of extracting more personal information from a customer is to never miss an opportunity to engage. For example, after a customer has booked, travel companies might simply send an email saying “thanks for booking with us”.

However, Taylor urges: “Find out something else.”

Meanwhile, retargeting could be done more intelligently, he argues. Often, a consumer will browse for a particular product and then find they are “followed” around the web, thanks to cookies, with adverts for that same very same product.

On occasions, Taylor contends that it’s bad practice to try to sell a customer something they do not want to buy – and those retargeting adverts should in fact be used to re-engage with that person: “Ask them why they didn’t purchase that flight, for example. Find out why people do things, do it algorithmically – the more data points you collect, the more relevant the information.

“Be smart and pull in all the data. Otherwise, the consumer perception is bad, and it breaks the rules of advertising.”

Information gathering

Another example of joined-up thinking is to link more data sources, he continues. “If someone had searched for Heathrow-New York on an airline’s website, and you know that person is part of the airline’s frequent-flyer programme, rather than repeating the same advert on other websites, target them with an email for the same flight but with an upgraded seat.”

As a result, Taylor says data “could go so much further” for travel agents. “The objective is still the same,” he argues.

“Act like a local high street travel agent. You still need to do business in a personal and relevant way. Bring it back to the consumer, add people back into the equation.”

Ever-growing demand

Meanwhile, Taylor says companies such as Sojern are playing a greater role in the distribution chain.

“We have a more integral part. It’s a new thing, but we’re being treated like a new platform. The risk is increasingly on us, but some of our customers are now entrusting us to find new ways to sell.”

Sojern specialises in “intent data” – using data from search boxes, such as destinations on an airline’s website – and helps companies target those people with relevant adverts, such as a hotel deal for the same location and date search previously made.

“The most powerful thing in travel is intent – the search box,” he claims. “Then you look at what else can add value to that.”

It is a tactic that is paying off. Last year, Sojern opened its first office outside the US, in London, and has seen demand for its services soar.

In April, it reported revenue for the first quarter of 2014 was double that of the 2013 first quarter. And since April 2013, Sojern’s staff numbers have grown by 50%.

In December 2013, it secured $10 million funding, led by Triangle Peak Partners.

“We proved we can expand in Europe,” Taylor says, adding there are now people based in Germany and Dubai, with plans to expand to Singapore in the coming months.

The Middle East is also under Taylor’s gaze. “In Dubai, they have the most exciting airlines and hotels. Just standing in Dubai airport is worth doing – to experience what a real hub is. The travel patterns are immense; there are big markets coming in and coming out.”

Other big data outfits such as Boxever and Adara are also competing in the same travel space, and similarly winning funding, with the former raising an extra $6 million in March this year. “Of course, there’s competition – this is a growing market,” says Taylor. “But it’s healthy to have competition – more people talking about it is a good thing.”

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