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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Customer Experience Management: How Online Travel Companies Can Increase Engagement and Loyalty

Last night I flew to Miami, along with several members of the Maxymiser team to attend one of the best events for online marketers in the travel industry: EyeForTravel's Online Marketing Strategies for Travel 2011. This morning, I'll be keynoting on a great panel about "Keeping Pace with a Rapidly Changing Online Travel Distribution Landscape." This is such an important topic for online travel marketers, and one which I am highly passionate about. Today, travel customers have increasingly high expectations of brand, it's important to understand what movements in the field of Customer Experience Management have led to improvements in loyalty across different marketing channels.

Prior to the show, I had a chance to sit down with EyeForTravel to discuss the power (and necessity) of personalization to improve the online booking experience. This originally published on here. 

Q: Which according to you has been the most striking or potentially path-breaking development in the travel sector in the last six months or so? Would you call it a real innovation at this stage?

Mark Simpson: With the shift of owning the customer moving back towards suppliers the need for competitive sites which relate to each individual visitor is more than ever. This focus will create innovation. However, the biggest innovations are actually happening outside the travel industry, but have a dramatic affect on the way in which travel businesses need to operate in order to compete and be successful.

Social, Mobile, Coupons, Group Buying and Customer Experience Management all hold massive potential upside for travel businesses who get their strategies right.

Q: It is considered that travel personalization is still in its infancy. Considering the myriad of options available for planning and booking, what do you think are the major challenges that travel suppliers and intermediaries are facing today? How can their websites enable them to overcome challenges pertaining to optimizing relationships with their audience?

Mark Simpson: There is no doubt that the travel market is more competitive than ever with suppliers competing with intermediaries and OTAs, as well as each other.

The biggest opportunity to increase engagement and loyalty is in customer experience management – empowering customers to give direct opinion on how your digital sites should look through A/B and multivariate testing (which sets the base line) and personalizing the customer experience – so you become the most relevant travel brand for that individual.

There are now solutions on the market that drive content in real-time based upon a visitor’s online behavior to be more directed to the needs of each individual at that point in time. For example, if a traveler returns after starting a reservation, the experience could be more targeted to enable that visitor to complete the reservation.

Content decisions may also be driven by a traveler’s loyalty status and reinforce their loyalty status and importance during the online interaction.

Q: What do you recommend when it comes to developing customer experiences based on objective, data-driven decisions and continuous website optimization?

Mark Simpson: The leaders in the online space – Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc - have one thing in common: they have never gone through a major website redesign. Instead these brands have continually iterated their sites, testing every change before rolling it out to all visitors. This daily, weekly and monthly iteration allows customers to "tell" companies what they like (and don't like) through real interaction. The data driven results are un-contestable. This is available to every company now, and in recent developments pioneered by Maxymiser, the control of content testing and personalization sits with the business, rather than IT, so the speed required for true iteration is now a reality.

Q: Can you elaborate on how new travel sites are setting benchmarks for the industry to follow?

Mark Simpson: Gone are the days where markets are slow moving. If you're not innovating and continually improving how you interact with your customers you will fall behind. If your competitors don't overtake you can bet your bottom dollar that there is someone in their bedroom focusing on doing what you are, but in a different way. Recent research has shown that 1 in 5 travelers encounter problems when booking their travel. These people are young and tech-savvy, and a third of these people's first port of call when problems arise is to find a solution with a different company.

Q: In your opinion, how can travel sites go about utilizing features such as videos, blogs etc and set specific, measurable goals related to business metrics, and then track them regularly and measure the ROI?

Mark Simpson: The only way to accurately measure the performance of new content, whatever that content may be, is to test it in a live environment against a default, and measure the change in desired response(s).

Every site change needs to be measured by its impact on conversion rates, revenue, lifetime value and overall success of the visitor completing the objective, no excuses. The biggest failing is not to try. If you aren’t trying, you aren’t moving forward. It’s easier than ever to safely try new and innovative content using a dynamic testing platform.

Q: Travel sites are connecting more with their customers through social media and interactive website features, including mobile applications or offering a Live Help feature. How do you think sites are starting to move beyond the traditional price/ date/ destination search criteria to provide more flexibility to customers?

Mark Simpson: Companies have had to move beyond traditional search methods. Customers are looking in many areas and through other channels for travel ideas, advice, research, information and booking methods. This breeds opportunity, particularly for travel companies to touch the customer with targeting and personalized messaging as more is known about their preferences and behavior.

Q: Can you elaborate on the latest trends pertaining to conversion management? How do you assess the maturity level of A/B and multivariate testing solutions in the travel sector?

Mark Simpson: Content testing has become mainstream thanks to significant innovations in the market coming from Maxymiser. The ability to test without touching IT is the single biggest leap as it empowers marketers - truly allowing testing anywhere, anytime with a low total cost of ownership. Some of the claims of incumbents in the market are only now playing out due to these advanced solutions.
Automating the use of learning algorithms is another major step forward allowing for faster testing, less risk and substantially increased flexibility, which in turn enables companies to be able to test without encroaching on day-to-day business practices.

Q: How do you think the travel industry is going about machine learning and is leveraging semantics dynamically to understand what people might like at the moment they search, creating a unique personalized filter through which they can see what’s most relevant to them? What do you think have been major breakthroughs for machine learning considering that its still early stages for the same?

Mark Simpson: I see very few travel companies doing this successfully right now, However, for the first time it is easy to achieve this with SaaS-based solutions. So the good news is there is no reason not to try it.

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