June 13, 2018 by Hedgehog

Personalization in Travel and Hospitality: A Hedgehog Live Chat

Welcome to our Hedgehog live chat. The following transcript has been lightly edited.

Jackie (Jacqueline Baxter, Marketing Specialist): Welcome to our Hedgehog live chat, where the opinions are real and the points don't matter. In honor of HITEC we're going to be discussing a subject near and dear to my heart: personalization. Let's start with something foundational. What is the advantage in using personalization on a site as opposed to not using it?

Leticia (Leticia Shene, Marketing Manager): What can be better than getting to know what your customer likes? Truly knowing what they like, are interested in, and want to see helps you drive decisions around your products, promotions, etc. based on what people want

Michael (Michael Greenberg, Head of Strategy, Sales and Marketing): The bar for engagement by individuals is incredibly high. Boring stuff gets ignored. Interesting stuff gets attention and shared. Personalization increases the chances your content will be interesting and not boring.

Leticia: Boring is definitely no good.

Jackie: It's also expected at this stage in the game. If your website isn't personalized you're about 2 years behind your competition.

Michael: When you look at it from a metrics perspective, personalization increases dwell time, conversion, pages per visit, and a whole host of other good things. Jackie's point is dead on. Particularly for repeat visitors, the expectation is "I agree to share my data with you, you agree to make my experience better."

Jackie: Though GDPR is making things interesting. In the next year we'll know what people value more: privacy or personalized experiences.

Michael: Well, personalization is one of the key elements of making that tradeoff explicit.

Leticia: That's a good point. If content on a site becomes stale or boring, as Michael mentioned, it can have an impact on how the guest or visitor feels about the brand.

Michael: Without it, there isn't a clear quid pro quo right now.

Jackie: That's a silver lining - it’s hard to appreciate those over the wailing and gnashing of teeth from an entire industry.

Michael: I would not at all be surprised to see a new marketing skill - rewriting cookie acceptance policies to clearly state the benefit of accepting marketing cookies.

Leticia: I’m on it. It only counts if LinkedIn lists it as a skill.

Michael: Something like "By accepting our marketing cookies, we will personalize your experience in ways you will find rewarding and beneficial. And we'll give you a puppy." 

Stephen:

Jackie: That's one of the tricks of the consent experience, though. Making sure people appreciate the benefits that come with being tracked. Right now, it seems creepy and intrusive, but it should be about making the experience the best that it can be. And a puppy.

Leticia: So....do you think customization, like a choose your own path approach, will start to creep up?

Jackie: A whole generation raised on Choose Your Own Adventure is about to have a major share of the market

Leticia: Yes! Like those cheesy books from the 90's

Michael: Absolutely. Think about Facebook's "see less like this" button. We will totally see "see more of..." and "see less of..." in the coming year. More puppies, fewer cheesy stock photos.

Jackie: I'm willing to admit that as an industry we haven't done a great job of communicating the immediate benefits of personalization, and I couldn't agree with Michael more - those kinds of up-vote/down-vote choices are going to be part of how we impress upon audiences these benefits. Help us help you kinda thing.

Michael: Yes...making that tradeoff explicit will be IMHO the reaction to GDPR Armageddon. Although, to be fair, the real impact of GDPR is in online ads. Onsite optimization isn't impacted nearly as much.

Stephen (Stephen Garrett, Development Manager): I know this will make me unpopular, but I hate being tracked. Even by Amazon. For one thing, just because I bought one carburetor for a pressure washer, doesn't mean I'll ever need another one. Quit suggesting them, Amazon!

Jackie: But is that the fault of personalization or of the algorithm? Like, how can technology be improved in this regard? Because I agree, it's not like I need 45 lawn mowers. But that doesn't mean I don't need/want accessories or a weed whacker.

Leticia: Maybe this is where personalization and customization need to merge

Michael: I think there is a big difference across websites. In commerce, the personalization (or lack thereof) is much more direct. But in something like hospitality, it can me much subtler and very effective.

Stephen: That seems reasonable.

Michael: More importantly, unlike commerce, if I've stayed at a resort hotel in the past, I'm far more likely to stay at one in the future. Or, for example, the Sheraton Four Points in Plainview, NY. On the second floor, away from the freeway side.

Jackie: So, you'd say personalization is a necessity in the hospitality industry then? I'm going out on a limb but I think that's what you're saying.

Leticia: Yes.... I think that especially in the travel and hotel industry there needs to be some sort of understanding of the guests needs and wants.

Michael: Personalization is an extremely important part of a larger set of needs, spanning CRM, loyalty, offers, yield management, and guest experience. But its where you can really dial in all of those other systems.

Leticia: If you are traveling to a location you have never been to before having content geared towards you as a traveler rather than having to search for it makes the experience easier.

Stephen: I think the challenge with personalization in any context is getting enough information to drive to the proper conclusions. Simply because I booked a stay at a four-star resort once does not mean that would do so every time I book a stay. Maybe I'm usually a business traveler and that resort booking was for a reward stay.

Leticia: You have to truly understand your audience and your identified segments to create a system that thinks and acts like them.

Stephen: Yes, Tish. Exactly.

Michael: True, but at least I can stop showing you winter scenes and focus on warm beachy options.

Michelle (Michelle Thomas, Project Manager): Sorry to just be jumping in here, but I completely agree. As someone who works very closely with the hospitality industry, I see the importance for guests/visitors to have a personalized experience. But to Stephen’s point, you do not want to limit that experience based on a few things you may know about them.

Michael: So, I can keep appealing to your happy place of vacations while you are booking soul-crushing business travel.

Stephen: Lol.

Leticia: Soul crushing unless it's to Hawaii or somewhere beachy. My soul will be intact with a meeting by a beach bar.

Michael: As someone who has spent more than a year of my life in hotel rooms, anything that keeps me motivated is a positive.

Jackie: I'm very interested in the technology side of this, because personalization should be substantive and valuable. How can personalization technology be improved or what is already out there that makes this easier?

Leticia: And how much personalization is too much? In other words, shouldn't it feel like a natural, useful part of the process vs. feeling like Big Brother is watching?

Michael: There's a fundamental difference between personalizing for anonymous vs. identified visitors. In industries where loyalty is reward explicitly (i.e. travel and hospitality and some retail), I want you to know who I am. And that brings the whole toolkit into play. From what I've seen and heard, what freaks people out are ads that follow them around the interwebs. Onsite personalization is far less creepy.

Stephen: I agree with that. I'm more open to suggestions based on feedback also. For example, Netflix's algorithm for suggesting things to watch based on the individualized ratings is based on comparing the ratings against ratings for similar watchers. I've gotten better suggestions over time.

Michelle: I completely agree. People want their experiences personalized when traveling, whether for business or personal. This is completely why they have reward programs and points. They willingly give that information. But when surfing the web, I don’t want to see everything I ever clicked on or looked at in an ad. Or better yet, the things the people in my house look at.

Michael: I'm not going there.

Leticia: Michelle, are you more comfortable with personalization in say an email campaign versus a web browser?

Michelle: Absolutely, typically because I sign up for these or can opt out.

Jackie: I also tend to be more fine with single site personalization, which is helpful. Versus the ads that flicker above and to the side of every social media feed, which are a little creepy.

Stephen: When I traveled a lot, I really preferred booking with Hilton, but the reason wasn't because they "knew" me, but rather they offered the best online services for getting information about my past stays, which made it much easier to put together my expense reports.

Michelle: I am also more comfortable with an in person personalized experience, as we were discussing before. That feels much more personable and valuable (I used the word "person" in many different ways in one sentence)

Leticia: Each brand really needs to find their customers groove in terms of personalizing content. It's not a one size fits all methodology. Having the wrong approach can turn people off and make them feel dirty or creeped out.

Michael: I guess its valuable to discuss what personalization really means in these contexts.

Stephen: That is a good point, Michael.

Michael: There's personalizing images, copy, and such so that its more relevant to you. This might show up in beach vs, snow, promotional vs. aspirational, etc. These are typically subtler, because you as a visitor don't see the other version and the source of personalization may not be as explicit. And since there isn't necessarily an action I want you to take (explicitly) it becomes a qualitative aspect of my experience. But once you start personalizing offers or calls to action, I'm snapped into decision mode. Is this something I'm interested in? Something I want? Relevant to the task at hand right now?

Jackie: I think that goes back to the value proposition of personalization. Is this helpful or is it creepy: a useful metric for strategists.

Leticia: I also think that testing the different ways to personalize for your audience is key. what one may find creepy another might find an incentive to buy.

Stephen: I think there is another potential personalization opportunity with the UX. For example, knowing that I'm a returning business traveler with a history of booking stays in different locations, maybe I will present a form to start the booking process rather than ad for a location.

Michael: That's one way to look at it. Thinking about what I just wrote, I'd characterize it as experience-enhancing vs. action-driving. If I come into the site from a search ad, I can combine what I already know about you with the task it appears I'm trying to accomplish and personalize the experience along both dimensions.

Jackie: Which is essential in the hospitality industry, since it's both industry standard and, as you said Michael, experience-enhancing.

Leticia: Most marketers have personalized content, not a personalized UX.

Stephen: Why not both? In Sitecore, I could just as easily swap out a Start Booking component with an Promoted Location component based on the known attributes of the visitor.

Michael: Or put start booking before promoted location for some people, and the opposite for others. I have about 42 more test scenarios from my SUGCON EU presentation I can throw into the mix.

Leticia: Like I said earlier- knowing your audience is part of finding the right mix.

Stephen: Exactly, Michael. All of which raises an interesting point. The technology for _implementing_ personalization is pretty straight-forward. The real challenge is understanding your customer base to the point that you can _accurately_ segment them, and then providing _real_ value to them with your personalization strategy.

Jackie: Personalization isn't really about the technology then? It's all about the strategy behind it?

Michael: We're moving beyond personalization being difficult to implement and manage. So yes Jackie, I would agree.

Leticia: Isn't it both?

Michelle: You need both, the technology needs to be able to implement the strategy.

Michael: Not too long ago, run-time personalization would bring 99.99% of websites to a screeching halt. Coupled with expensive and brittle integrations, only the most advanced companies could do it. That's no longer the case.

Stephen: I agree. Advances in unsupervised machine learning data-mining techniques are potentially helpful in identifying patterns and creating segments and are more affordable to apply than ever. Using personallization to provide real value to your customer still requires a human-level of understanding and creativity.

Michael: I wasn't even talking ML yet.

Stephen: You knew it was going to come up sooner or later.

Michael: Yeah. But when Google says, "load your page in 2 seconds or less or we'll kidnap your children and hold them for ransom", you have to rely on enterprise-class tech to make it work.

Leticia: Quick get a puppy!!

Stephen:

Michael: At least this one isn't being held out the window of a moving car.

Jackie: Yet.

Michael: I think it comes back to the strategy behind the personalization. Have a clear understanding of how you are creating value for your visitor/customer, execute well, learn, and optimize.

Jackie: I agree. It's one of the reasons I'm not concerned about the robots taking over the world. Because optimizing means adjusting based on results. Set it and forget it isn't an option.

Michael: Totally agree. The world shifts rapidly. Today it’s the Warriors, tomorrow its Kanye, the day after its Macron.

Leticia: Personalization is not for companies with no clue how they want to segment- it's for businesses that are ready to capitalize on their segments.

Michael: Tish, absolutely. Personalization doesn't fix a lack of knowledge about visitors.

Jackie: Personalization is not, on its own, the magic wand that will fix all issues. But combined with a solid understanding of your customers and a good implementation strategy it can create something really valuable.

Michael: And I think the other part of personalization to start thinking about is off-web. But that's probably for another day.

Jackie: We're coming to the end of our chat, so it's time for my favorite question: what's one thing you wish everyone in the industry know about personalization?

Stephen: It seems like you also want to avoid "pigeon-holing" your customers. There could be missed opportunities if you always limit your interaction to a single context.

Leticia: Know your audience before you implement your strategy.

Stephen: Be open to change and evolution of your audience.

Michael: A little goes a long way, so just do something, and start learning.

Jackie: Lay the groundwork before you start implementing (it will save you time and money in the long run), and be flexible.

Michael: I'd restate Jackie's as "Make sure you set it up right or it will take you years to fix it." Not that that's scary or anything.

Leticia: True fact!

Michelle: Based on experience, laying the groundwork, and creating the strategy before jumping in is my #1 recommendation. That doesn't mean you know everything and that your audience and technology is not ever changing, but without proper planning you may end up going around and around.

Hedgehog is partnering with Cendyn, the leading provider of hotel CRM and hotel sales platforms in the hospitality industry, to integrate Cendyn’s eInsight customer relationship management (CRM) solution with the Sitecore® Experience Platform™ (CXP) to deliver powerful personalized digital experiences. Read the full press release or meet up with us at HITEC in Houston, Texas on June 18-21, 2018.

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