Ai Editorial: Improving Personalisation

5 issues that can improve an airline’s personalisation plan

Airlines need to be pragmatic especially when it comes to sorting out internal issues or avoiding public distrust in order to optimize their personalisation initiative, writes Ritesh Gupta, Ai Correspondent

Being “data-driven” is key to being customer-centric – something we hear quite often. Understanding the intent of flyers, serving them what might be of utility or even inspire them for their next journey, being spot on with all this in terms of the channel/ device that is being used…this all and more is what airlines are trying to achieve. Yes, recognizing a customer and being relevant to them throughout the purchase funnel is the benchmark for an apt customer experience.

But this means airlines need to embrace change. So how challenging is it?

Progress is being made, as Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Ryan M. Harris, e-commerce and ancillary products manager, InselAir and InselAir Aruba says.

The personalisation of the passenger experience is “becoming more and more individual, as opposed to being based on a certain market segment”, says Harris.

This is evolving from the automation of several areas which used to be manual processes and it is through that automation that huge data sets are now being created that can be used specifically for this purpose. The era of big data is actually here now, but the tools and strategies to fully take advantage of it are still just a bit below the horizon for the most part, says Harris.   

“The shift from mass marketing to individual offers is an exciting process, as the industry develops new and personalized products and services based on a passenger’s previous behavior and feedback” says Harris.

Here we explore few key aspects that need to be dealt with for improving upon personalisation:

  • Internal issues: One of the major issues, according to Harris, is that it takes the industry deep into the data processing world, which is not an inexpensive proposition. “The role of the Database Administrator (DBA) is becoming essential in any airline’s commercial organization, where it was previously relegated to a pure IT function.  With big data, all new opportunities become available, even to the emerging carriers that have previously struggled in competition.  The challenge for most organizations will be identifying the need to more closely integrate IT into the commercial processes to manage the sheer volumes of data and create an output that is functional and beneficial to the passenger,” explains Harris.   

In most companies within the industry, the IT organization has been traditionally focused on the technology side with hardware, software, apps and networks. 

“Big data and the benefits that can be derived from it need to force a change to focus on the information side of the equation.  Organizationally, this usually results in a transition from a Chief Technology Officer to a Chief Information Officer, to reinforce the change of focus,” says Harris.

The technology side will still remain important, but will largely be there to support the information collection and transformation processes to create the personalized experiences that passengers desire and that we are now able to deliver.

  • Anticipating customer needs: Quite often it is said that retail infrastructure must enable one single view of the customer throughout the traveller journey. Referring to this, Harris points out that the evolution of airlines from simply providing a seat to get from A to B into becoming a true travel service retailer has really been pushed forward from the days of the unbundling movement.

“The industry is becoming involved in retailing and merchandizing in ways that were never anticipated 20 years ago and this shift forces a change toward the retailing model.  By “re-bundling” products and services, we have created new products that can be effectively differentiated and sold to meet passenger demand above and beyond a simple seat,” he says.

As a passenger, it now means much more choice and different price points that I can shop during my travel planning.  Instead of three airlines, each with three cabins for a total of nine price/ service points, one airline may be offering four options in economy, three in business and two in first by itself.  Those options, as Harris explains, allows one to consider exactly what it is that he or she wants based on price tolerance and needs.

“The advantage goes to the airline that is able to anticipate those wants and needs through the shopping process and deliver personalized services based on my history,” says Harris.

  • Emulating Amazon or Netflix:  These brands are benchmarks for personalisation. Harris admits that such examples pertaining to “what to do” in the airline industry are often cited, but he doesn’t think that they really serve as perfect examples.  The biggest difference is that Amazon and Netflix have only one sales channel, which is directly through them.  They also sell via platforms that are completely developed and handled themselves, which is a situation that even some of the world’s largest airlines cannot compare to. 

“The biggest difference, especially in Amazon’s case, is the amount of data processing infrastructure available to them.  I believe that Amazon is the second largest private data processor in the world right now, right behind Google.  In a world where data is power, which in personalized retailing, it definitely is, the scale of the comparisons is not valid,” says Harris. “That being said, airlines are using some of the lessons that can be taken from these companies, namely that personalisation of offers is an effective tool in today’s marketplace and that is requires huge amounts of data to effectively achieve it.”

  • Multi-device phenomenon:  Personalisation efforts, for PC website, mobile web and mobile apps, are improving.

They are getting better as the technology evolves, but ultimately it is the passenger that decides how far you can go. Harris elaborates on this and says data can do great things, but, for example, if a passenger using your mobile website has the location function turned off, it becomes impossible to offer location-specific offers.  In the EU, there is a requirement for a passenger to opt-in to accepting tracking cookies, which allows you to collect information on their search habits.  If a passenger does not opt-in, I can’t tell that they have been searching for a trip to Milan, so I can’t offer them a personalized offer when they come to my home page.

There is a deep public distrust, in general, in automated tracking, especially given the media attention to the actions of several governments across the globe, which whether its right or wrong, is a different conversation altogether, says Harris. “Full personalisation opportunities requires building that trust with the passenger and ensuring that the information will not be used except for the specific reason that the passenger grants access.  Technology has made many things possible, but there are limitations as to how far you can take it without being “creepy”,” stated Harris.

  • Data and analytics: Data analytics is crucial to the ability to offer personalized offers throughout the travel process. “Without knowing what a passenger has done before, it makes it very difficult to visualize what they might want in the future,” says Harris. Data management becomes the foundation of a proficient analytics platform.  Without quality data, and knowing what the data actually represents, analysis of the data becomes impossible. So in order to deliver a desired end-to-end journey experience to each and every customer, data needs to collect, evaluated and aggregated into a unified view of the passenger’s history, behavior, preferences, etc.

As highlighted in one of our previous articles, solutions exist today that bring together both anonymous visitor information and customer details from multiple databases found within an airline: web, email, mobile, loyalty, booking, and more. The information can be augmented with third-party information such as social. This rich profile provides a foundation for better understanding how visitors and customers will respond to re-engagement efforts when they abandon a site.

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