Blurred Lines in the Digital Age making for a better user experience

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This is a viewpoint from Richard Harris, CEO of Intent Media.

When travel brands merge commerce and search, it makes for a great user experience.

Most of us think of online search and ecommerce as two distinct functions. And traditionally they have been.

But the lines between the two are increasingly blurring. We see this happening in retail and emerging in other verticals, including travel.

This blurring is a major transformation in our ecosystem, and brands that adapt to it early will reap big benefits.

Typically, online businesses lean either towards search or towards commerce. Search-oriented entities connect consumers with information (“here’s the data you’re looking for”) and their business models are built around advertising dollars.

Commerce companies, on the other hand, connect consumers with products (“buy this thing”), and their models are built around transaction dollars.

Billions of dollars flow from commerce companies to the search companies from whom they source traffic. Search properties act as the gateways and toll-takers to shopper attention. This is why ad budgets devoted to Google are so large; the Priceline Group alone spent more than $3.5 billion dollars on search in 2016.

Commerce and search coexisted peacefully for many years. But things have started to change. Why?

First, as Google has come to dominate the search ecosystem, traffic acquisition has become significantly more expensive and smaller companies have struggled to compete.

Second, and perhaps more important, an industry structure in which search and commerce are separated doesn’t serve the user.

To make a purchase, shoppers must navigate back and forth between search engines and commerce engines, visiting dozens of disparate environments along the way, re-entering search parameters every time.

In travel, consumers gather information, compare prices, validate their decisions, and potentially make 140 site visits before booking. This is a terrible user experience, and it’s ripe for disruption.

Consider Amazon. It is both a commerce player that sells products directly, and a media company that provides paid search results.

Next to all the products it sells are sponsored links and recommendations, many of which take you outside the Amazon ecosystem—a concept unthinkable just a few years ago.

The company is still selling products of course, but that’s now in the context of a comprehensive shopping experience. The goal is to meet user needs at every moment – whether they want to browse, shop or buy.

Amazon is a product search engine and a retailer–it’s a new, hybrid model.

We think hybrid models will win because they focus on user needs, not company DNA.

Google is undertaking a similar blurring of models, but from the opposite direction; it is moving from search engine to hybrid marketplace, by enabling transactions within its environment.

These brands are encroaching on each other’s territory to better meet user needs.

There are clear signals here for the travel industry: intrepid brands must make similar changes in the way they operate.

That means moving away from old models (“present this product or information in response to this query”) to specific, data-driven strategies (“we think this experience would be most helpful to this user right now”).

The need for business model innovation has been emerging for a while: In 2014, a Tnooz survey of 400 travelers found that only a third (34%) felt that travel companies had nailed the basics of search and shopping.

And as shoppers crave a more seamless process with more personally relevant content, forward-thinking travel players are making big bets in data and analytics to give it to them.

The goal is clear: Travel companies that better understand customer needs and shape offerings accordingly will thrive. In fact, a 2015 American Express study revealed that 83% of Millennials would let travel brands track their digital patterns in return for a more personalized experience.

We can see companies stepping up to the challenge.

For example, Ryanair is teaming with hospitality providers, tour operators and others to help users more easily plan every aspect of a trip, not just air; Icelolly, a UK-based holiday comparison site, now runs rivals’ promotions, and OTA Getaroom  shows prices from competitors inside its transaction environment.

All of these brands, and others like them, see the value of offering search and transactions as an integrated offering.

So how can brands adapt to this emerging hybrid world?

  • Pay attention to the clues your customers give you: Use predictive analytics to better understand their intent and offer them what they want, in real time
  • Deliver a relevant UX: Create experiences that meet users’ needs comprehensively, regardless of your company’s original mission
  • Prioritize revenue per user: It’s not just about bookings—serve your customers’ needs in a broader sense, and the money will follow
  • Feature information as a core service: It might feel counter-intuitive, but incorporate  comparison-shopping utility into your site—your customers will thank you, and your bottom line will too
  • Develop strategic partnerships: No company can meet every user need, so team with strategic partners to fill the gaps

Many travel commerce companies have a hard time digesting that the best user experience may involve featuring competitive brands and prices inside their transaction paths.

That’s understandable–it’s not in the commerce DNA. But think of it this way: The lines separating search and commerce are blurring, and it compels all of us to reshape what and how we deliver to our customers. From the very first click, our duty is to provide the best user experience.

This is a viewpoint by Richard Harris, CEO Intent Media. The views expressed are the views and opinions of the author and do not reflect or represent the views of his employer, tnooz, its writers or partners.

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