The recent disclosure of Facebook data breaches during the presidential election has created a shudder across the marketing landscape, suddenly calling into question the efficacy of Facebook data and more broadly calling out data harvesting practices online. Setting aside people’s sudden surprise that what they share on social channels is being repurposed more widely, we think there is a more fundamental question at hand. Is the sharing of data in travel a good thing or the equivalent of someone rifling through your bedroom closet? Is it a long-term boon for marketers or a practice that will ultimately be shut down by regulators? At MMGY Global, we believe the proper handling and usage of data insight create a phenomenal tool for both travel marketers and their customers, and we’re confident that over time it will become a more powerful, effective and accepted practice. The day of reckoning is coming for ad tech, but the travel industry is a unique case.
Let’s start with the landscape. In no industry is data as prevalent and available as in travel. From shopping and experiential behaviors to actual e-commerce data, the interwoven matrix of travel suppliers, intermediaries and peer-to-peer networks represent an enormous amount of information about consumers. Basically, through web, mobile and social technologies we can see where you are, what you are interested in doing on a trip, how you’re going to get there and what you do once you arrive. Information like this has been collected since the early days of the internet, but it has become more ingrained and connected to the web user experience in the last decade. Does anyone really not understand that offers they received five minutes after spending time on XYZ.com don’t originate from data mining? Sure, it’s clumsy and annoying today, but is the online consumer really not savvy enough to understand the quid pro quo of online consumption? We would argue that, if anything, the landscape has become too dense with providers that are too opaque. That data is sold and resold too many times, leading to difficulty in tracing it back to its source. As this gets sorted out in the coming months, a more meaningful value proposition will emerge as the model.
In recent months, the speed at which data is being collected, modeled and monetized has accelerated in such a way that people are beginning to raise the issue of regulation. According to Scientific American, seven in 10 smartphone apps share your personal data with third parties. And OTAs, Google and TripAdvisor as well as supplier brands are all looking at ways to create user groups through the smart collection and deployment of data strategies. And yes, Facebook is one of the most important platforms today in gathering that data and forming those profiles. The question we should all be asking is how this interwoven data landscape can better the travel industry long-term, not whether it will continue to exist. Because it will.
Our London office has been educating MMGY Global’s U.S.-based data teams about the very important regulatory framework that takes effect this May in Europe. Are you familiar with GDPR? General Data Protection Regulation is an intrinsic part of privacy laws in Europe and will be quite far ahead of regulation in the United States. Basically, if you are dealing with consumer or employee data in any way, you must become compliant with the privacy directives laid down by GDPR. And we believe this approach to data privacy is on its way to the U.S., perhaps sooner than you think.
So the Facebook data breach is relevant in one major, macro way. It is a harbinger of what is to come with broader regulations around U.S. consumer data. Does this mean consumer data will be off-limits in the future? No. Does it mean marketers won’t be able to use data to make intelligent marketing decisions? No. Does it mean people will stop sharing their deepest (or sometimes inane) secrets on public social forums? Come on.
From our perspective, this is about two things: transparency and policy adherence, two standards of MMGY Global’s Terminal data platform.
As part of Terminal, a program with which we gather 10,000 full traveler profiles each month, our team emphasizes the importance of proper data handling. First, all of the people from whom we collect data are aware that we are utilizing their survey responses for marketing and measurement purposes. And although we own the personally identifiable information, we disclose the purposes for using of the data, we never possess it per GDPR requirements and our processors protect it as their first priority. We also anonymize the data so that, should it become accessed, there is no way to use it against the individual in a nefarious way. And our data partners, including third parties such as Adara, Experian and PlaceIQ, are compliant with current data handling best practices as they follow the same principles of transparency. When GDPR makes its way across the Atlantic, we expect there will be additional measures requiring our attention, but self-regulation is always in our best interest as well as that of the consumers who we seek to influence.
Which brings me to the most important point about Facebook or any other permission-based online platform. At the end of the day, despite the recent noise around #DeleteFacebook (ironically being posted on Facebook), people want and need these platforms. In MMGY Global’s most recent Portrait of American Travelers®, not only do travelers consider Facebook an important tool for travel decision-making, but they also convey a significant distrust toward content that is presented online about both travel experience and price. They express frustration with how long and how complicated it can be to book travel, rooted in the inadequacy of suppliers and intermediaries to offer relevant and timely information. On average, travelers visit over 34 websites across 8 or more different web sessions, in a search for information that allows for their best decision-making. Data practices today have not yet met the promise of perfectly aligning a traveler’s need with curated information, but this reality is just around the corner with the advances being made in contextual search, automated learning and better data modeling. Just read this story from the MIT Innovation Lab to get a glimpse of what companies such as Amadeus are doing to bring data, AI and the customer together.
So how better to solve for improved travel infrastructure than with the intelligent use of consumer data to bring relevance, enriched content and one-on-one relationships that provide a greater value proposition? In our study, 70 percent of travelers tell us they will transact when seeing a relevant image or content piece that connects with their travel need. According to Pew Research, 65 percent of online users know they receive access to free online content in exchange for some personal data, while seven in 10 believe the government is monitoring their content. Despite (and perhaps because of) this cynicism, we are confident that the future and proper use of data will ultimately reduce the click path to booking, better connect supplier inventory to consumer demand, more clearly match expectation with experience and, perhaps to the chagrin of some in the industry, reduce distribution marketing cost by creating closed user groups that streamline commerce.
So to the travel industry, we say don’t worry about what the recent Facebook saga says, and instead start preparing your data strategy to allow for transparency, adherence to smart and ethical practices, and a better communication model that relates to travelers on their terms. Even if it means using their data to do so.