HomeAway Delivers Exceptional Customer Experiences By Focusing On What Not To Do

When you finally take that vacation you’ve been waiting for, the last thing you want is a less than relaxing or enchanting experience. Yet what many travel and hospitality companies don’t realize is that vacations don’t start when you step off the plane or dig your toes into the sand. They actually begin when a person starts to think about going on a trip and reaches for their smartphone. Believe it or not, every interaction a customer has with a webpage, video, review or app all contribute to the early stages of how travelers conceptualize and remember their vacation. Brands can’t afford to let consumers start any vacation off on the wrong side of the swipe.

That was the lesson I learned after seeing HomeAway’s senior vice-president of growth marketing speak at Google Marketing Live in Silicon Valley. According to David Baekholm, starting with what not to do is one way brands can enhance customer satisfaction while driving growth.

Mobile first? Mobile always.

Frankly, I’m a HomeAway customer. There’s a little place in Sea Ranch, just north of San Francisco, that I rent for special occasions. The second I start dreaming about my next escape, I grab my phone, plug in some dates and within moments I’m booked for a weekend away; it’s pretty easy.

I first learned about HomeAway because the alternatives simply didn’t meet my expectations when it came to usability, convenience and speed. And shows that I’m not alone: when it comes to mobile, consumers’ expectations and demands are constantly outstripping what they were the week before.

Don’t start out by trying to define success.

You can’t drive growth and customer satisfaction if the foundation of a business isn’t sturdy enough to build upon. To achieve growth, David says that companies shouldn’t start by defining success.

“I think one thing HomeAway has done differently is rather than trying to define what success looks like, we’re defining what it’s not,” he said in our conversation. “Very quickly, we came up with a long list of fundamentals we need to get right in order to be relevant for our customers.”

That work started by ignoring all of the distractions in the marketplace, including untested tech and shiny new features. Instead, the team focused on capturing customer intent in the right time, at right place and on the right device. “Fixing the fundamentals is really what prepared us to drive future growth,” David affirmed.

“The reality many brands don’t realize is that your customers are already telling you what they like and what they don’t like,” he said. “As marketers, it’s our job to get rid of all of the noise and all of the clutter that is actually confusing them.”

For example, one of the first exercises David’s team underwent was understanding what customers don’t want from digital experiences. Their findings? Customers hated irrelevant landing pages, annoying ads and cumbersome checkout processes.

Don’t hoard data, move to real-time insights

To deliver meaningful customer experiences, you need to understand what customers are doing right now, not what they did weeks or months ago. At HomeAway, all marketing decisions are based on real-time behaviors. This fast-paced, data-driven mindset has helped marketing become a strategic business partner in driving long-term growth.

“Digital marketing is moving into the core of the organization and being used as a direct growth tool,” David shared. “One reason why is that smart marketers measure and analyze every point in the customer journey, which enables us to invest exactly where we know we’re going to get the most short and long-term returns. That data is much more effective when it’s being applied quickly.”

As a result, all of HomeAway’s segmentation is now based on real-time behaviors across multiple channels, including the company’s site, app, social media channels and more. David’s team is actively identifying real-time customer behavior signals to associate key behaviors with outcomes such as likeliness to convert, either now or in the future. These insights now drive creative strategy and predictive bidding decisions.

For example: if a customer visits HomeAway.com, David’s team can use their behavior to identify whether the customer is merely researching and might convert several weeks in the future and differentiate them from customers whose behaviors identify them as someone who is ready to book immediately. HomeAway can then customize content and messaging that’s useful for people at different stages in their customer journey to keep them engaged until they’re ready to rent.

“The real shift is that marketing is now a feedback loop,” David stated. “These signals help you understand in real-time what our customers want and how to give them a frictionless experience that helps them convert when they’re ready.”

Don’t manually optimize marketing: Use machine learning to drive growth

David shared that his team is not only becoming better at finding the right customers, they’re also focused on not spending money on the customers. To do this, David’s team is leveraging automation and machine learning while building a team of data scientists to move at the speed of the customer.

“One thing that changed within HomeAway is our focus on how we handle data,” he revealed. “We have a large, growing team of data scientists to build models and roll out machine learning algorithms that better understand things in real-time.”

Baekholm believes that forward-thinking companies need machine learning to cluster data into meaningful buckets and surface actionable insights, especially when dealing with real-time signals. Having shifted away from the manual optimization of marketing insights has helped HomeAway shift from a reactive model to one that can predict customer behavior.

“Automation is crucial to real-time predictive marketing,” he said. “We can pretty accurately predict whether a customer is going to convert tomorrow, two weeks from now, six weeks from now or not at all.”

By delivering what customers want by examining what they want, HomeAway is focused on building a true customer-focused marketing organization. And by using real-time behavioral data, insights and meaningful customer experiences, marketing has become a key driver for growth. One form of proof may well be in the profits: according to parent company Expedia Group, gross bookings on the HomeAway platform amounted to $8.7 billion in 2017. That number has only risen with time.

To quote David, “After those results, I think we all deserve a vacation.”


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