This article is part of our August series on travel and hospitality. Click here for more.
Let customers name their own price? What company does that? Many now, but credit goes to Priceline.com for truly popularizing the service. Launched in the late 1990s, the company has become a $95 billion internet travel juggernaut—with no signs of slowing down. This year it has been performing at sky-high numbers, with first-quarter gross travel bookings increasing 24% year-over-year.
Ben Harrell, Priceline.com’s senior vice president of brand and digital marketing, has been a big part of that success. An 11-year Priceline veteran, Harrell began on the financial-planning side of the business.
“My background in school was really in business and finance. I’m a numbers guy, and so I was excited about a role that was here at Priceline,” he told CMO.com. “I started to work under a guy named Matt Tynan, who is now our CFO, and the thing that was exciting for me was the opportunity to use data to drive business decisions and come up with some actionable conclusions.”
Three years into his tenure, Harrell went over to Booking.com, where he built a team of analysts at its global headquarters in Amsterdam. In 2012, he transitioned back to Priceline.com to run its digital department before becoming responsible for its entire marketing platform last year.
“The opportunity came up to return to Priceline.com and jump to the marketing side. It sounds like a bit of a strange jump from finance to marketing, but on the finance side I was focused on leveraging data to make decisions and ... digital marketing really is leveraging data to make decisions,” he said. “So it’s maybe not as quite as strange as it seems.”
Today, Harrell’s main responsibilities are to manage a team of marketing experts who are trying to help customers come to Priceline.com, find great deals, and then return to the site because they were happy with their first experience.
“I spend a lot of my time meeting with different members of my team and different people across Priceline.com and even across [parent company] Priceline Group, trying to understand how we’re focused on driving the business forward, how we’re focused on making customers happy, and how we’re able to save customers money,” he said. “A lot of that comes up to using data and analytics.”
Marketing To The Generations
Much talk in the travel space is about Millennials—and there’s no question that this generation is a massive and growing number of shoppers for Priceline.com. But demographics, Harrell maintained, are less important to him than actual activity.
“We have [“Big Bang Theory” actress] Kaley Cuoco on our ads. I think she appeals to a maybe slightly younger demographic than William Shatner,” Harrell said. “We love Bill and work closely with him, but I think Kaley has a connection to a younger demographic. But in all our advertising, we’re focused on what people do and how we can best serve them more than who they are.”
Traditional marketers, he added, will say demographics offer great insight into what a group’s preferred activity will be, “and there’s probably something there,” Harrell said. “We look at the data and there’s some loose correlation, but it’s not enough for us to jump in all the way.”
So like most successful e-commerce companies, Priceline.com is focused on doing what’s best for its customers—and that goes beyond saving them $1 billion-plus on hotels, rental cars, and flights, as it did last year. “Across the company, we do a lot of A/B testing,” Harrell said. “We’ll test something, we’ll put it out, we’ll see what customers respond best to, and we’ll go with what the customers choose.”
The company also leverages personalization. “If you can show someone a deal that’s specific for them, that’s certainly helpful,” he said. “So that’s one of the ways that we’ve made a lot of progress in not only what our site looks like, but from things like email to remarketing ads.”
The more you know about a customer, he added, the easier it is to personalize and to show something that’s ideal for them. “It’s certainly a challenge when you see someone for the first time,” he said. “[Also], when people jump from one device to another, until we learn that that person is the same person on both devices, that creates a similar challenge.”
Speaking of which, given that 65% of same-day bookings come from mobile devices, mobile is also tremendously important to Priceline.com.
“Mobile customers tend to be a little more last-minute than non-mobile customers, and they really want deals,” Harrell said. “We have a platform on the mobile web so if people don’t have [our] app, we’re not holding anything back from them. A mobile customer is different than someone that comes in on a desktop. They’re looking for different properties, they’re looking for different date ranges, and we need to be able to treat them very differently.”
For example, mobile will have a different auction than desktop.
“We can recognize the device type once a user is on our site. The better auction sites support separate bids for mobile and desktop traffic, so we are able to bid more [or less] for traffic that performs better [or worse] once on our site,” Harrell said. “The analytics we use allow us to assign different values to future auctions, based on the ‘bid levers’ the partner sets.”
As for social media, Priceline.com understands its importance, with 90,000 Twitter followers and close to 700,000 on Facebook.
“If we know someone’s been on Priceline ... we will try to remarket to them within social media ... [with] a deal,” Harrell said. “I think you also have a separate part of social media that is really more customer-service-focused. Frankly, Twitter has become a popular platform for customers who have good things to say or complaints.”
The social media platforms are also about keeping Priceline.com top of mind and trying to stay relevant, he added.
It’s no secret that the travel industry changes very rapidly. Harrell has clear ideas about how he’d like to see Priceline.com grow, though he knows adjustments will have to made as the business landscape evolves.
“Within the marketing team, we want to try to be faster, smarter, and better than our competitors. If you can be any one of the three consistently, you can win,” he said. “If you can be more than one you can win a lot. But, ultimately, we have a great team within marketing, and as we continue to execute and show customers that we can offer them the best deals, we believe we’ll be successful.”