How big data has changed the way Ryanair views the customer

If recent strategic moves of any company highlight just how significant an impact the digital world has had on the travel industry, it has to be Ryanair. Pamela Whitby reports

Not all that long ago, in November 2013, Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, was quoted saying: "It keeps being peddled [that] Ryanair's the most hated brand. What the hell are you surveying? 99% of people don't think ‘what's my favourite brand’, they look for the cheapest fares."

But if what Dara Brady, Ryanair’s head of online development told a conference of 450 delegates at the recent Travel Distribution Summit, Europe is the measure, O’Leary may, just may, be eating his words – well a few of them anyway.

Ultimately big data has changed the way we view our customer                                               

Dara Brady, Head, Online Development, Ryanair

The essence of Brady’s presentation was that people are individuals, consumer behaviour is changing rapidly, so too is the industry and that Ryanair is changing too.

“Ultimately big data has changed the way we view our customer,” says Brady.  

For an airline that for years drove revenues from advertising on its website, and not from bums on seats, that is a significant shift.

“For us big data allows us to expand to a very broad, singular view of the customer,” says Brady. That’s a big change when not that long ago, when firms like Ryanair took a very narrow view that focused purely on the transactional elements of an interaction with the customer - what they booked, how long they booked for, length of flight, what they paid and so on.

“That’s not the case any more. You have to look at a much broader view of the customer. Ultimately the key to success will be the ability to offer a one-to-one personalised service that is relevant to the individual,” he says.

Ryanair wants to grow its customer base from 80 million to 110 million over the next five years. Recent plans in the words of O’Leary to offer “an unbeatable business travel proposition” plus the move to a new distribution platform through Google and Travelport are clear indications that it means business.

So while cheap may still be what many people are after, Ryanair has had little choice but to recognise that one-size doesn’t necessarily fit all. On the plus side, it may even mean that the airline can get customers paying a bit more, by whatever means available.

Early steps on the digital road

Well the billboard style, cumbersome website is gone, the scrum for a seat no longer, the garish back-of-seat adverts are now a subtler strip, even the staff seem friendlier and more focused on customer service. Okay, so you still have to jump through countless upsell offers before you arrive at the booking page. And those with their own travel insurance must remember to tick ‘don’t insure me’, which slots under Denmark in the checklist, or face an additional charge on the bill.

So before we get all misty eyed let’s be clear, Ryanair’s primary aim is still to drive the customer down the path to purchase. “It’s very important that the customer doesn’t get disconnected from the purchase path,” stresses Brady, who explains that the aim is always to try to support and not to interrupt the user journey.

How this works is that if the user, for example, ends up reading a city guide to Rome on, there will always be a clear pointer to the cheapest flight that prompts the customer to book.

Content king, destination guides dead

Ryanair is working on destination content with Arrival Guides. While he thinks thinks their “current strategy is good,” he also recognises a huge opportunity to go much deeper. Right now the current providers of destination content - Fodors, Lonely Planet, Arrival Guides – have no real point of differentiation.

Content is going to change, and we believe it has to change

On this note he believes content must become:

  • Deeply personal to the individual and linked to behaviour and circumstance
  • Dynamic and able to connect up the various steps of the user journey, ultimately leading to purchase
  • Strongly grounded in user-generated content: Ryanair wants content from real people sharing real experiences, rather than something that looks like a standard guidebook template.

He has a point: Why for example, should a 20, 40 and 60-year-old be served up the same generic destination content?

“Content is going to change, and we believe it has to change,” he says.

In fact if it doesn’t become uniquely personal, Brady believes it will only serve to disconnect the user.

8 standout points from Brady’s presentation:

1. Big data has changed the view of the customer: A transactional view of the customer is no longer relevant. Successful recommendations require a deep understanding of the customer in the broadest sense

2. External factors matter. If there is lashing rain in Dublin in January, a customer likely to be thinking of a sunny summer break. It’s not just about what the customer does on the brand website, it’s also about knowing what they are talking about on other platforms.

3. The industry is changing:  Segmentation based on broad factors is the key to success: The days of segmenting based on booking data like city, ski or sun break are over. Now you need to know and understand the customer at any point in time.

4. Customers change from one week to the next. Business traveller today, leisure traveller next week. Content delivered in real-time must reflect that.

5. Generic destination guides- a dying breed? If you are 20 looking for nightlife in London, who wants to trawl through several pages before getting to the relevant information.

6. Ignore the youth of today at your peril: They are social and mobile, they are snapchatting, they are instagramming, and sharing their travel experiences. You need to be where they are and make it a very connected experience. Harnessing user-generated content can help to generate the me-too effect.

7. Yes, it's a multichannel, or should we say omnichannel, world: Content should be agile enough to reflect that.

8. It’s important to stay absolutely connected to the purchase path: Keep driving the commercial aspects of the business but deliver exactly what the user wants.

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