Social seating: bottom line benefits or merely a user experience gimmick?

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At a superficial level, a flight’s objective is to get a customer from A to B. But increasingly travel companies recognise that delivering a great experience can help them differentiate. Social seating is being billed as one way to do this but does it work?

In the bid to create new ways to improve and customise the experience, the travel industry - and airlines in particular - have been increasingly socialising the flying experience. KLM’s Meet & Seat was one of these and in May it said it had seen the sharing of 30,000 profiles since launch in late 2011. Air Baltic and Malaysia airlines are two others.

Socialising the experience can happen during the booking process by, for example, allowing consumers to opt-in to choose a seatmate based on their social network profiles. Alternatively just before boarding, passengers could be offered the availability of a social check-in service, which allows the passengers to link their social network profile with the seat map.

Why is this happening and is this trend really taking off?

·         For some, but certainly not all, travellers, the objective is to meet new people by choosing their seatmate.

·         For travel websites, the idea is to increase revenue and improve customer satisfaction. 

Initially there were several factors that needed to be addressed. The most important was to ensure that brands did not intrude on the online shopping experience. First, this meant that those who didn’t want to use any social media seating were not offered it. Secondly, they had to be sure that social seating didn’t disturb the booking process; the last thing brands want is users leaving their own website at any point of time. It was simply about adding a new dimension to the booking or check-in process, and to let users make better seating choices.

There are a growing number of company’s offering social seating services including SeatID, Satisfy and Facebelt. According to Eran Savir, SeatID’s chief executive and co-founder, social seating is booming. “It's going to be available on many online ticketing and booking websites: airlines, travel websites, hotels, trains, online ticket sellers and stadiums. Thanks to social seating, the marketing of online ticketing and booking is changing forever and for the better.”

EyeforTravel’s Ritesh Gupta talks more to Savir about the results that have emerged from the use of social seating so far.

EFT: What progress has the concept of social seating made in the travel industry?

ES: Social seating is rapidly catching on. This year we have seen the commencement of a broad evaluation process in which a large number of companies are involved, large and small: airlines, travel websites, online ticket sellers, train operators and stadiums. Several forward-looking companies [such as Malaysia Airlines and KLM] have already implemented a social seating solution and have received recognition for their initiatives. There is no doubt whatsoever that more companies will soon follow suit and social seating will become a mainstream element in the booking process. Users will take it for granted that the service will be available when they search for tickets and/or book online.

EFT: Have travellers embraced social seating so far?  

ES: Here are my observations:

·         We have seen surprisingly high opt-in rates for the service: 5-10% of the site visitors presented with the option to opt-in for social seating actually opted-in.

·         We see users of all ages but most prominently, individuals between the ages of 18-44.

·         The division between men and women is roughly 50% - 50%.

In order to take it to the next level, we need to have more brands offering social seating to their users – it’s as simple as that. People want to use it, and given the opportunity, they'll opt-in to be part of the social seating process and have fun doing it.

EFT: What kind of objectives are travel suppliers trying to achieve with social seating?

ES: The main objectives are to increase engagement and conversions online. Everyone is looking at the bottom line.

With social seating being implemented properly, users are more engaged on relevant websites and also buy more. We call it ‘social proofing’, meaning if you see a familiar face next to a flight, concert or hotel, you're more likely to complete the purchase.

Some of the brands we're working with are also interested in addressing the younger, more socially engaged audience and offer them meaningful things to do with their social network profiles. It is clear that companies in a broad range of sectors understand that collecting ‘likes’ on Facebook and followers on Twitter is not enough and when they are reconsidering their marketing strategy, they see that social seating is the next big thing.

EFT: How can pure e-commerce players, specifically online travel agencies, capitalise on social seating?

ES: Going live with social seating creates an immediate effect with a substantial increase in engagement on the website. Increased traffic is also an immediate result of going live. What happens is that brands that go live with social seating get a tremendous amount of press coverage as well as word-of-mouth marketing and social buzz, so the ROI is quite clear and immediate.

In the near future, social seating can be used by OTAs as a key differentiator in terms of usability and user experience and, if implemented properly, it increases online sales.

Another very important aspect is the data that is collected via the social profiles of the users who opt-in. This up-to date information is available to be used for various marketing initiatives and, in many cases it's certainly the most effective marketing data these companies have access to.

EFT: What changes has the integration of social seating into e-commerce resulted in, to date?

ES: Our findings show that our customers get twice as many users engaged on the website for more than one minute, 42% more pages per visit and a single digit increase in online ticket sales. 

EFT: How can one measure levels of success for social seating-related initiatives?

ES: I think that opt-in rate is one of the most important metrics to measure success. However, I think that different customers are expecting to get different results from social seating, and measurement should be done accordingly.

Savir has these recommendations for those considering social seating as part of their e-commerce initiatives:

1.      Don't wait for tomorrow. Eventually everyone will have social seating implemented so why be a follower instead of a leader?

2.      Don't miss the opportunity to position yourself as an innovator and front-runner. Users have grown to expect a superior user experience, and openness in terms of getting as much information as they can before making decisions.

3.      Socialising is a key element in the decision-making process. A rapidly increasing number of people share and socialise online as part of a cognitive progression to help them resolve issues and make decisions. Why not serve your users better, keeping them on your website rather than having them access the competition’s site that’s already offering social seating? 

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