How to harness your data

I recently traveled to speak at a conference in APAC. The conference was refreshingly old-school. Booths as far as the eye can see, and boosters standing ready to plug their local attractions to tour purveyors.

The hundreds of delegates at the conference were there to learn more about selling travel over the web. Needless to say, many still effectively run Web 1.0 businesses. I was asked to speak about how travel companies can best retain their customers — a straightforward enough problem for a company at any stage of digital evolution. But it’s fast becoming a real concern even among flashier, more established players in online travel as the biggest tech platforms start flexing their data ownership muscles more and more. 

Because the truth is that the “datagopoly” (data·gop·o·ly) is in it to win it. What do we mean by datagopoly? I’m mainly talking about Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple. These companies are increasingly restricting online retailers’ access to their own customers’ information. Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention is a great example. It was released in June of this year and received friendly coverage. On the surface, it seemed like a user-friendly, pro-privacy move. Finally, some limits on third-party data brokers serving you up creepy ads that follow you around the internet, coaxing you to purchase something you already bought — or decided against buying — last week. 

But for retailers, this new protocol also means that if your Safari-using customer doesn’t log in for a certain amount of time, Apple can make the cookies that store your knowledge of your customers disappear. So you, the travel brand, no longer knows that customer anymore. But Apple does. And while your connection to them will have to be remade every time they log on, Apple knows exactly who they are and where they’ve been in the meantime. 

So retailers lose their visibility into their own shoppers as Apple unilaterally retires cookies. Does Apple lose anything? Nope. Like the other datagopolist platforms, they continue to track and store.

Datagopolists are staking their claim on digital identity. Once they own that, any customer relationships will be mediated by them. That’s not good.

Speaking strictly from a business standpoint, it’s hard to fault them for exploiting their ownership of the platform. I understand the advantage it creates, and if I were Tim Cook, I might do the same.

Still, we don’t know how this will play out long-term, aside from more and more control over customer data going to the biggest players. Meanwhile, your brand’s ability to create an experience that your user finds valuable is compromised. Losing access to customer data means a limited ability to personalize your digital experience, to make it more relevant to each user based on what you know about them.

There’s no easy answer to this. 

As I see it, the imperative for smaller players — and by smaller I mean any company that’s not one of the big datagopolies — is simple: cooperate. Stop competing so fiercely against your archrivals and focus on this bigger picture. Realize the larger threat is the datagopoly. And start sharing data.

It’s counterintuitive, I know. Am I suggesting that the only way to keep your data is to start looking for ways to give it away? Yes. 

If travel brands want to avoid ceding customer access to the datagopoly, they have to initiate more cooperative relationships with each other, and share data. If the only alternative is to continue letting Facebook or Amazon or Google step in and seize full ownership of your customer data, you may soon realize that cooperating within your vertical isn’t such a crazy idea. Your data is the power that lets you offer your customers better service and smarter recommendations, after all.

So perhaps we can start thinking of cooperative rivalries in travel, of a scenario wherein and Marriott got together to compare notes.

Of course, it takes a significant investment of time and resources for a company to build a data-science practice robust enough to be an effective partner in battling the datagopolists. Obviously, I think Intent is one such partner. But honestly, I’m less interested in hawking our product than preventing a nightmare scenario that now sounds outlandish but may not in a few short years: having to buy your own customer data from the datagopolists.