Airlines

Is Google a threat to airlines?

If so, What can be done?

Matt Walker
December 2, 2016

There are two types of people in the world: Google employees and the rest of us who use their product.

Truthfully, we’re all employed by Google, just some of us are paid.

If you’re connected; you’re seen. If you’re not connected, standby: Google X are sending internet balloons to airspace near you. 

There is a reason Google are industry leaders in search. “To win in the marketplace, you must first win in the workplace” Douglas Conant. Google win in the workplace.

Have you eaten a meal at a Google facility recently?

They’re winning. And we love winners until they become our competitors.

Who’s Your Digital Daddy?

Google should always be considered a competitor. Regardless of your business.

Google knows your customers better than you do. It is a result of decades of customer satisfaction in search.

Google are the benchmark for Global reach. They are present at every touchpoint.

It’s a testament to the power of Google that they inhabit an unseen realm that largely determines our connectedness with our environment and each other. Google surface when there is an opportunity - when they have recognised in search the demand for a product or service they can best fulfil.

Should the travel industry and airlines particularly be concerned with Google’s recent movements in travel?

It is interesting to note that the demand for Google is decreasing especially in the mobile era. Mobile users engage directly with apps removing the intermediary of search. Paid Click isn’t as profitable as it once was.

Many have commentated on the breadth of Google ventures killed this year. And yet, in the midst of house-cleaning or desperation (depending on your perspective) Google begins to make greater inroads in travel with the launch of their consumer product Trips.

What opportunity is Google identifying?

And why have some in the travel space viewed airline data around pricing and inventory the last piece in a Google strategy that will ultimately render airline brands obsolete?

At face value, if an airline was to give Google access to their flight data, it would potentially position the airline brand as the top result in flight metasearch and more importantly, the best solution to a customer’s problem.

The immediate benefit for distribution and reach is obvious but shortsighted.

What happens when more and more airlines share their data with Google and participate on a flight metasearch? Once participation reaches a certain percentage of the market, it will become untenable to exist outside the travel eco-system Google provides.

At this point, Google will have the best inventory of supply (airlines) and the best understanding of demand (customers).

Currently, airlines occupy prime real estate in the customer’s journey as the first purchase a passenger makes, but that journey begins weeks before the purchase with search.

If Google is equipped from the point of search to offer a fast and convenient purchase, it’s not difficult to foresee a future where the online customer makes no direct contact with the airline.

Google’s trajectory of intent in the travel space revealed over the last five years would suggest this strategy.

The seemingly insignificant matter of participating in Google’s Flight Search has a backdrop of Google purchasing ITA, Google Flights, Google Hotels, Google Ads, Google Maps, and most recently Google Trips.  

If we are right, how might this affect airlines:

No customer loyalty

No ancillary retail

Brand erosion (annihilation)

All of these depend on direct contact with the passenger. A brand is the collective perception of your customers. No contact, no brand. 

A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer. 

- Seth Godin.

6 Simple Things an Airline can do to Retain brand.

1) Do not give Google your flight data. The small incremental gain in the short term will not compare with the long term loss.

2) Airlines must take a holistic view of travel. Recalibrate your perspective beyond the jetway, to your passenger’s in-destination experience. Airlines are the gateway to that experience. A simple question to ask: does the narrative of your brand join the traveller’s conversation or is it trying to start a new one? 42% of all Facebook posts are about travel, and none of them about the plane size, the baggage allowance, arriving on time - UNLESS the airline fails to meet minimum expectations. Airlines must approach travel from the customer’s experience.

3) Learn from Google Trips. Google’s latest travel product adds value through ultra convenience and quality. The app gathers important booking information from your email into a trip itinerary. The product is intuitive, fast and reliable. However, the city guides are broad and generic as Google do not create their own content; think Eiffel Tower and Louvre in Paris. Airlines must emulate Google’s product integrity but go further in their curation of content.

4) Learn from Airbnb Trips (seriously, same product name as Google Trips!). Airbnb believes a traveller’s experience is determined by its quality of connection with local people and experiences. They use collaborative filtering to personalise recommendations and anticipate their customers - adding context to every interaction whether it be an email or a live in-app notification. What Google lack in content, Airbnb are exemplary. Airbnb plan to enter the airline marketplace, as seen at the launch of Trips in November 2016. In the meantime, there is an opportunity for airlines to adopt Airbnb’s approach to the integrity of design, curated experiences and personalised recommendation.  

5) Explore every channel of distribution. Where are potential customers to be found? What do they value? If you consider the Millennial generation, they are travelling more and to rarer destinations; they’re spending more on travel; they choose local over touristy attractions; they value convenience and are willing to pay more for it. An airline should position the values of their brand with the values of their prospective customers and then use the relevant channels to distribute. The Millennial generation believes that sharing their personal data with a brand should be rewarded with improved customer experience. If this generation is your target market (and it should be), then how can an airline improve their experience? (Steps 2, 3 and 4 might be useful)

6) Lastly, the most cost effective marketing is to add value to your current customers. Airlines have large databases of past customers that they insist on alienating with irrelevant marketing campaigns. Brand loyalty speaks to the quality of interaction between brand and customer. If airlines continually provide useful recommendations, customers will remain loyal. Simple. Think Airbnb’s recommendation system. 

. . .
LikeWhere specialise in personalised marketing technology for leading airlines and travel brands: Creating exceptional customer experience through content and context.
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