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Priceline CMO eyes bigger role in on-property purchases via mobile

March 17, 2014

Priceline's mobile apps

Priceline wants a bigger role throughout the travel experience, such as enabling hotel check-ins or on-site purchases, and views mobile as essential to realizing these goals.

One of the ways Priceline is building on its initial success in mobile is with more contextually-relevant features, including incorporating location into the company’s iPad application as well as two new products that are launching this week. Although the goal is to drive sales, Priceline’s initiatives are increasingly moving away from viewing mobile solely for last-minute to everyday transactions.

“We are primarily a transaction service,” said Brett Keller, chief marketing officer of Priceline, Norwalk, CT. “We want to help you find and book that hotel as quickly as possible, but we have expanded beyond that a little bit.

“We’ve built some explore tools, we recently launched a product or service in our iPad app that allows you to go in and in a map-based environment, quickly find and explore where you can fly and purchase products at a discounted price,” he said.

Below, Mr. Keller talks about what Priceline has learned about mobile since launching booking in 2009 and why the medium is driving the company’s growth.

What is on Priceline’s wish list with mobile this year?
I think when you look down the road further, for travel especially, there’s a lot of post-booking features or inter-travel features that have not yet come to fruition.

You can think of things like making a rebooking process exceptionally seamless and easy through your mobile device. You can think of things like adding a night to your stay, adding a room to your reservation, adding a second rental car — those are things that you can do now, but they aren’t as seamless or as quick and easy that we’d like them to be.

Then once you’re in the travel experience itself, things like checking in at the hotel, things like making purchases at the property, things like unlocking doors, unlocking cars. You can do those types of things today, but on a very limited basis and they’re not broadly distributed to the consumer masses. Those are things that are coming, and we’ll play a role in that entire process for consumers. We can’t leave it out just to the hotel or rental car companies to provide that seamless access because as we help create the transaction, we’ve got to connect that transaction to our partners and suppliers and those connections are going to be important to make that a seamless experience for the consumer all the way through travel.

How do location-based and more contextual features fit into where Priceline is trying to go in the online travel space?
When you look at mobile, there are a few things that get in the way of a seamless transaction.

The first is the customer’s ability to locate the right property that the want. When you’re booking at the last minute, which is a high percentage of our mobile transactions, inventory can often be constrained in markets.

We have to build our mobile services in a way that help users quickly find available hotels that are near them — it sounds easy, but it’s actually not very easy at all. There’s a cross-section between how much maps are used in that decision-making process and the traditional list displays that you’ll find on desktops. Mobile is a nice integration between those two features, and we’re trying to continually optimize our mobile application through intensive testing to get to the right state that creates that transaction.

The second thing that gets in the way is the credit card entry itself or the payment mechanism. We are working very hard in mobile to make that payment mechanism as seamless as possible. We’re doing the same things that we’ve done on desktop, which is create user profiles, allow people to store cards and not have to rekey in all of their information.

In addition, last year we partnered with Google and deployed Google Wallet in our mobile apps. We found that to obviously be a very big benefit for Android users who already have a wallet set up with a credit card put in place. We don’t care what payment mechanism you want to use, we just want to make sure that we’ve made it as quick and easy as possible for you.

Those kinds of enhancements are really pushing our mobile platforms ahead of desktop when it comes to speed and ease.

Mr. Keller

What learnings can you share about mobile so far?
If you look at what Priceline is trying to do in its mobile products, what we’re not trying to do is limit the product offering. We’re trying to provide everything that you can access from the desktop on mobile.

We’re building it to be fast and in some cases even easier to use than on a desktop. What I mean by that is that we are the only travel company in the world that offers multiple buying mechanisms to purchase a hotel. For example, you can come in and shop for a fully-disclosed hotel property with a price next to it, so if you want the Ritz-Carlton, you can book the Ritz-Carlton. If you want to save on a transaction in any given market on any given night, you can use our Express Deals product.

You have all of these ways to transact and find the best price at the best possible property that is interesting to you. Our goal is to really provide a platform to book whatever’s important to you depending on the specific need that you have at that given time.

Priceline’s iPad app

How does mobile fit within Priceline’s bigger plan for the online travel space?
When we look at mobile, I wouldn’t say that we look at it as a fringe channel or in a new environment that we’re trying to understand or develop. It’s essentially a material piece of our business now and a strong driver of our overall results.

We have very strong engagement [and] very strong conversion in that channel. People are actively using mobile devices to both plan and book travel, primarily for last-minute, but there are plenty of people who sit at home and do research on their iPad, jump up and book something on the desktop.

So many people like to say, “Hey, we’re a mobile-first company.” Anymore, everything is mobile, even reading your laptop is mobile. For us, we are really just building and planning our business around multiple channels or multiple engagement platforms.

Unlike a lot of other merchandisers out there — they’re selling product that may not be needed while you’re on the road or while you’re traveling — our product absolutely is. For travel more than I think almost any product or service out there, we have to be available to users. It has to be fast, easy and we have to have the inventory there for consumers to book into something as they are on the road.

Television plays a big role in how Travelocity promotes mobile. Why use that mass marketing medium?
Priceline is known as the leader in leisure travel for bringing deals to the people, and mobile is a highly last-minute platform. TV is just a reflection of who we are and what we do.

As we think about our campaigns and what we’re communicating to consumers, we want them to know that this is what we are. We are a mobile company and the ability to book travel on the fly is what we do.

[Mobile] is not just for emergencies anymore, it’s for everyday travel. People have literally changed their purchase behavior over the last three or four years. We have seen the travel booking window continually get shorter and shorter. It’s not that people are using mobile more for last-minute, they’re literally changing their purchasing behavior.

What about mobile advertising or desktop display ads that promote mobile booking?
I’d say there are two primary challenges [in mobile distribution].

On the desktop side, we work with a large army of small affiliates and partners to help us drive consumers and drive awareness of our products. In mobile, unfortunately many of small affiliates and partners have not been able to build out and create mobile products.

Because of that, the distribution is heavily concentrated in the biggest partners in the world [with] partners like Google, partners like TripAdvisor [and] Kayak. We’ve had to really optimize the way that we work with these partners. It’s very data intensive and, we’ve not been able to take advantage of the tail as much in mobile.

The second challenge we’ve faced is that with Google itself. Google paid search is a large driver of travel transactions for every major travel seller in the world, but the problem in mobile obviously is that there no screen space. The opportunity to be in the top three paid ads slots doesn’t work in mobile — you’ve got one top advertiser in mobile. There’s a compression and a race to be No. 1 in mobile in that space, and even on the organic side, there’s just a lot fewer listings, and people aren’t scrolling down to see those listings.

For us to be competitive in Google, it’s obviously more expensive [and] is just more of a challenge for everyone who’s fighting for that limited space.

[We’re] looking for other ways to grow our mobile business outside of just the large players. So again, our TV plays a role in that, using our email channels to push our repeat customers into our applications, those are all very important pieces of our strategy to grow our business here.

Final Take
Lauren Johnson is associate reporter on Mobile Commerce Daily, New York 

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