From looker to booker: How TripAdvisor’s CMO helped steer a content company into an online retailer
TripAdvisor's Barbara Messing explains how she led her marketing team in a company shift from media-only to media plus transaction, in an interview with contributors Erica Seidel and Nadine Dietz.
Meet Barbara Messing, chief marketing officer of TripAdvisor.
Messing has been credited with achieving exponential growth in user reviews and visitors at TripAdvisor, driving a 400 percent increase in content collection and attracting 390 million monthly unique visitors.
With such a big and engaged group of consumers, what better next step than to provide them booking capabilities right where they are? We sat down with Messing and asked her about how she has steered marketing during the company’s transition to an e-commerce player.
Q: What prompted TripAdvisor to make the shift from media-only to media + transaction?
TripAdvisor has long been a great place for people to plan their travel. Consumers flock to the site to read millions of user-generated reviews, making us a media business. But we realized we could provide more value to consumers and let them also book their travel through TripAdvisor, which had us evolving into a transactional business.
Our main assets continue to be our website, our mobile app and our CRM (customer relationship management) capabilities that allow us to engage with more than 100 million members. As mobile usage continues to rise, this year we built out messaging capabilities, which we’ve found is a great new channel to drive transactions and relevant promotions with consumers. As we have with all our capabilities, everything is developed in-house.
Q: How big is your team, and what functions do you own?
I have about 200 people on my team.
My team used to be very functionally focused, and I really wanted us to be more customer-focused. I own brand marketing, creative, CRM, traffic acquisition (SEM and SEO), global communications, social media, industry marketing and relations, customer acquisition and retention and global partnerships.
About a year ago, I reworked the teams to focus in a customer-centric way, by vertical. We have aligned across three “verticals” — hotels, restaurants and attractions.
I encourage people to think and operate across functions as overall marketers, as opposed to as functional experts. To really deliver the right customer experience, you need to wear a lot of hats and think about every aspect of the vertical experience, like the end-to-end hotel discovery and booking experience.
The traffic acquisition team that I manage includes SEO and SEM and is unique in that it is primarily composed of data scientists and engineers. This team drives many of our brand impressions and much of our traffic, and so it is really important that they understand the key messages we’re delivering and the creative strategy. They are my front-line marketers!
Each vertical has marketing meetings, and during these meetings, we share the campaigns going on, which provides new opportunities for collaboration. This gets people out of their functional mindset and focused on the overall goals. I believe you can get great outside-the-box ideas to test from both traditional and non-traditional marketers.
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Q: What has been challenging with this transition?
Despite making a concentrated effort to [create] vertical teams, functional experts tend to still think in terms of metrics they are comfortable with — things like CTRs (click-through rates) or open rates, for instance. Now that we are driving bookings across the site, our marketers have to think more broadly about how they spend their time and how they will get the greatest impact across a variety of metrics, old and new.
As we work through each new problem that arises, we are all learning from each other and developing new vocabulary.
Launching our new campaigns this year to build awareness around booking on TripAdvisor, and promotions to drive conversions, are cases in point. We had to develop the strategy, measurement, test plans, analytics and experience from scratch by working through the potential problems as a team and identifying the right KPIs.
We had to determine what we thought the right goals were, even though we didn’t have a sense of how much we could shift brand perception from these campaigns. We also realized quickly on the measurement side that we should segment our customers by visitors, members, bookers and hotel shoppers to get the most accurate read on what we were influencing.
We’re a pretty unique brand, with millions of consumers who are actively involved with the brand as review contributors and are true brand loyalists. Our community is truly our greatest asset, and as a community-based brand, we have the right to do things in a way that is different than any other transactional brand.
I’ve challenged the team to put a TripAdvisor layer on any promotional activity that we do. For example, we just launched a promotion that gave any TripAdvisor reviewer who does their first hotel booking on TripAdvisor $30 to spend in our TripAdvisor store, to pick out things like a “Top Reviewer” sweatshirt or a TripAdvisor backpack. You can only give these sorts of incentives when you know that you have an amazing community that would value this type of thank-you gift.
Q: When you added booking capabilities, did you add new talent or retrain, or both?
We’ve been lucky in that we have mostly used our existing talent. We’ve added, and will continue to add, folks to round out the team with e-commerce skill sets. For example, we hired a merchandiser and planner from a local e-commerce site who was able to hit the ground running and bring some great ideas in on day one.
We also trained our existing folks on the fly, by putting an emphasis on cross-channel and cross-funnel KPIs and doing a ton of testing and learning.
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Q: How do you reinforce team problem-solving?
I have a Socratic style. I ask people, “Why are you thinking about it this way?” and “Did you consider this?” and “If it was successful, what would it look like?”
I’ve found that if we talk through the impacts, and if I show where people can deliver big results, marketers get excited. I help them see how they are onto something big.
I also expect people to look to the data to make the right decisions. Marketers have to be comfortable with analytics. They have to figure out what the offer should be, and what success looks like, and what the test bucket should be. They have to be comfortable building out business cases when proposing different solutions.
I am pretty predictable with what I ask: First I always want know how it is good for our consumer, and then I want to know how we can test and measure it, what does success look like, can it work globally, and finally, does it scale? Every program has to meet those criteria.
I also encourage people to brainstorm internally and look outside the category: What can we learn from others to see what our solutions could look like? External examples don’t necessarily mean it’s right for us; we have to still determine if it communicates our value and drives the results we want.
Q: When you hire new people onto the team, what do you look for?
I always look for the best athletes — people with a track [record] of success in whatever they’ve been doing before.
Even if there isn’t an exact match on experience, I like to learn how they think. I ask people what products they use every day and why. I want to hear them think through what makes those products sticky.
And of course, I ask people if they use TripAdvisor and what they like about it and what they think we need to do better. It’s an immediate no-hire if they aren’t familiar with the product.
I’m also looking for confidence because we’re an organization that really looks for people to act like owners. And given how important cross-functional influencing is, I ask about a specific example where they’ve had to bring people over to their point of view (and a time they failed at it).
I love when people are candid and open, and a sense of humor is really important as well. We’re selling travel, not doing brain surgery!
Q: What are your recommendations for a CMO on organizing to support customer-centricity?
The CMO and the marketing team need to be the champion of the consumer, always representing the needs of that consumer. At TripAdvisor, driving revenue is a big focus, and so my best days are when we demonstrate that a project that we believe is best from a consumer and brand perspective also leads to an immediately measurable (same-session) revenue win.
For example, we recently redesigned the home page to more clearly communicate that we are a place where consumers can book travel (as well as plan it), and we saw some nice lifts on all key metrics from that effort.
And with a consumer brand, I think “eating your own dog food” is essential, and so I make sure that my team is using TripAdvisor to plan and book their own trips to experience the site and our marketing communications and give feedback. I personally love to talk directly to hoteliers and consumers to hear about their experience using TripAdvisor, whether as bookers on our app or as business owners engaging with us as a company. My email address happens to be very easily found, so I tend to hear directly from many constituents.
- It’s not enough to simply organize by customer-centric verticals. Establish metrics and routines to expose marketers to overall goals and reinforce cross-functional thinking.
- It may take time — and coaching — for marketers to think beyond the metrics they’ve gotten comfortable with.
- To inspire your team to their fullest potential, enroll their leadership and entrepreneurial skills by asking, “If your idea was successful, what would it look like?”
- Eat your own dog food to understand your consumer experience end-to-end.
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