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KAYAK’s SVP Marketing on success after ‘going viral’

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Travel aggregator and metasearch engine KAYAK became an instant go-to destination shortly after launch. SVP Marketing Stephanie Retcho tells us how the company has remained one.

Even the biggest bands have that ‘difficult second album’ syndrome. The opener explodes on to the scene bursting with ideas and enthusiasm – and zero expectation. The follow-up? Well, that has to deal with colder realities like repaying the investment and maintaining the success.

The same applies to brands too. Especially tech brands for whom – thanks to viral adoption – success can come so fast. KAYAK is a case in point. The travel website launched in 2004 with a simple mission to find the best deals for travellers. No bookings, no extras – just fast search for the best results.

By 2012 it had IPO’d. Months later the online bookings specialist Priceline bought KAYAK for $1.8 billion. Today it is available in over 40 international sites and 20 languages. Each year it processes 1.5 billion queries, while its mobile app has been downloaded over 40 million times.

KAYAK is flying. But for the US division, the building work has been mostly done. By 2016, it was time to consolidate. Stephanie Retcho SVP, North America Marketing at KAYAK, explains why. “We invested heavily to build the brand in the US, and now we’re doing the same in other markets, so the group had to fund that and re-focus in the US. So without a doubt, the biggest marketing challenge of 2016 has been maintaining our brand strength in the face of a reduced budget.” Second album.

Retcho says she made some “interesting choices and difficult decisions” in the last year, pulling back on TV spend and focusing on a core audience of frequent travellers rather than the more fickle mass market. To do so, KAYAK pushed hard into programmatic advertising. “We decided to reach them where they are via online video and radio and re-marketed display ads. Our strategy was to have a direct line into the measurability of results,” she says.

Of course, customer acquisition is only the first part of any user’s engagement with a brand. The subsequent experience is critical. And this raises another interesting challenge for KAYAK. To repeat, KAYAK is a travel tool that doesn’t sell anything. It searches the web to find the best results, presents them clearly and then sends customers to other sites to book. So how does KAYAK get them to come back? The answer lies with its mobile experience. The KAYAK app does far more than just search. It also offers itinerary management, airport terminal maps, flight status updates, wait times and more.

Retcho says: “Although customers can’t buy from us, we do offer a KAYAK booking path that we think can’t be beaten. We aim to give our users the right information at all times and in one place. We’d prefer people to stay inside the KAYAK experience than be redirected to a less optimised site.”

Now, the firm is applying the same flexible thinking to the initial search process too. The original search model – a desktop, a keyboard, Google – went unchanged for 20 years. And even when it went mobile, it was broadly similar. But new paradigms have arrived. People are searching from inside third-party apps, for example. Meanwhile, voice and screen-free devices (wearables, Echo and so on) have made voice search a reality. Again, KAYAK has worked hard to stay ahead of the curve.

For example, it developed a chatbot inside Slack, the workplace messaging app. This lets people ‘chat’ with KAYAK using natural language, just as if it were a co-worker. Given the number of trips booked either for business purposes, this is a logical move.

KAYAK also has an Apple Watch app and is trialling an integration with Amazon’s ‘listening’ device Echo. Both test the possibilities of voice search. And though voice is clearly still in ‘early-adopter’ mode, companies like KAYAK need to watch it carefully. After all, any tiny change in the online booking process can lose or gain millions of dollars in revenue.  Retcho says: “These projects are very much experimental. But you got to be in it to win it. Who knows there the customers will go next?”

Another reason for such universal availability is to ensure that KAYAK remains a visible brand across all channels. Especially in the absence of huge brand-building TV campaigns. But Retcho is confident that a low-key competency goes a long way. She says: “Perhaps there are some markets where it really does make a difference to be the most visible brand. But our aim is not to shout the loudest. Share of voice is a challenge for everyone in a competitive space like travel. But when you are re-directing customers to other services, the first priority has to be efficiency. You build your brand value from there.”