Digital optimisation – ‘some airlines get it, while some still don’t’

Technology will play an increasingly important role in supporting the recovery of the travel and transport industries following the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether that is facilitating a touchless journey through enhanced digitalisation techniques and biometrics to taking advantage of artificial intelligence to deliver efficiencies, technology will be at the heart of most future developments.

Over the previous decade many already started along the path to digital optimisation, but still investments and sentiment to change have varied significantly between businesses. Looking at the case of airlines some understand the value of experimentation and digital optimisation, while some still don’t.

“It seems like you are either ‘in’ on the new data-driven movement or you still have a traditional approach to ecommerce and marketing,” explains Iztok Franko, a strategic digital marketing and ecommerce consultant for global airline and travel brands.

His company, Diggintravel, has just published the 2020 edition of its Airline Digital Optimization Survey. Now in its third year the benchmark of digital optimisation in the airline industry, charting the evolution of this ecommerce discipline at 49 airlines (up from 38 in the previous 2019 edition).

It provides some intriguing insights into the state and development of digital optimisation for the airline industry – seven airlines are defined as leaders, 23 visionaries, four as challengers, but 15 are described laggards. What is most interesting is that there is no clear difference between LCCs and FSCs, albeit LCCs are more likely to be leaders and FSCs laggards.

Visionaries are the largest group, and positively have a “clearer understanding of the potential and importance of CRO and digital optimisation,” says the report. All 23 airlines in this group claimed to have a deep knowledge about conversion optimisation (e.g. CRO, UX, analytics, content and copywriting) and more than half (12 airlines) stated they even have advanced CRO knowledge (UX excellence, advanced analytics, conversion centred design) or better. In fact, 91% of the visionaries follow a digital optimisation process, 70% claim it is documented and structured, while 65% say they have a budget for conversion optimisation.

In the leaders category, five of the seven airlines are LCCs, while five of the seven are defined as large airlines (the two others are medium-sized). It’s not a coincidence that big airlines dominate this group as the resources and expertise needed to build a CRO-centric organisation can be an issue for smaller airlines. However, the report notes that digital optimisation should not solely be the domain of the biggest airlines.

“Even leaders can take the next step, since digital optimisation and CRO is about constant learning and growth. While CRO Leaders are the best among airlines, there is still a gap compared to the travel industry experimentation elite like Airbnb, Uber, Booking.com, Skyscanner or eDreams,” says the report.

The real challenge for this group is how to do experimentation on an even larger scale and catch up with the travel elite. “Leaders need to “democratise” experimentation and work on decentralised organisation to support experimentation and innovation on a large scale,” the report adds.

Interestingly, comparing this year’s responses with those from 2019 there hasn’t been any significant improvements in recognition of digital optimisation and experimentation. But, the Covid-19 pandemic has clearly brought the importance of digital optimisation to the surface. “If you didn’t recognise the value of experimentation and digital optimisation before, you will have to do so now,” says the report’s author Mr Franko.

While many strongly believe airlines will finally need to change and adapt a scientific, data-driven approach, not only for ecommerce and marketing but for the overall business, right now it may not be top of boardroom agendas as many continue to fight for their survival in a market set to see depressed demand for an unknown period.

The road and return to profitability for airlines will be extremely hard, acknowledges the report. But, with data-driven approaches said to be up to six times more profitable there may be no better time to make the change. It is Mr Franko’s view that the Covid-19 public health crisis will “bring smaller airline digital teams, but there is an opportunity to come out better. Less specialisation, more better-skilled, all-round digital marketers”.

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