No names please: Hilton’s discreet approach to data-driven marketing

All hotel guests expect a certain level of discretion, but they’ve also grown accustomed to a certain level of personalized service. And that service is made possible by data — lots of it.

As Hilton Worldwide’s senior director for CRM products and solutions, Jackie Talbot sits at the intersection of the company’s many statistical slipstreams. Each data source—online, email subscriptions and loyalty programs– can be useful for any of Hilton’s 12 global brands; it’s Talbot’s job to decide what data goes where and how personal the customer experience should get.

A data-obsessed marketer who is “excited” about data management platforms and attribution, Talbot was the perfect person to talk about how Hilton maintains customers’ boundaries while using metrics to wring the most ROI from its advertising.

First, personalize with anonymized first-party data

Travel marketers were among the first to appreciate the value of data, and they were early pioneers in modeling past-purchase and aspirational behavior to develop compelling and relevant promotions with tailored marketing strategies. Established brands like Hilton have decades’ worth of data in their vaults.

But, like Hilton, most have internal restrictions for the acceptable use of this data in marketing. Often, these controls vary depending on the channel delivering the messages.

For example, Talbot explained, “With email, you raise your hand. You’ve said, ‘Yes, sign me up, here’s all my information. It’s fine for you to know my name. You can put my name in your email. You know my email address. You know all of those things.’”

Not so with other channels, such as desktop and mobile display. Hilton’s data guidelines prohibit personally addressing customers that have not opted into the Hilton HHonors rewards program, even if Talbot knows a prospect’s name and travel preferences when they visit a Hilton website. For example, even if Hilton recognizes a prospective customer, they can’t use their travel preferences to customize the website experience.

“Just because you have the data,” she said, “it doesn’t meant you should use the data or could use the data… There’s a whole process of anonymizing and double anonymizing. This is a really important piece of the process.” That piece is exactly what allows marketers to use the data while respecting consumer privacy and without violating Hilton’s guidelines.

Some marketers believe anonymizing user information leaves them with toothless data. Not Talbot. By cross-referencing with third-party sources (more on this below), travel marketers can build robust profiles that may include a destination preferences, income level and household size, all while adhering to internal and external privacy guidelines. For example, Hilton can serve dynamically targeted ads based on activity—searching for a Hampton Inn in Dallas gets you that particular city and brand in your banner copy.

“[Anonymized data] still has good information,” she said. “It still has affinity information, it still has propensity-type information. You have to do it in a smart way.”

Enhance your datasets with third-party sources

“But what if we had more?”

That’s what Talbot has begun asking her team as she set out to increase and improve the data assets at their disposal. To find that magical more, Hilton relies on data management platform (DMP) technology to centralize the company’s previously siloed data pools and integrate them with third-party data. By cross-referencing Hilton’s anonymized first-party data with publisher data, for example,Talbot can find customers she calls “travel intenders” outside of Hilton’s own sites.

“Maybe they’ve booked a flight or were looking to book a flight, maybe they’re reading a lot of travel articles,” Talbot told us. “Whatever it happens to be, they absolutely have travel intent and we can get information from our vendors. Whether that’s AOL or Adara or Sojern or Yahoo!, there are a lot of vendors out there who know these things.”

For example, Talbot said, Yahoo! knows when you’re on Yahoo! Travel: “They bucket you in and say [to us], ‘Hey this is a travel intender.’”

Hilton then blends that behavioral data with its own, housed in a DMP, to develop robust—but still anonymous–customer profiles.Talbot and her team can then use these to push out highly relevant targeted offers — without overstepping privacy boundaries.

Look at how other industries are meeting your challenges

“The company has always been data-focused and very results-focused,” Talbot said. But, in the five years she’s has worked at Hilton, Talbot has seen an even greater emphasis placed on data-driven marketing.

To stay ahead of the curve, Talbot keeps a close eye on retailers, whom she describes as “very closely tied” to travel, though sometimes her peers in the industry don’t realize it. Retailers use similar technologies for audience targeting and dynamic messaging, she said. They also tend to be “just slightly ahead.”

“So I’ll look to big brands — a Nordstrom, a Nike — to see what they’re doing. What is this banner I just got, how does this thing work?

Additionally, unlike some of her colleagues, Talbot remains bullish on traditional channels. She acknowledged that digital is now king, but she sees that traditional channels aren’t being abandoned. The trick is analyzing the data from all media, online and offline.

For example, Talbot doesn’t rely on last-click attribution, which cuts out offline interactions. Instead, she’s asking, “How do I put those things together? How do I understand what is truly incremental to our business? How are these channels all playing together?”

To do so, she does combines data about online and offline interactions within a DMP, which gives her a complete picture of customer behavior across media. Then, she can align ad messages for a consistent brand message on a one-to-one level.

Consumers are a moving target for marketers. In the travel industry, that’s literally the case. Goals are ever-changing and fluid, so it’s critical to analyze data for broad cases and multiple outcomes. Along the way, brands must be mindful of their customers’ expectations regarding privacy, personalization and service.

As Talbot put it, “You’re never going to have one goal. You’re going to have multiple goals, and that attribution shifts depending on what your goal is.”

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