Targeting Travelers: CEO Rabe Discusses New Sojern Media Platform And Airline Partnerships

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SojernMark Rabe is CEO of Sojern, a travel data and media company with exclusive partnerships with several major airlines.

Adexchanger.com: So, in some ways, are you building an Orbitz competitor with Sojern?

MR: The answer is no. We are partnered with our airline partners - and it's the majority of the large domestic airlines, who are also equity holders in Sojern.

We essentially render media and advertising to their travelers as they're passing through the check-in process.

The company came into being when our founder, Gordon Whitton, who was based in Omaha, Nebraska, sold his last company to Intuit and was essentially doing the weekly commute from Omaha to San Diego. He was an organized guy and would wake up in the morning, print out his boarding pass, get to the Omaha airport and find himself staring at essentially a blank 8.5x11 sheet of paper.

He hit on the idea of, "I can program relevant content for travelers on that printed page as well as find advertisers that want to monetize it." That was the germ of the idea. The printed boarding pass still represents a sizable chunk of our total annual revenue, and phase one of “the business.” Phase two was in the works when I arrived six months ago, and we launched it about three months ago -  it was about taking a step back in the check‑in process and creating a rich, personalized experience for travelers as they navigate the check‑in experience. Imagine weather in the destination city, the top five restaurants as provided by one of our content providers, events that are happening in the city, and increasingly make the experience more customized or personalized to a user.

Can you share a little bit about your background and how you became involved with Sojern?

I came out of business school in '99 and went to work for About.com and was there through the sale to Primedia. My last role there was building a product called Sprinks, which was a competitor to a company called Go To, at the time.

After we sold the company to Primedia, I had this epiphany, "If you can't beat them, join them" and went to work for Overture – which was eventually acquired by Yahoo! At that time, I became part of the Yahoo team and was there for the better part of seven years.

The thing that resonated with me when I was evaluating opportunities post‑Yahoo, and came across Sojern, were two things. One - the assets that we have here, while at a much smaller scale, is akin to the Yahoo portfolio. We have the equivalent of an "Owned & Operated" where we are essentially creating a travel portal for a large majority of people who check-in online for a flight. That's a web asset. It's also a print asset. At the end of that check‑in experience, you click a button that says print your boarding pass and we render the content and the advertising that goes into that printed asset, too.

How does the revenue model work with the airlines?

There is a rev share component to the partnership with the airlines.

And there are all sorts of interesting spurs off of the boarding pass and the check-in process. We launched a mobile product recently. We're starting to mine the social graph of travelers so that as they click through Facebook or LinkedIn, they can have, for example, their friends' ratings on restaurants as well as what we’re getting from our content providers. There are all sorts of interesting and evolutionary things around the core business of the boarding pass whether in print or online.

Phase three of the company, and where I'm spending a lot of my time, is leveraging the data asset that we have from those airline relationships to target advertisers and for the benefit of our brand partners. That's a new business for us, something we're calling SMP, the Sojern Media Platform - it’s the audience targeting side of our business which leverages the data asset and which nobody else has access to.

Drilling down on the platform. are you selling the access to the data alone, or are you selling the media as well? Also - going direct to advertisers or through the agencies?

We have direct, large partnerships with many clients. We also work in concert with the agency channel and have a sales team and airline partner managers scattered around the country.

In terms of the product that we're offering up to those clients, it is the media. We use the data to provide greater performance. Principally, it's a performance buy for a lot of those endemic advertisers and it's based on the uniqueness of the data. If you think of it from a high level, we know where these people have been, we know where they are now, and we know where they're going.

We've got a compelling story for both the brand and the DR marketers and for the hardcore direct response guys. As long as it's germane to the dataset, we can hit the accelerator on performance.

I take it you’re protecting your partners’ valuable, first-party data asset by not selling those cookies on their own – since it might commoditize the value of that data. Any thoughts?

It's not what we do today, but I won't say that we've ruled it out. We're moving slowly because of the relationship we have with our partners and the sensitivity around access to the data. We went through a very extensive build‑out process.

If you think about our initial product, the boarding pass product, we literally had to reach into these old mainframe systems from the airline as the ticket is being rendered. Then, we had to deliver our content and advertising. That took a couple years to get off the ground. We'll see how the data strategy evolves, but as it stands today for our advertisers, they're more than happy to come to us through the media buy in order to have access to the data.

It sounds like what's unique about this dataset isn't just about cookie‑ing users that are buying tickets, instead it's the ability to leverage that customer record and information that the airlines provide. Do you guys agree with that?

Yes. Where it leads us is some interesting places in terms of the sales process. We have a big chunk of our revenue coming from "local advertisers," who want to reach people they know are traveling to a specific destination. Think parking, limousine, etc. It also takes us into some of the biggest brand advertisers on the planet because they're looking to target the high value customer - the traveler. They want to do that at scale.

Would you agree that airlines are taking back their data versus relationships they’ve had in the past with companies like Orbitz?

I don’t know that they've ever lost their data. It’s an interesting dynamic in the marketplace today - this idea of owning the customer. You can just do a keyword search on some of the litigation that is taking place between the airlines and the OTAs an dso on. The landscape is changing and largely being driven by the airlines saying, “We want to exert or have more influence over what the purchasing habits and the channels are by which people buy our tickets and our ancillary services.”

You practically own these exclusive data assets and relationships with airlines.. Who is your competitor? It doesn't seem like you have one.

We were just having this debate, internally, a couple of days ago. In one way, we have a lot of competitors because we run a print asset. You can argue that the entire publishing industry is competitive. Since we have an online portal experience, you can argue that any one of the major portals is our competitor. Since we play in the travel space, you can argue that anyone who sells media in travel is a competitor.

With the launch of our SMP, I'm very aware of the fact that we're competing with a lot of the large ad networks and DSPs that are out there.

Where will you be buying media for your clients? I would assume exchanges are a big part of this?

We have relationships with several DSPs along with ad networks. Those are the principal plumbing points for us to reach the inventory in a real-time environment. We also have direct, publisher relationships. Both of those allow us to try different pools of inventory, and to find those users that we house.

At a high level, we have 50 million traveler profiles and slice and dice that database to the benefit of the advertiser that we happen to be targeting.

What about milestones a year or two from? What would you like to accomplish?

I think about our success in basically three different paradigms. The first is the traveler. Secondly it is the airline partner, and thirdly, it is the marketer, or the advertiser.

On the traveler side, what we're increasingly testing is user engagement. We do a net promoter score and check on that on a weekly basis in order to understand the value of the content and the services we're providing through that check-in process.

For the airline, it's a mix of making sure that the traveler is happy and making sure that we're maximizing the revenue potential for those partnerships.

For the advertiser, it's making sure that the advertising products that we roll out for them are impactful, be it a brand campaign or a more traditional, direct response campaign that drives the Sojern Media Platform.

Follow Sojern (@sojern) and AdExchanger.com (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

By John Ebbert

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