Starwood Hotels Finds 'When' Matters More Than 'Who' In Display Ad Performance

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starwood-usethisWinning a hotel guest takes more than a swimming pool and a spa package. Like its competitors, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide looks for opportunities to give its accommodations an edge over other hotels.

With more than 1,100 properties in nearly 100 countries across nine brands, the company has strong brand awareness. But that isn’t enough, Grazia Ochoa, director of global digital marketing at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, told AdExchanger.

“We’re always looking for better ways to put our marketing dollars to work,” Ochoa said. “We’re driving engagement and then there are the immediate needs of driving heads in beds at a profitable rate.”

To tip the scales in its favor, Starwood turns to big data insights. The hotelier partnered up with Sojern, a company that serves targeted ads to travelers based on more than 100 million anonymous traveler profiles and other travel-related data.

San Francisco-based Sojern  receives this data through partnerships with airlines such as Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and U.S Airways. The company helps clients like Starwood find new customers who are about to go on a trip and shows them display ads that are tailored to the city they are visiting and even the dollar amount of the ticket they searched for and purchased -- for instance first-class ticket holders. Sojern’s other clients include Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental Hotels Group, Marriott, Wingate by Wyndham, Disney, and American Express.

While Sojern is not the only company that can deliver targeted ads, a key differentiator, according to Ochoa, is its ability to serve targeted campaigns based on travel dates.

Before working with Sojern, Starwood was “at the mercy of TripAdvisor,” Ochoa noted. “We still use TripAdvisor but if you think about it, people might just be searching around [on the site]. We know some level of their intentions, but we don’t have complete insight into their intentions.”

With Sojern, “We can say, 'Give us everyone who is traveling over the weekend,” Ochoa said. “If someone does a search on Delta for a weekend trip, for example, and Sojern has access to that cookie, they’ll sell it to us and allow us to attach our offer to it for people to see as they’re searching.”

Starwood sets its campaigns goals in conjunction with its digital agency, Razorfish, which determines the parameters of the ads according to Starwood’s objectives. From there, Sojern gathers the data used for targeting the ads, selects the audiences aligned with the particular campaigns that Starwood or another client is running, and activates the curated profiles across the media channels they have access to, which can include display ads, video, Facebook exchange, boarding passes, and so on.

The benefit of using a service like Sojern is that the more companies know “about the cookie and the customer,” Ochoa added, “the better targeted you can be and the better priced you can be based on that intention.”

Sojern has also led Ochoa and her colleagues to rethink their approach to targeting customers. Starwood spent “a lot of time developing custom models…where we identified our ‘best customers’ and made sure that the Suzy123 we’re seeing on our side was the same Suzy123 on the portal’s side,” Ochoa explained.

However the customers that Starwood sent targeted messages to “didn’t behave any differently” than the general traveling public, she said. “In fact, they actually performed less well because the cost of the medium was higher since we paid a premium to the portal in order to target them.”

It turns out that the timing of the message was the most critical part. “We thought trying to find the right customer would be the conversion winner… what we learned is that sending the message at the right time ends up making them the right person,” Ochoa said. “In travel, 'who’ the right customer is, is largely tied to when.”

These targeting advantages could fade, acknowledged Ochoa, depending on adoption of Do-Not-Track by browser makers and consumers. In terms of using cookies, losing the ability to track customer behavior “would be crippling,” she maintained. “If we could no longer track cookies after people left our site, we would be reliant on last click attribution, which is very antiquated in terms of measurement and that would throw things off pretty wildly.”

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