A Semantic Personality

Dec 16, 2011

[The following article was written by Thematix partner Larry Smith and first appeared in Tnooz on December 8, 2011]

It took me about 15 years from when I started travelling for business and pleasure to appreciate the value of a professional travel agent.  In 1979 as a junior MadMan.

I relied upon secretaries and expense accounts for guidance, while personal travel was collaboration between an advertised special, a travel agency storefront, and my girlfriend.

By 1996 my prospering Internet development company was flying people around the globe and Ann Marie, our independent travel agent, made several dozen bookings a week seem trivial. What’s more, she made personal travel an exciting purchase, something to anticipate enjoying for all 200+ of us when we needed to get away for a week or weekend. This was personal service with expertise and excellence.

While we worked to transform e-commerce and marketing on the Internet for companies including American Express, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, Microsoft, AT&T and Martha Stewart, our objectives were known but the consequences continued to manifest as browser interfaces transformed customer relationships while click processes pinpointed purchase pain points.

To a marketing technologist, uncovering the consumer behavior and purchase process is critical to creating the benefit in a unique user interface with data presented just so. Once structured so the servers can spin the data, much of the creative expression is forever cemented into a template in a consistent process.  Some content is enriched through data feeds from news, weather and review sites, but mostly the template makes the asset uniform; seat, bed, wheels, ticket — at a place for a price on a date certain.

At the time (circa 2000) we thought this was a job amazingly well done: margins increased, salesmanship elevated, process simplified and customer satisfaction enhanced.

Now.  Not so much. The pendulum has swung too far the other way.

Data has become the soul of the interaction, and a uniform template the face of the relationship, so the personality, knowledge and insights integral to our travel experience have become a casualty. Unfortunately there is no such thing as a romance feed; when we lost Ann Marie, we lost that loving feeling.

We’re at another inflection point where margins, value, and customer loyalty are at odds with Internet access, matrix shopping options, and price driven purchase behavior.

As an industry we face a few multi-billion dollar questions:

  • Can we affordably change our systems, processes, and interactions?
  • Can our data be enriched with personality; i.e., can we craft a romance feed from a big data knowledge base?
  • Can a deeper relationship at multiple points in the purchase funnel create loyalty by adding value to the customer?

How do we technologists (including myself) want to be regarded: as sales advocates delivering revenue or programming pragmatists wedded to legacy systems and outflanked by newbie start-ups?

Semantics and semantic technology are technical and marketing solutions that enable us to create “knowledgebase and data response personalities” akin to individual emotional, attitudinal and behavioral response patterns.

First, we start by creating product/benefit data packages, which are the substance and content from a search of rich databases or deep web data. Created from a search query, packages span two layers of information:

  • Benefit data: the surface web or presentation layer of matrix results, displayed in a browser template, for the customer to consider and interact with; and
  • Product data: the deep web of highly structured product, inventory and pricing data housed in one of more internal siloes.

Nothing particularly new here, but as Dr. Alfred Lanning says in iRobot: “I’m sorry. My responses are limited. You must ask the right questions.” In other words the key is to accurately query for data that is then reconciled with and mapped to the true meaning of the question; i.e., data fields aligned with the semantic meaning. Semantic technology gives us another layer for metadata and ontological meaning that currently does not exist; over time we’ll create a rich knowledge base.

The business and marketing outcome is ability to wrap this package in and with many other knowledge and data stores (CRM/loyalty programs), data feeds (Facebook, news, weather, TSA), and other linked data repositories (TripIt, TripAdvisor).

This product/benefit package can be further linked to and marked-up with smart branding data so we may present richer or more relevant benefits outside the norm. Eventually we may enable machine reasoning to deliver greater value to the consumer in a modified matrix with fewer and more relevant choices, enhanced with knowledge points; at the minimum we can increase the number of templates to deliver more tailored results based upon performance and yield.  Further examples are discussed in a prior Tnooz article from US–based Thematix.

For example purposes, two primary points of reasoning through inference and deduction involve dates and places. There is a high probability that a family traveling to Orlando in April is on school Spring Break and wants a rental car for flexibility, as compared to the college student, also on Spring Break, who wants a bus to Coco Beach for a premium hotel room on the Boardwalk.  A same day round trip to Bentonville, AR means a visit to Walmart, and a mid-January trip to Detroit means the Auto Show or CES if the destination is Las Vegas. There are thousands of smaller but no less obvious times and places where people travel and seek obvious value-adds, bundled packages or are willing to pay a premium price when placed in the proper context.

Using product/benefit packages to pull data and present unique merchandising offers with relevant information to the consumer is the way to put knowledge and personality back into the process. The richness of semantic tools and processes will permit everyone to spin the data to their own unique presentation, to enhance brand personality and deliver an engaging attitude. This will also expand distribution opportunities, and enhance affiliate programs.

Though the yield management department already knows this “in theory”, for the first time, marketing and sales can work with the IT and Internet staff to put this into practice. The web page is no longer about the price, it’s all about the options and value-add of things that make sense for the trip.

  • The Bentonville trip is enhanced by seeing the Avis Chauffeur option to pick-up, wait, and return the car thus being on-time or catching an earlier flight;
  • Booking air, room, and wheels for the The Detroit Auto Show is enhanced with points to OpenTable for dinner reservations at an exclusive table, which makes the client happy to renew a contract;
  • Downloading a branded app with the schedule and locations at CES in Las Vegas is free when booking via this supplier or agent.

Adding a layer of semantic technology allows data locked into multiple data stores to be extracted from legacy systems and displayed in more powerful and profitable ways at lower cost and accuracy. Over time, this data will become knowledge enriched with analytics to permit value calculations that support the bottom line.

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