Ian, Kona is wondering where you are…

So goes the title of the second such email I’ve received this year from United.

I'm right here, Kona

The thing is, I have a trip booked to Kona already…on United even.

Last time I got an email with this subject line, I had two trips booked to Kona on United (one for the Hawaii 70.3 race back in May, and one for Kona in October), and they were in fact the only upcoming trips I had at the time.

Somewhere at United, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

As ridiculous as this scenario seems, it happens all the time, and the problem isn’t unique to United Airlines. Marketing automation systems attempt to do personalized campaigns in order to get a better response rate. But they lack two central ingredients:

  1. Current situational awareness from other transactional systems. United’s reservation system and all ancillary systems, such as checkin systems, frequent flier account, etc, aren’t one monolithic database, but rather a series of systems that need to update one another. This doesn’t happen instantaneously (this is why your frequent flier account doesn’t have your most recent flight on it as soon as you land); if every system updated every other system instantly, everything would bog down and grind to a halt – at least in the IT infrastructure on which a lot of these systems are currently built. Everyone wants “real time,” but most often the cross-system updates are still scheduled in large offline batch operations. (A good lesson on the IT complexity of airlines is talked about here and other places with respect to the merger of United and Continental.)
  2. Intelligent, adaptive systems that take as much current customer context into account as possible. This is the holy grail of personalized marketing, but more often than not, campaign management systems are rule or model driven, and they only look at a few factors, such as when I made trips in the past and to where. The timing of my Kona emails is no surprise when you think about my past history: I’ve done the Hawaii 70.3 race in May a grand total of seven times since 2006, and this is my fourth Hawaii Ironman in October. The fact that I’ve already got reservations is a comical illustration of point 1 above, but anyone who knows me, either personally or through my various social networks, would know which races involving travel I’ve already signed up for, and combining that intelligence with my current transactional status would prevent emails like this that make it seem like the airline doesn’t know me, when in fact I’ve flown well over 2 million miles on United. They should know me very well by now!

In fact, if they were smart, they’d be making me offers for business class fare to Klagenfurt, Austria next summer, seeing as (a) I’ve signed up for Ironman Austria, and (b) I likey my business class as long as you give me a reasonable deal. True personalization like this is something we’ve worked very hard on a Saffron with our autonomous learning platform, and we have some very good proof points in accuracy of individualized product prediction. We co-presented on this with our customer USAA at Wharton back in April. “Cluster of one” personalization is just in its infancy, but with the IT industry on its way to adopting technologies that solve the two challenges above – low-latency updates from transactional systems and intelligent systems that can treat all of us like the individuals we are – we shouldn’t be surprised to see the marketing of the future become “scary good.”

Meanwhile, back in the present, two days after I booked my trip to Phoenix for this November’s Ironman Arizona race, I got this:

Phoenix, I'm right here!

<sigh> Really, United?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s