Travel search site Skyscanner has defied the turbulent climate to reach a major profit hike. Newly appointed CMO Andrew Cocker talks about next steps for the company, including global developments.
Marketing Week (MW): Your role of chief marketing officer is new at Skyscanner: what triggered its creation?
Andrew Cocker (AC): Skyscanner has grown rapidly, a lot of it through word of mouth, which suggests it is a good product that people want to share. To get the business to the next stage of growth, where we are expanding into new global territories, there is an acceptance at founder and senior management level that marketing expertise is needed on the board, and the voice of the consumer must be represented when it comes to decision making.
MW: What has been your first move since joining the company?
AC: Since coming on board I’ve been looking at the current structure and have put together a hiring plan. The team is expanding relatively quickly as the business is growing at more than 100 per cent year on year. We currently have about 25 people in marketing but that will easily double by the end of the year. [Skyscanner is currently looking for a product marketing director and head of brand, and will soon begin looking for an integrated communications director as well as a head of research and insights].
Figures suggest that 75 per cent of people book a hotel or car hire within 24 hours of booking a flight. We’ve got millions of people booking flights through us so there is a real opportunity to get a world class CRM system in place to cross-sell.
MW: Data is a critical differentiator for the business. How do you gain insight from this vast pool of information?
AC: The founders [Gareth Williams, Bonamy Grimes and Barry Smith] have built the company up brick by brick and own the technology and data, which is unique for the travel industry because most competitors buy it in. It means we can take advantage of things such as real-time bidding (RTB) and hone our marketing strategy every day.
We have 36 different nationalities working at the Edinburgh office. It ensures we’re not just a translation service
MW: Mobile is an important channel for Skyscanner. What is the strategy?
AC: We focus on making the most of the technology on each platform. If you look at our app on Android and Windows, and compare it to tablet or iOS, they all have subtle differences to make the most of that particular platform.
BlackBerry users, for example, can chat in BBM while searching and our tablet app has a globe functionality to inspire people where to go next.
Our strategy is about defining the services we want to offer and the application programming interfaces (APIs) and from there we can build the mobile offering. That way it is scalable and future-proofed because users can connect to the same back-end service whatever the device. There is so much innovation in this area that if we get the API and the back-end service right, we’re always going to be ready for any new devices.
MW: What has been a real game changer for the business?
AC: RTB is changing how marketers buy inventory and that mindset of behavioural targeting is permeating across the business now. It’s very much becoming a mixture of data and brand-led decision making. I don’t see data killing brand though, I see them working harmoniously together. But anyone who doesn’t think about the data aspect now will soon be a dinosaur.
MW: How is the company set up globally?
AC: We’re currently in 30 markets and that will grow to about 42 by the end of this year.
The business is headed up from the Edinburgh office which covers Europe and the rest of EMEA. We’ve then got an office in Beijing [opened last August] which serves the China market, and an office in Singapore for South East Asia. We are also set to open an office in Miami in the next three or four months to help with our expansion in Latin America and the US.
MW: How does Skyscanner ensure it is relevant in each market?
AC: Every time the business enters a new market it recruits people from those countries and brings them over to Edinburgh. There are 36 different nationalities working at the Edinburgh office now, so it’s a bit like working at the UN.
It ensures we’re not just a translation service when we go into a new market. We’ve got people that fundamentally understand the local people, the customs, the language and colloquialisms. It’s very easy for a business to open up in a new territory and just get the site translated, but Skyscanner doesn’t do that.
MW: How do you make sure the overall brand message is consistent across all markets?
AC: I have just kicked off a project looking at how we are positioning the brand globally, now and over the next two to three years. It is an incredibly important area. We will have an overall global strategy but it will be easily implemented and localised in each individual country.
The challenge with developing global brands is that sometimes you can go to the lowest common denominator in order for it to work in lots of different markets. Right now we are looking at how to make sure the brand has enough flexibility to be very locally relevant.
MW: How do you make sure social media is appropriate for each territory?
AC: We have a very content-based social media strategy, which is handled in-house in each territory. Whatever the platform, whether it’s LinkedIn, Google+ or Facebook, we develop a bespoke strategy that matches how customers interact with those individual products. It’s probably just as important for marketers to get social integration right at the user experience level as it is for them to master SEO, pay-per-click and RTB, because that is how people are going to share at scale.
MW: What are going to be the business’s key focus points for investment?
AC: We currently offer flights, hotels and car hire. Car hire used to be a white label solution but we’ve recently put our own technology into it and you’ll see that happening across other areas too over the next six to 12 months.
MW: What lessons will you take from your time at Yahoo! and apply to your role at Skyscanner?
AC: Building and motivating a really high performance team that want to go that extra mile is critical.
Another big lesson is to ship quickly - get products out there and then iterate based on real-time consumer behaviour. There is no point in trying to build the perfect product if it never sees the light of day. The importance of investing for growth is key as well.
MW: What’s high on your agenda in these first months?
AC: My role will obviously evolve over time but the first thing for me has been to get to know people across the organisation, get up to speed with the product pipeline and understand what’s coming up now and in the future. I’ve spent time listening to our customers, whether that’s through our social media pages or through customer care, looking into the data to gain insight that will ultimately drive our strategy.
Team management is a big part of my role and I’m spending a lot of time getting the right recruitment plans in place and making sure we hire the right people.
Partner discussions are also high on the agenda. We’re in constant dialogue with various different partners.
MW: What kind of partnerships are you looking to set up?
AC: There’s a few that will happen fairly quickly. In some cases they’ll be fairly small but they will be a signal of intent into the type of activity that we’re looking at. I think partnership marketing can be incredibly powerful. It’s certainly an area I want to expand on.
Skyscanner may be entering its 12th year, but the entrepreneurial spirit of its founders continues to live on.
Newly appointed chief marketing officer Andrew Cocker, who joined after a stint at Yahoo!, says: “The business has been around for a little while but there is still very much a start-up culture here. There was one round of venture capital funding back in 2007 but other than that expansion has been funded through our own profit & loss, which is incredibly strong.”
The company owns all its own technology and searches thousands of flights to find the best travel deals. The service is free to consumers who then book deals directly with the airline or travel agent and Skyscanner earns a referral fee. No fees or additional booking costs are passed on to the consumer.
Skyscanner generated £2.3bn for
its airline partners in 2012 alone, and as a result of continued growth, profits increased 153 per cent in 2012 to £12m, while revenue grew 65 per cent to £33.5m.
Asia-Pacific in particular is booming and now represents 18 per cent of overall traffic to the site. The company experienced 400 per cent annual growth across the region after it opened its first office in Singapore and moved to larger premises at the end of last year, as well as opening an additional office in Beijing in August.
Skyscanner now plans to match this success across North and South America and is due to open an office in Miami in the next a few months.