The market challenges for airlines in today’s e-commerce channels are diverse, complex and varied, but the path forward is clear, as e-commerce options and features continue to evolve.

In 1951, Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), the acclaimed scientist and science fiction writer, created and published a short story entitled “Satisfaction Guaranteed.” The plot of his story basically revolves around how “humanoid household robots” could be introduced into a future society as domestic help.

In one part of the story, TN-3 (a robot) needs to buy construction material to redecorate the house of Claire Belmont. So the robot writes down a list of materials and asks Claire to drive to the store.

Among key items we learn from this short story, in brief summary, is that not even a genius like Asimov could predict the advent of e-commerce and how it would change our society.

Fast forward to 2016, and our world has changed dramatically in relation to how we use technology in our daily lives.

The airline implication

As far as the airline industry goes, 1995 is normally accepted as the year during which the first airline ticket was sold through the internet, followed by web check-in, which was introduced in the late 1990s.

Many people probably remember those brave pioneer airlines that initiated these technological advances, and just how forward-thinking these trends were at the time.

But among the things that have proven especially interesting about the history of the airline industry is the fact that this entire technological concept is not only about selling online. Today, it’s about providing the online experience, or digital experience.

Today’s airline e-commerce

The expectations of travelers and airlines alike continue to grow, and the challenges are many. But the airline industry is in a unique position to create solutions that enrich the traveler experience while benefiting the carrier.

Among the most important challenges is: How can an airline keep its online presence fresh and appealing? Arguably, this is the most abstract problem to solve.

An airline wants visitors of its website to be engaged, amazed, pleased and excited (or to be “wowed,” to express the goal in American English). Hence, the measure of success becomes very subjective.

What is appealing to a single visitor or even a group of visitors may be vastly different from what appeals to other website visitors.

Clearly, the main purpose of the booking site is to facilitate the selling of airline tickets and ancillaries. Therefore, the site has to be simple and streamlined, but never boring or distracting. Plus, it has to have a modern look and feel and be refreshed every year or two.

As such, an airline’s e-commerce manager should focus on a few key points to ensure the booking site meets customers’ needs:

  1. The only party who really matters in caring and understanding whether the site is “fresh and appealing” is the customer, not the technology provider, not the e-commerce team, not even the airline’s chief executive officer. Therefore, ample user testing, focus groups, advanced software-engineering experiments, market segmentation and analytics investments are vital. It may be expensive, but having the best possible knowledge about customers is well worth the cost.
  2. When in doubt, choose usability over aesthetics. It’s always better to increase (or at least to maintain) conversion rather than to be called “pretty.”
  3. An airline’s technology partner needs capabilities to customize its website to ensure it is unique and doesn’t look like 20 other airline sites. And it should also ensure the technology partner can refresh the site as needed so it doesn’t become stale and outdated.
  4. If an airline chooses to design its own website, it should be flexible and expect to compromise. The “best” user experience is an enemy of the “right” user experience. In other words, the path to perfection is very long. The airline needs to determine when its site is good enough to be in production. And it should decide whether or not it can continue developing and iterating for six more months.

How airlines can make the most of online interactions

The potential benefits of creating relevant interactions between an airline’s digital storefront (or storefronts) and its customers are huge. Not only can the airline increase conversion (the right product at the right time for the right traveler with the right price and promotion), but it also drives repeat business.

When customers enjoy online services, they are more likely to come back. They feel more attached to the brand. It becomes an emotional bond rather than a commodity transaction.

The industry refers to this as “personalization.” And while personalization is fairly simple to achieve, there are several points to consider:

  1. In today’s online environment, no longer is anybody fully anonymous. Most times, a website will know the shopper’s country, as well as which device he or she is using to look at an airline’s products, the time of day, whether or not this is the first time this user has come to the site, which destination pairs have been searched before, which potential travel days have been searched and lots more.
  2. If an airline could uniquely identify one of its customers, it should realize the potential increment in increased revenue it could glean by offering this specific traveler the right product at the right time.
  3. An airline should find the balance between overwhelming its customers with offers/ancillaries and providing relevant services. This means not only knowing its customers, but also understanding each customer’s situation. For example, has he or she visited the site multiple times, and is he or she ready to buy? If the customer already has a booking but travel starts in two months, what can the traveler possibly need from the airline? Can its digital storefront anticipate the traveler’s needs?
  4. While travelers love relevant product and service offers, they can also come to a point of feeling uncomfortable when an airline appears to know “too much” about them, just like the mythical Big Brother. The tone of an airline’s messages needs to remain fairly neutral, and users must have a way to easily opt out from personalized offers.

Because customers come to an airline’s site using different devices, such as smartphones and tablets, the default standard today is to offer a responsive site. A responsive site “knows” the screen size that is being used by the visitor, and it automatically adapts the user interface to that screen size.

Responsive design is ideal because the site offers an equally easy interaction for small screens and big screens, as well as presents a familiar, consistent user experience across various devices. This serves to eliminate confusion for the user, and it reduces frustration.

The business side of this challenge is more complex

Introduction of fare brands/families and unbundling of fares and extras has become the norm. When a customer comes to an airline’s site, he or she needs to see the various branded fares. Additionally, the site needs to offer a full range of ancillaries available for that route without overwhelming visitors, which is where personalization comes in.

When considering responsive sites, positive visitor interactions and ancillaries all at the same time, an airline should consider several highly relevant and significant points:

  1. Consider the cost of maintaining different sites for small screens and for large screens. A “responsive” site makes a great deal of sense because a change is made only once
  2. Carefully consider the impact of having too many choices. If customers need to think too long about the differences among numerous options, the airline is not making the most of that interaction. Less is more. Extensive usability studies show that more than five options in an activity is overwhelming for the average user, which may cause them to leave the site altogether.
  3. When providing options in a step, the message for the user should not be about detailed specifics of each individual option, but about the value that selecting that option will provide in the context of the travel experience. Another way to express it: Don’t offer “insurance.” Offer “peace of mind.”
  4. The goal is very ambitious: If the site is responsive (offers the best possible experience for the device), an airline should try to tailor the experience based on personalization and context. It should move from “what it offers” to “when it offers it,” thus immensely increasing relevancy.It’s all part of an approach that offers many avenues, but it’s likely to prove well worth the effort to sort it all out and make a genuine attempt to significantly improve the user experience.

Creating a new digital experience

In 2015, Sabre set a goal to create the next generation of e-commerce products for the SabreSonic Customer Sales & Service suite of solutions, a goal which has come to fruition with the introduction of SabreSonic Digital Experience (see related Ascend article The Digital Experience). The solution takes e-commerce to the next level for the airline industry.

Leveraging Sabre’s investments during recent years in SabreSonic Web’s core processing and orchestration, the overall result has been a leap forward for Sabre’s digital capabilities and the options from which airlines can choose for their respective digital storefronts.

In short, it’s about setting trends in e-commerce that will bring value to airlines around the world, as well as the airline industry as a whole.

This article was republished from Ascend magazine.