Mark Rabe, CEO
Named one of Deloitte's 500 fastest-growing tech firms, Sojern has built a decade of expertise analyzing the complete traveler path to purchase and has to date driven more than $13 billion in global client bookings.
As CEO, Mark Rabe has helped the digital marketing company stay on various best places to work lists by fostering a culture of teamwork and innovation.
Can you talk a bit about the average traveler’s path to purchase and why it’s such a debated topic?
In 2017, Sojern analyzed more than eight billion travel intent signals and found that there is actually no average path to purchase. What we see in our research is that travel booking behavior varies substantially, not just from person to person, but even from trip to trip.
For example, the same person may be a last-minute booker for some business travel and a careful planner when it comes to planning a vacation. Some marketers think they can save money or time by grouping large swaths of of the population and serving them the same ad.
However, the differences in behavior from trip to trip are so significant that we believe marketing to an “average” traveler is a great way to miss them entirely.
What would you say has been the biggest shift in booking behavior over the past five years? Ten years?
The move to online booking has been dramatic in the last 10 years. That said, I’m always surprised when I see surveys that show just how much travel is still booked by phone or through other offline channels.
In 2015, 44% of North American hotel bookings occurred offline, which means the shift to online is not over. There is a huge amount of growth ahead for online bookings.
Next to the general trend of bookings moving to online, smartphones have truly put the power of the internet into people’s hands, with hotel bookings on mobile devices increasing 67% in the US in 2016.
What changes in behaviors – especially as tech advances – are we likely to see in the near future?
Better technology is shrinking the booking window. More and more people are booking at the last minute, because flexibility is highly valued by most travelers. For American travelers 72% of all mobile bookings made happen within a 48-hour window prior to the booking.
Travel can now be an impulse buy for, example, mobile apps like HotelTonight that easily allow same-day booking for a hotel room. As the popularity of these new apps grow, more consumers will embrace last-minute bookings. Who doesn’t want the flexibility to change your mind at the very last second, or move to another brand that you like better during a trip?
I also expect digital technology to become infused into the travel experience in unforeseen ways - disrupting and innovating traditional programs like loyalty.
What is another common assumption travel marketers have that your data has not aligned with?
Most marketers believe that focusing your efforts on just a handful of audiences is enough to drive demand - it’s just not that simple.
We know from our research that every traveler’s path to purchase is unique, and responding to them in real time will have a bigger impact. To do this effectively requires a smart, always-on approach, where you are constantly building brand awareness and inspiring travelers.
The biggest risk for marketers is to not embrace Facebook.
Mark Rabe - Sojern
Because most marketers’ resources are limited, many of them feel like they need to focus solely on peak season and try to impact low periods. This approach just doesn't work anymore. Travelers don't actually think about travel in this way.
Today, with digital technology, marketing is not something you turn off and on as needed. It works best when you educate and convert travelers at every stage of their path to purchase - or as we like to say, from dream to destination.
Remember, people now always have some kind of device in front of them, the idea that you only have to market at certain times of the year is ineffective and outdated.
How has the advent of artificial intelligence changed how customers are targeted, and how will that technology continue to evolve?
Artificial Intelligence is all the rage right now. It’s the natural extension of machine learning, which many in the industry have been in engaged in for some time. Sojern uses machine learning to model user behavior and predict the likelihood of each step in a traveler’s path to purchase.
By accessing and activating large amounts of data through fully automated and scaled machine learning, we’re constantly improving our ability to target the right travelers at the right time via the right channel and on the right device to drive more bookings. Using data intelligently to power campaigns has to be a priority if marketers want to stay ahead of the competition.
Sojern’s first acquisition came just last year, when you purchased Facebook and Instagram marketing partner Adphorus. What made that the right fit and how has that strategy paid off?
Adphorus was an obvious choice for us for two reasons: First, they were exclusively focused on travel performance marketing on Facebook, which was a big growth area for us. We had a partnership in place and it quickly became obvious that it made more sense to combine forces.
The second reason was their incredible team. The addition of world-class engineers, data scientists and product minds entirely focused on the two billion people who use Facebook products every month is a serious competitive advantage.
Are there more acquisitions in Sojern’s future? Why or why not?
Absolutely. We are in the market for anything that fulfills our mission of putting more heads in beds, travelers in seats and tourists in towns than anyone else in the world.
Looking at Facebook in particular, what are the biggest risks or challenges for travel marketers looking to establish or boost their presence on the platform?
It’s a new - and complicated - ecosystem. Just as marketers learned to effectively leverage print then radio then TV then digital display then search, it will just take a bit of time to learn the ropes of social.
People now always have some kind of device in front of them. The idea that you only have to market at certain times of the year is ineffective and outdated
Mark Rabe - Sojern
The biggest risk for marketers is to NOT embrace Facebook. The audience on Facebook is so incredibly vast, to ignore it as a marketer is simply irresponsible.
If you’re not on Facebook, you’re missing out on an opportunity to reach more than half the world’s internet users. Sure, there is a learning curve if you’re new ... but the hop from display to Facebook is far less challenging than the transition from traditional to digital media.
What is the greatest threat posed by Google?
Google is one of our top partners, and they’ve been fantastic to work with. With a market cap of $800 billion and world-class engineering, computer science and product teams, they can definitely invest in nearly any area and build fantastic products that will transform a given market.
The only “threat” we see would be to not work with them as they transform the digital landscape.
What are the biggest differences in traveler behavior that you notice across regions?
While perhaps obvious to some, the volume of mobile bookings and activity in Asia is amazing. Our own data shows 40% of all travel searches in Asia for the fourth quarter of 2017 were conducted on mobile. In the US, it’s closer to about 25%. Asia is truly a mobile-first culture when it comes to travel bookings.
What would you say is your single biggest achievement in your time at Sojern?
I am most proud of building a positive, results-oriented and sustainable company culture. It’s truly the people that matter most. Last year Sojern was recognized as a “Best Place to Work” by AdAge and won a “Top Company Culture” award from Entrepreneur magazine.
After that, I’m very proud of our track record for growth. We closed 2017 with our ninth consecutive quarter of profitability, a team of more than 400 employees spread across 13 global offices and made Deloitte’s list of fastest-growing technology firms for the fifth year in a row.
Can you talk a bit about what stands out about Sojern’s company culture?
We promote a philosophy of transparency, teamwork and innovation. This has created a strong company culture and attracted fiercely loyal employees who refer to themselves as “Sojernistas.”
Our values encourage people to be genuine, produce outstanding work (which we call delivering “wow”), champion diversity, center around our customers and win as a team. In fact, we use this as our framework for hiring, reviews, promotions, peer recognition and more.
How do you motivate your team?
I come to work every day with an enthusiasm and passion to innovate. But, at Sojern, what I think motivates people the most is that we truly value winning as a team. The team goes above and beyond to celebrate each client success.
I love that about our Sojernistas - they love to win and they love to win together.
What gaps would you admit to having in your overall knowledge of the industry?
You name it. I have only been in the travel industry for seven years, and I have been humbled by all the smart folks I’ve met along the way.
That’s why I’m not afraid to ask lots of questions - because it allows me the opportunity to learn and continue innovating for our customers. Honestly, that’s what helps keep me excited about going to work every day.
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