How Skyscanner became a global $2bn company by growth hacking instead of marketing

Skyscanner global vice-president of growth Yara Paoli – who will speak at the Mumbrella Asia Travel Marketing Summit in Singapore on April 16 – tells Mumbrella's Dean Carroll why the company now steers away from ‘big gamble’ marketing campaigns to focus instead on experimentation grounded in big data

Yara Paoli Mumbrella Asia Travel Marketing Summit

Skyscanner has become a huge global brand, and a unicorn company, in a relatively short space of time without really any significant forms of traditional marketing at all. Just how did that happen, can you map out the narrative from the start-up beginning in 2001 to multinational unicorn company with 60 million users today?

“Well, it all started because our three co-founders were frustrated that they couldn’t easily find flights to go and ski in the Alps. The company actually started life as an automated Excel spreadhseet on the flights available.

“Now things are very different. As you say, we have 60 million users. When I joined, I was employee number 32 and now we employ more than 600 people. It used to be an engineering-purposed company that got success through traditional SEO.

“But we moved away quite quickly from traditional marketing to growth hacking. What does this mean? Well, we got away from specialists operating in silos – things like PR, SEO and content – to embrace a different mindset. We asked our marketers to transform and develop into fully-rounded growth hackers that knew about data and programming as well as all the different facets of marketing, the commercial side and product management.

“It’s been a long journey in terms of self-learning for individuals and building up training programmes within the company. At the same time, we’ve also tried to learn from the best growth hackers out there in Silicon Valley.”

And I’ve heard you say the company actually steers away from ‘big gamble’ campaigns and awareness marketing. Is that ever likely to change?

“In the early days, we did actually try some big gamble campaigns including TVCs, print and offline. It was expensive and the results were momentary without a long lasting impact, as such campaigns are not always deep rooted in retention so we don’t plan to go back there.  

“Our default now is first of all you have to achieve product-market fit before any significant marketing investment. Our focus is on the needs of the traveller and the product because that is what we believe leads to retention. That’s the key to longer-term sustainable growth.

“We are not quite a start-up anymore, but we are focused on lean technology. We build, measure and learn each marketing campaign just as if it were a new product feature we are developing. Only once a campaign has been validated in one market would we roll it out to other markets.”

But the online travel agency space is increasingly crowded. What is Skyscanner doing to get ahead of the competition?

“We have adopted the meta-search model and we actually consider the OTAs, as well as airlines, as our partners. That way we can show travellers the most comprehensive offers on the market.

“We see as ourselves as a dynamic marketplace that actually relies on these partners and provides them with a branded storefront for their products rather than just straight price comparisons.”

And given your huge user base, you must have a massive amount of data on consumers. How do you manage that safely and securely, and what tools do you use to profile your users so that you can offer them tailored products through email marketing and retargeting – for example?

“The huge volume of searches everyday from users provide valuable insights on how to shape the products. We have, however, a real focus on user privacy and security of data. We only give users personalised information when we have achieved consent.

“We are also exploring the possibilities of chatbots and voice. The big data we have, powered by artificial intelligence and automation, can be used to simplify the search process for the users. It’s all about convenience and you as a consumer not having to do much.”

You plan to talk about your ‘build-measure-learn’ approach at the Mumbrella Asia Travel marketing Summit in Singapore on April 16. What exactly are the fundamentals of this approach and why do you see it as so valuable?

“It’s typical of an agile methodology – meaning you never invest too much time, effort or money until you have validated an idea. So it means you don’t invest millions of dollars in a huge marketing campaign without having first tested it.

“It means the marketing message is viable and provides both value to the users and a return on investment for the business. It’s a more scientific approach as you test with a smaller target audience instead of a big budget gamble.

“When it’s verified you then roll it out to a broader audience in more markets and on more channels. It’s much less risky from a management perspective and I will reveal a lot more details at the coming conference.”

Skyscanner was arguably one of the first disruptors in the travel segment – taking on the legacy travel agents and winning. Which companies are the disruptors of tomorrow and how will you fight against the sea of change that may disrupt your own business model in the future?

“The disruption now is coming from countries like China and India. We actually have a ‘Look to Asia’ Slack channel in Skyscanner because that’s the place where you can see the emerging trends like ‘authentically-mobile’ companies.

“China is now the leader in technological advances. Look at the way that payments have been facilitated in that country with Alipay and WeChat Pay. Phone-camera is the new keyboard. In China, it is now all about scanning QR codes with your camera, things are moving away from traditional search.”

And on China, Skyscanner was acquired by Ctrip in 2016 for around US$2bn. Just how much direction do you get from the Chinese parent company nowadays?

“In reality, we are still operationally independent. Our focus before the acquisition was very much on our own accelerated growth and that’s still the case. However, we are also benefiting from the Ctrip knowledge and insight.

“As I said before Chinese tech is now a leading indicator of what is coming down the line in the future for the rest of the world.”

And artificial intelligence, virtual reality, chatbots, Blockchain, content marketing, influencers, social media – how do these recent developments rank in terms of importance to travel marketers, in your view?

“There is a lot of discussion about AI and automation at the moment. The martech landscape is certainly changing fast, but strategic thinking and creativity are things that AI will not be able to do well for quite some time yet. The dawn of chatbots though will most definitely shape the way that we interact with our customers.”

Changing pace, the Skyscanner Facebook page has 9.4 million likes whereas on Twitter there are just 167,000 followers and on LinkedIn only 38,000 followers. Is Facebook king for you guys when it comes to social? And are there other social networks you use, Snapchat for example?

“It is indeed. The demographics for Facebook users and Skyscanner customers aligns. The platform has worked very well for us. We steer clear of automation on Facebook though and do our best to have a human conversation with people.

“For example, one of our social managers received a complaint from a customer about a mistake on our site which stated that there would be a 47-year layover in Bangkok. He jokingly suggested a long list of creative ideas for the traveller to pursue for a whole lifetime. As a result, the customer was amused and happy plus it was picked up by media all over the world. It became a true PR success.

“As to Snapchat, we have done some tests but nothing extensive as yet. Let’s see in the future.”

How about in China, what social networks do you use there?

“We have indeed put a lot into developing our WeChat platform, that has to be the focus for us in China.”

But how much of your ad spend goes on the Google-Facebook duopoly and do you think it’s healthy for two companies to have such a monopoly of power in the marketing landscape?

“Well, with Facebook we are quite advanced with mobile targeting in terms of achieving quality acquisitions. It’s a good channel. Meanwhile, Google SEM and AdWords is something that we have used from the very beginning.

“But we are conscious of the monopoly. That’s why we want to build a self-sustaining product so that we can reduce the reliability on platforms like Google.”

Changing pace, academics have long talked about this being the Asian Century and with the dominance of the BATs – Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent – that certainly seems like it is becoming a reality. As someone who works for a Chinese-owned company, how do you see the global media and marketing landscape changing in the coming years? Will the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon be overtaken by their competitors from Asia?

“Asia is definitely leading the way. It is authentically mobile and is moving away from search and adopting fully integrated payment platforms, particularly in China. In that regard, Asia is ahead of other markets.

“The Chinese companies are definitely now in competition with Google and Facebook. The speed at which they are innovating is unprecedented.”

Switching topics, you are a high-powered female executive. Given the rise of the #MeToo movement, what’s your assessment of the health check of travel as a segment – have you witnessed men behaving badly during your career?

“It’s not a secret that women in tech have it quite difficult. Especially if you’re a woman who has to deal with a lot of male engineers or product people. But I feel we are now moving into a better place where there is equality and women can actually dare to say what they think.

“I’ve heard stories from lots of other women in this sector of things that happened to them. And in the workplace, women often have to fight to be recognised – that is certainly true. However, there are also lots of great examples of supportive male leaders out there too.”

And, of course, you have a psychology degree so you are probably better placed than most to evaluate these things. Just how have you put that knowledge to use in your professional life?

“It’s useful for me in the workplace every single day. It gives you a great understanding of the emotional needs of those around you and the dynamics of teams as well as how to motivate people and show empathy.

“In terms of the minds of the consumer, it prepares you well to get to grips with the methodology of research and proper statistical analysis. Only with such rigour can you understand the needs and minds of the users of your products.”

Finally, which countries in Asia are strongest for Skyscanner?

“Asia is the fastest growing region for us and last year we saw 60 per cent year-on-year growth. It’s a multifaceted emerging market. Singapore is important for us, as is Korea. And in the wider APAC region, Australia is strong for us.”

Skyscanner global vice-president of growth Yara Paoli will give a keynote speech at the Mumbrella Asia Travel Marketing Summit in Singapore on April 16 – to see the other speakers participating and to buy your earlybird tickets for $299 before March 8, visit the event website here


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