GlobalLinker is Jet Airways’ next step in its digital journey

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What does the country’s Mumbai-based full-service carrier, Jet Airways (India) Ltd, hope to achieve by launching an online marketplace for small and medium enterprises (SMEs)?

The move, at first glance, does not reveal any explicit synergy with the airline’s main business. But it appears to be a key part of its digital strategy: to get more small businessmen to fly Jet Airways and collect more data from passengers to glean insights that will boost the airline’s business.

Three years ago, Jet Airways invested in developing a digital platform exclusively for SMEs. Called GlobalLinker, it allowed SMEs to create their online profile to showcase their businesses, products and services and network online with other SMEs. The online platform currently counts about 50,000 SMEs as members, according to Belson Coutinho, vice-president of marketing, e-commerce and innovations at Jet Airways.

The online marketplace is simply the “next step”, he said in a recent interview. Coutinho explained that “the idea is to help SMEs make this GlobalLinker platform a one-shop stop”. On its part, Jet Airways gets to showcase its own products and services on the GlobalLinker platform which, in turn, gives it “business from SME executives who plan to fly Jet Airways.” In addition, the airline gets access to a lot of data from the platform that will give it more insights about customers.

“This vertical (online sales) is contributing significantly to our direct digital revenue,” Coutinho said, adding that digital accounts for about “20% of our total revenue”. “If you combine the digital revenue from the OTAs (online travel agencies), it will comprise about 45-50% of the total revenue,” Coutinho added.

Jet Airways’s annual revenue, at Rs21,552.35 crore in the year ended 31 March 2017, was up 1.82% from Rs21,167.33 crore a year ago. Net profit was Rs390.43 crore, down 66.7% from Rs1,173.56 crore.

Internet-enabled ecosystems

Coutinho insists that digital is “anything and everything that transforms a consumer journey using technology”. He expects the marketplace, which has been contracted to Mumbai-based information technology (IT) firm DigiVation Digital Solutions Pvt. Ltd, to go live by this year end.

“Companies today are investing in internet-enabled ecosystems to bring the elements of the ecosystem together. We have seen this in e-commerce as well as consumer products,” said Sreedhar Prasad, partner, management consulting, KPMG India. “This (the online marketplace) is an interesting move in the airlines space where the sellers come together in an ecosystem. This would help in getting a far wider and deeper control of this ticketing ecosystem as well as possibility of upselling of other services.”

The marketplace is just one aspect of Jet Airways’ digital journey that “began almost 12 years ago,” according to Coutinho. In Jet Airways, “consumer touchpoints” including jetairways.com, the airline’s mobile app, e-commerce (which includes booking, payments), self-service kiosks, and the social media space—are managed by the e-commerce and digital teams. Digital communication, on the other hand, includes the airline’s strategy around search marketing, search engine optimisation (SEO), re-targeting and campaign management, according to Coutinho.

Jet Airways’ digital strategy comprises two parts. One is the “pure play digital marketing piece” that includes “communication and an engagement-led strategy.” For this, Jet Airways relies largely on channels such as Google, Facebook and other social media platforms. The other part of the strategy involves “using real digital technologies to enhance consumer experience across every touchpoint in the journey”.

For instance, if you have done your booking on Jet Airways using your Aadhaar number, you can simply swipe your finger at Bengaluru airport, and “it does your fingerprinting and validates your identity and gets you entry. It flashes your picture—at the entry, boarding gate,” Coutinho said. Similar is the case in Hyderabad.

Tapping social media

For search engine marketing, Jet Airways uses Google and Facebook. The airlines also uses makes good use of videos. “We thought video would be the best for millennials, and our investment to produce that content has been very successful (18-24 year olds). We have stayed away from Snapchat because I don’t believe it is going to help our objective as a brand. But Instagram is definitely helping us. We also use Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter (to respond to complaints, etc.),” Coutinho said, adding that the “basics of our digital strategy remain unchanged: Listen, Engage and Respond”.

Jet Airways “uses a sophisticated listening tool called Lithium (from Lithium Technologies Inc.) to get insights and generate responses with the help of machine learning”, Coutinho said. A machine learning system, an artificial intelligence tool, does not need explicit programming and can teach itself from mountains of data.

Also, every wing in Jet Airways is represented by a ‘social media champion’ who is not a full-time person but “knows how to handle the sensitivities around social media”, according to Coutinho. For instance, if there is a sandstorm or bandh that is delaying the take-off or landing of a flight, it gives the social media person the right insight and helps him or her to respond almost in real time.

Understanding consumer behaviour

Jet Airways also makes efficient use of its core frequent flyer customer relationship management (CRM) database. “We look at transactional data to understand consumer behaviour and based on this, we build segments and personas,” Coutinho said. For instance, if the user behaviour suggests family travel, Jet Airways “offers products and deals based on this segment”. “For e.g., I can inform such consumers that if they buy excess baggage space online, it is cheaper than if they do that at the airport. For a person who travels overseas often, I can offer insurance,” Countinho explains.

To be sure, there are airlines like American Airlines, for instance, that give travellers a digital alert if their bags don’t arrive at the same destination at the same time, according to a 3 August report in Los Angeles Times. Delta Air Lines has a luggage tracking system at the major domestic airports served by it. A conveyor belt fitted with radio frequency identification (RFID) scanners is programmed to stop if a bag is headed for the wrong plane, the report explained.

Southwest Airlines uses a speech analytics tool that allows customer service representatives to understand the nuances of every recorded customer interaction. It also works with US space agency Nasa and uses machine learning algorithms to identify patterns that can improve airline safety.

“We have seen the coming of age of airline social media. However, the misleading ads about cheap fares, the apathetic look at the booking counter, the poor service within the plane itself, and the lack of integration of offline to online are still challenges that the airline industry needs to go through,” said Kapil Gupta, CEO of digital agency Efluencr.

Gupta believes “reputation management” will be key to success of the airlines industry. Since airlines “are a part of the experiences that people have–like somebody visiting home after years”, they need to “move their social media strategy into more micro targeting and very specialized messaging versus generic promotions”, Gupta says.