“Big data is the biggest change for brands since broadcast media”

Gemma Carver, group marketing director of restaurant reservation service Livebookings, reveals the importance of mobile to its plans to increase personalisation and how it is dealing with big data.


Marketing Week (MW): How are you creating a data strategy for your B2B arm Livebookings and consumer brand Bookatable?

Gemma Carver (GC): For Livebookings and Bookatable, our data strategy is our business strategy to a large degree. We are looking at how we can use the data we have gathered to accelerate success and deliver exponential growth. We have about six years of dining history – the dining history of anyone who has ever booked through our booking widget [which is embedded in over 9,000 restaurant websites as well the Bookatable site]. It gives a good understanding of someone’s online booking behaviour. You can imagine the potential for that if you want to personalise a website, email messages or even an app.

We know our customers break broadly into four segments, and one of those segments we call ‘offers or types of offers’ so we can put a value on that. All of that comes from individuals’ dining and booking history, so even without demographics, we can already deliver very personalised offers or dining experiences. A lot of our thinking at the moment is going into how we do that.

We have seen a huge amount of success with one of our products, called Star Deals. It is about very high-end offers and dining experiences and we have an incredibly loyal following. It is quite a new product and we have strong indications that when we start personalising, which we will next year, that we will see a big uplift in resulting sales.

MW: How has mobile impacted on your use of data?

GC: Mobile is extremely important to us. Even this year we have seen mobile bookings go from 6 per cent to what we think will be close to 30 per cent at the end of the year – growth is huge.

This means two things for our mobile strategy: first, we have taken the view that when we build our site or rebuild our site, it is mobile first. The site is designed, and will continue to be designed, in HTML5 coding so it is responsive on any device.

Second, we are looking now at how we can deliver a native app experience that is much more personalised, including push notifications. That is part of the plan for next year. What we want to try to do is use this wealth of dining behaviour data to help us deliver offers and dining experiences through to our app, as well as on our site.

Big data is potentially revolutionary and there are some really big challenges that people haven’t got to grips with yet

MW: Are there risks to consider when applying personalisation?

GC: One of the risks is that you can overdo it. I know from some of my contacts in agencies that they are seeing some brands over-personalise. They just don’t generate the incremental return for that investment because the more granular you get the more detailed the queries and the algorithms need to be, and that all takes work.

Every business has to work out the balance between delivering a relevant experience – whether online, through an app, or in an email – and delivering return on investment.

MW: What are the biggest challenges of aligning your consumer-facing and business-to-business strategies?

GC: We see ourselves as a marketplace now, and our reason for being a business across both [B2B business] Livebookings and [B2C business] Bookatable is to deliver more diners to restaurants and allow consumers to book anywhere on any device for the right price. That is our core proposition so the challenge is to execute that and do it as well as we can.

The key challenge is evaluating what data to act on – so what to build products around. All companies are collecting a lot of data, so they have to be very clear about what their own business and marketing strategy is, and use that to determine what data they make use of first.

For me, what is important is not so much the data itself but having the corporate and marketing strategy clear. If you don’t know why you exist and what service you provide, then how can you know what data you want to build products around? It’s quite simple but surprisingly easy to lose your way. So keeping focused on that and executing to the highest possible standard – they are the challenges for any business, especially a high-growth business like ours.

MW: How are your restaurant partners using your data?

GC: The restaurant industry is very interesting because its core business is food and service, so with the exception of some of the large groups and chains, there isn’t a massive amount of sophistication where data is concerned.

That said, we have definitely seen them – even local independent restaurants – becoming more educated. Companies such as Tragus and Gondola Group, and independents such as Harvey Nichols, are more sophisticated and we are working to help some of them understand the dining behaviour and dining trends of their customers booking through our widget, and on their website.

For example, the Oxo Tower [part of the Harvey Nichols group] uses our booking widget on the Harvey Nichols site, but because we have all of the customer data we can look at not just how many times last year Gemma Carver dined at Oxo Tower, for example, but also where else I dined. It helps them to paint a picture about the types of restaurant I like and my budget category. It builds up a profile, including details like whether a customer booked an offer or à la carte. Of course the data such as people’s names and those of the restaurants are anonymised.

That really matters to restaurants because offers are a huge part of the industry and there is a lot of discounting going on. But it isn’t always the case that restaurants need to discount – it is bit of a blunt instrument at the moment.

Such data means restaurants can identify the VIPs who book consistently and try to understand things like, for example, how to get the 80 per cent of customers who booked once in the last year to book again. You can make that decision either by looking at their overall dining behaviour or just by looking at whether they booked a deal or a discount. We are starting to play a role there.

MW: What data services do you offer to restaurants?

GC: They are interested in Bookatable’s data on consumers, so we have a database which we can slice and dice, but those consumers are opted in to receive information from Bookatable, so clearly we have to abide by data protection laws. There is a huge amount of interest in ‘partnership communications’ too [sending emails on behalf of third-party clients], which we are treating quite cautiously at the moment. We know data is one of our most valuable assets and we don’t want to degrade it or fatigue consumers with huge numbers of messages from restaurants, so there is a more nuanced approach.

The industry is certainly starting to value the data we have. They understand now that if you see the data, analyse it and execute it well, it delivers to the bottom line.

The restaurant industry is quite a low-margin business with high overheads so anything which can deliver those incremental revenues is welcome. I think that is what the savvier restaurant groups are starting to understand.

MW: How has the importance of data changed in your career?

GC: There’s no question that ‘big data’ is the biggest change – to me it is the biggest change since the invention of broadcast media. Very few people have got to grips with what it really means, because of the scale of it. My career has evolved along with big data. I started with a bunch of email addresses and I was sending out one-size-fits-all messages; then we applied personalised messaging but still within one channel; and then we began thinking about how to merge online behavioural data with offline behavioural data and email engagement data, and it is broadening all the time.

Lots of companies are working with social data now too. Big data is huge and potentially revolutionary; and at the same time, there are some really big challenges that people haven’t got to grips with yet. We are at a juncture between the desire to monetise data, and privacy and ownership of data.

MW: Can you give an example of one of the challenges around data?

GC: I think all of us in the data community would be well advised to try and get ahead of what is coming. For example, Germany is part of my responsibility and ‘double opt in’ [where email marketing can only be sent when the recipient confirms the address is active and also subscribes to the specific mailing list] is now required there. We may all have to adopt double opt in soon, so rather than go into denial, we need to think about how we will handle that.

I wouldn’t be surprised if in Europe there are moves towards double opt in on email, which will cause quite big problems for everybody. It is a constantly moving feast at the best of times.

We need to think about privacy in general in the context of big data, because it will be regulated – there is no question. The government always lags behind business a bit, but in the end I’m sure they will regulate across Europe.

MW: What are the future plans for your data strategy?

GC: We want to use our data as much as possible to make it a relevant experience, so whether that is mobile, app or the website itself, our goal is to make sure we show people information that is relevant, because we know that increases sales.


Gemma Carver’s top tips

1. Stay close to your data. Data-driven marketers and analysts working together can be a very powerful combination. Be hands-on and build a team around you that understands the value of your organisation’s data.

2. Data is not an end in itself. Work out your marketing strategy first and then define the data you need for each programme.

3. Strive for simplicity. This comes from being 100 per cent clear on what you want to achieve and only using the data you know will support it. Do this by creating a culture of testing and experimentation.

Gemma Carver on

…the changing role of marketers


Marketing Week (MW): How important is data knowledge to marketers at Livebookings?

Gemma Carver (GC): Data is at the heart of who we are: I am now group marketing director, but I was formerly data and CRM director, and I think that says a lot about Livebookings as a company.

MW: How important are data skills to the role of modern-day marketers?

GC: I think for any market you need to get a grip on data and have that skill set. It is useful for businesses to have commercially oriented and consumer-oriented people in marketing roles, but you also have to understand web behaviour and behavioural analytics, and you ideally need to have been at the coal face and executed campaigns.

Now, for example, pay-per-click [PPC] and search are an absolutely massive part of marketing and if you’re in a senior position and do not understand what your head of online or PPC manager is doing, or how their strategy is crafted, then you are in a weak position. It is no longer feasible not to know how you arrived at a cost per sale when the board asks you.

In addition, you should never assume that your analysts are right because while they will be right, mathematically speaking, 99 per cent of the time, not all analysts are business people with a commercial mind. Some are, but they are a rare breed, so if you find any analysts with commercial nous, get them and keep them. They are very hard to come by.

Training note…

“Training courses are beneficial but you have to take the theory and make it real. For more senior marketers you have to think about having the right combination of data skills in the business – you need analysts, but you also need people who can translate what the data is telling you into actions. So you need a combination of analysis and coding skills. At Livebookings we have data scientists: they are different from analysts, they are analysts who can also code and who can query databases.

“Importantly, you also need a person who can say: ‘That’s great but will we make money from this?’ You can get carried away with interesting statistics, but you need to focus on what you have learnt that will make more money and deliver a better experience for consumers. Thinking about the right skill set for your data team is critical. Web analysts and data analysts are not enough.”

Gemma Carver – CV

October 2012-present Group marketing director, Livebookings

2011-October 2012 Data and CRM director, Livebookings

January 2011-October 2011 Lead digital consultant, Experian UK & Ireland

2008-2010 Marketing and PR director, e-Dialog International

2006-2008 Account director, e-Dialog International

2003-2006 Marketing manager, mad.co.uk, Centaur Media

2001-2003 Senior marketing executive, Guardian Media Group


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