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Here, we speak to Thomas Cook e-commerce director Russell Gould about the company's efforts to increase conversion rates online, including user reviews, video and a recently-launched co-browsing service.

What prompted you to offer a co-browsing service for customers?

While we will continue to enhance our online proposition through a user-centred design methodology through using research, usability reviews and analytics, there will always be consumers who just want that little bit of extra help from a ‘real person’ before they book online.

We believe co-browsing provides the ‘missing link’ and is a very effective solution to not only ‘delight’ consumers but can help us further boost conversion.

What are the key challenges and benefits?

Selecting the right solution – with over 100,000 users per day we need a solution that allows us to manage when and who the service is offered to i.e. potential bookers as opposed to just browsers, etc.

Additionally recruiting and training the right people – this is a very unique service and as such very different to both your traditional face-to-face and call centre agent roles. The benefits include a significantly enhanced consumer experience, and of course additional sales.

What other multichannel trends are you seeing from customers?

Consumers are becoming more comfortable transacting and this is reflected in the continual increase in online sales volumes. Previously, online growth was attributed to increased internet access and subsequently broadband penetration.

I think we have reached a semi-saturation point on internet access in the UK, and growth is now a direct result of consumer confidence and website owners focusing more on customer experience.

Additionally, tools like co-browsing and the ability to deeply personalise content based on the individual customer means the overall experience is much more entertaining. High-street and call centres will still have their place, but the future will be about a much more seamless consumer journey across all of these channels.

What are you doing at the moment to increase conversion rates online?

Analyse, analyse and analyse! The transparency of online means you can track everything and in the detail there are ‘pots of gold’!

We use data to optimise everything we do across acquisition, retention and conversion. Focusing on all of these areas means we get a better quality customer, who has a much better overall experience and who wants to come back and buy from us again.

Specifically, we still do the basics like continual usability testing and A/B and multivariate testing and so on.

Our biggest project at present is an initiative we have been working on for the last 18 months, which sees us launch a new high-performance e-commerce platform. This new platform, based on ATG technology, will deliver a step change to thomascook.com users. It offers deep personalisation, has seven new search journeys, integrated video and maps, consumer reviews, and very useful holiday search filters.

It includes a great new feature, which means you can create your own profile in the holiday journey and by simply logging in we pre-populate your booking form, which means fewer clicks and less hassle each time you want to book more travel.

You can even save details of frequent travel companions, so their details are also auto-populated. We have already started testing a beta version, which is showing some incredible results and can be found here.

How is video content working out for you? What effect does it have on conversion and how does that compare to photography?

Extremely well! In fact, the new site has video integrated throughout the holiday search journey. We have found that people who view our video convert at around 30% higher then the site average. We are in a fortunate position with over 19,000 hours of meta-tagged TV production quality footage at our disposal.

In fact, we are embarking on a new piece of work that will allow us to personalise consumer video based on what they tell us and what we know about them. Because all of our footage is meta-tagged, we can break it up into bits, so the consumer sees only the footage that matches their profile and is of interest to them.

Are you worried about the effects of negative user reviews / feedback?

No. We are a vertically integrated travel company and we work very hard to ensure our consumers have the best possible holiday.

Reviews and feedback provide us with a great understanding of what we are doing well and also were we need to improve. We even plan to create video reviews in the very near future.

Any tips on keeping costs down and how to present videos on site?

Unfortunately it is ultimately about content and this is where the cost lies. Focus on getting the video content right and it will pay for itself. A tip – choose the right partners and don’t try to do it all yourself. Use the experts.

Do you have any experiences to share with regard to user reviews?

We are launching customer reviews and holiday ratings as part of our new web platform. We already have over 300,000 ratings from people who have travelled with us in the last 12 months.

Our approach is pretty simple here – we will present both positive and negative reviews. We will moderate to ensure profanity and objectionable content is excluded, but we will not exclude negative reviews.

Unfortunately, too many hoteliers now manage their reviews on customer reviews sites to ensure they always reflect positively. Only consumers who have travelled with us will have the ability to complete reviews, which ensures that the quality is always robust. We are also introducing the capability to view reviews from similar people - for example, mature couples or families with young children. So the reviews our consumers see will be very relevant to them.
 
Do you have any thoughts to share with regard to content optimisation?

Yes – personalisation is key. Present the right content to the right people! Content is a huge area of importance to us and given our 19,000 hours of video footage, our vast array of brochures and imagery, our travel guide publications and the breadth of product we have available - our capability here is extremely well placed to deliver a very strong consumer experience and deep entertainment richness.

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Published 16 September, 2008 by Richard Maven

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