At WestJet, Great Storytelling Launches Program Success

Image source: Adobe Stock / Skórzewiak.

by Nicolas Wu

posted on 10-29-2018

If you test or personalize and see huge success, did it really happen if nobody in the business knows about it or you can’t tie the results to key business metrics? The answer would likely be no, if you asked Matt Ravlich, digital analyst with major Canadian airline WestJet. Matt recently spoke about the importance of and tips for developing clear, engaging communications that show all stakeholders how testing supports the business. It’s these effective communications that have really accelerated the growth of the airline’s optimization program.

A career that started with storytelling and branched out to analytics

If you follow Matt’s path to his current role as digital analyst at WestJet, a theme of storytelling emerges — first, with a degree in film, then several years working on feature films and TV series, and later developing corporate training videos. It was while creating training videos, where he also sought to improve the company website’s SEO results, that his path branched out toward analytics. Later, at an app development company, he discovered the valuable data that mobile devices supplied for improving the app user experience.

In 2014, Matt took his storytelling and analytics skills to the user experience (UX) team at WestJet, where he began the company’s website testing using Adobe Target.

Early days of optimization at WestJet and a big win

That first year, Matt ran one or two simple tests per month — tests like which image improved seat sales, and what color or copy pushed guests along the journey. Later, Matt began testing whole-page experiences. He soon became a one-man show as the digital analyst for the UX team, building and launching tests, and analyzing the results once they reached statistical significance. Test by test, he helped WestJet improve the guest’s digital experience.

In 2016, he was offered and accepted the opportunity to move to the digital analytics team. Matt and the team sought to use data to proactively discover and remedy friction points or other issues that guests encountered. Such insights led to a 2017 test in which they added a yellow “Sales” tag to the navigation bar that spanned the entire website. Clicking the tag entered guests into the website’s seat booking flow. Matt and the team believed the tag would call more attention to the company’s seat sales, and drive more guests into the booking flow. Their hunch proved to be correct, and 60 percent more guests came to the booking flow via the site-wide sales tag. It was a huge win.

Communicating the win earns trust

Matt and the team realized how powerful testing with Adobe Target could be for increasing seat sales. They wanted to communicate the value of optimization in such a way that executives could quickly understand it. They also wanted to socialize testing internally to build a culture of optimization in which business units would suggest test ideas for areas of the site they owned.

He says that at the time of the sales tag test, the process for generating ideas was fairly unstructured. Often, they’d just come up with ideas off the top of their heads. While this informal approach was OK in some places, to continue testing critical elements like seat sales — the bread and butter of the company — they’d need to first prove that testing was worth the effort. Executives were concerned that if they pushed something live and it broke, the business would experience a huge loss. The optimization team needed to give the business confidence that testing would drive revenue, not risk it.

This is where Matt’s ability to tell a story with a strong narrative really paid off. What follows are the elements of communication of a test that he believes make it effective.

Elements of an excellent communication

According to Matt, communicating the value of the test actually starts as the test idea is being developed. “You have to have a strong reason to suggest a test — you have to be able to clearly answer the question, ‘Why are we running this test?’” He sees communicating the value of a test as telling a story, so he starts building that narrative and considering how he’ll frame and socialize the story right from the beginning.

Matt finds email to be one of the most effective ways to communicate internally. To have people read to the end, he always starts off with an attention-grabbing title. For example, he doesn’t just say, “Experience B wins,” he says, “Experience B blows it out of the water!” As he’s explaining the story, he often includes a humorous image or meme that relates to the test. He entertains as he describes the test.

Besides the attention-grabbing headline, he also ensures he speaks in the executives’ language. The company had been using Adobe Analytics for Target (A4T) early on, and had developed numerous key business success metrics that mattered to executives. Matt was able to analyze test results by those metrics with A4T.

The final piece of the communication is an action plan that describes what the optimization team recommends doing to move forward. With data backing up each recommendation, decision-makers from the business units usually find no reason to disagree. Matt emphasizes that ultimately, the call is theirs to make.

His storytelling brings him overwhelmingly positive feedback. “I’ve never had anyone come to me and say, ‘I love emails!’, but I’ve had multiple people say that to me now.”

What buy-in will buy you

Through communicating early wins like their sales tag test, the company gained enough confidence in the program that executives bought into it and built out a full optimization team. Leadership even created and filled a chief digital officer position to lead a group dedicated to innovating and optimizing the company’s entire digital presence.

Others in the company also realized the value of testing, and now suggest ideas for the website. “The program has now built up enough confidence to have buy-in. Testing is more rigorous. The ideation process is a joint effort between the optimization team and the business units because people see the value — external groups now suggest ideas to the optimization team,” Matt said.

Because WestJet’s digital team collaborates more with those business units, they have a better understanding of the needs and strategies of each section of the site. The relationship has become a two-way street, with the optimization team and the business units giving advice and getting ideas.

Eventually, Matt wants the business units to build and run their own tests without his team’s help. He believes that would make it possible to test everywhere.

View on the future of personalization and optimization

Although the optimization team at WestJet is enjoying great success, Matt understands that this field is one that evolves at a quick pace. He knows that to stay competitive you have to keep up with, or ideally stay ahead of, the curve.

For him, the next big area for optimization is artificial intelligence (AI) like that offered by Adobe Sensei in Adobe Target. Beyond figuring out how to use AI in a way that delivers the best guest experience in the highly price-competitive air travel industry, he says the next big challenge will actually be “preparing our humans to work with our robots.”

We certainly live in interesting times when someone can make a statement like that and it’s not a line in a science fiction movie.

To learn about the sales tag test and how WestJet uses A4T in its optimization program, listen to Matt’s Adobe Summit presentation on it.

Topics: Digital Transformation, Personalization, Travel & Hospitality

Products: Target