Expedia senior marketing director Andrew Warner believes "data is the differentiator" in the online travel business, and said that Expedia had invested $500 million in research and development in the last year so it could stay relevant and compete.
Warner was speaking at The Big Rethink 2014 event last week organised by The Economist, which included talks by the Tesco CMO Matt Atkinson on using data to build detailed pictures of individual customers, and Aviva's chief marketing and communications officer Amanda McKenzie on what data is really valuable to an organisation.
Warner said that Expedia had performed 30 times as many product tests in the last 12 months than the previous five years, with a focus on innovation which has included experimenting with Google Glass to get an edge in the now-commoditised travel business.
It was in stark contrast to Atkinson, also group digital officer at Tesco, who said the UK supermarket's data-driven customer experience improvements included "personalising search a bit more on the website" and sending recommendations via email based on previous transactions. When Tesco launched its Hudl tablet last year Atkinson said that the company had "innovation built into its DNA".
Atkinson also spoke about respecting the bond of trust with customers and said how important protection of their data was; although only two weeks previously Tesco suffered a high-profile data breach when more than 2,000 account details stolen by hackers were posted online.
Expedia's Warner followed Atkinson with an illuminating and inward-looking assessment about why data is so crucial.
"It's not about how big your data is, it's what you do with it that counts," Warner said.
"We've been trading for over 15 years, we're a digital business but our industry has been somewhat commoditised - it's a dangerous place to be and not where we want to be.
"Data is critical to better serving customers in ways that our competitors can't. We've invested $500 million in R&D in the last year to update our platforms; we need to make sure we are relevant and can compete. Data is the differentiator."
Warner warned about the dangers of delivering 'better recommendations', noting the problems encountered on a site like Amazon if a wife or husband buys a present for a partner or family member. The danger of this pigeon-holing ignores the reality that a 30-something man could quite feasibly go on a stag weekend, business trip and family holiday, he explained.
"Data can help us deliver better recommendations, but the problem is like Amazon history. Past performance isn't necessarily a good prediction of what you want to do in the future," Warner said.
"We want to be more like LinkedIn, build a travel graph and help people make better, more informed decisions. It's about offering the right thing at the right time, but also suited to the device you're using at the time."
Use of data in marketing is no panacea for marketing expertise however, speakers expressed, with warnings sounded that trying to over-complicate data strategy can be as harmful as an obsession with new analytics tools and digital technologies that might draw an organisation away from its core business.
Chief marketing and communications manager at Aviva, Amanda McKenzie, said: "People delude themselves about what is valuable. The number of likes and followers your organisation gets on social networks is irrelevant.
"You should be ruthless about what's valuable and what really helps you in the market."
'Avoid the dash to the heart of the periphery'
Worldwide CEO at marketing agency M&C Saatchi, Moray Maclennan, also offered his thoughts on the gains to be made from mining data for marketing, suggesting that keeping it simple can often be the smartest strategy.
"The returns are diminishing the deeper we dive," Maclennan said.
"It can be enough to just put people into groups and not do all the personal stuff. Sometimes it's enough to know if they're young or they are old - you need to get that right.
"Don't over-complicate things, know when to stop, and avoid the dash to be at the heart of the periphery.
"And the only questions you need to ask are what is appropriate behaviour, and will it make my customer happy?"