Customer Retention Strategies From Hotels.ng’s Head of Growth

While studying at Covenant University, Yemi like many other students, had an idea to become an entrepreneur. His idea was to print viral tweets on T-shirts. Although it was a good idea, he didn’t have the skills and means to get it to scale at the time. After graduating, he acquired the practical skills and experience for growth and business. He worked on his family’s poultry farm and was faced with the nationwide glut sales cycle in the rainy season (when eggs don’t sell as much as earlier in the year). Yemi used the internet to reach out to customers and was able to successfully sell the eggs despite the glut.

He got the idea to build a classifieds site for schools called Pinforest in 2014. Pinforest was a classified site that allowed students in Covenant University and Bells University trade with one another. Pinforest eventually got acquired a few years later. Yemi re-acquired it this year and is turning it into a content site for farming in Africa. While running Pinforest, Yemi used interesting growth strategies.

How did you grow Pinforest?

“I mostly put all my effort into CU. I used social media to target people and I asked them to follow back in a very cute way and added memes and GIFs to the tweets”. He also used social media automation tools to increase conversations with the brand by sending automated direct messages. “The trick is not in the automation, but in being online to educate the potential user on your product once the user responds.”

Around the time Pinforest launched, Covenant University held a trade fair. Yemi went from stall to stall with an iPad to sign traders up. Yemi also sent out emails over time and eventually began to automate emails using Elastic email and MailChimp.

“When you signed up, I already had a blog filled with detailed posts of all the different things you could do with the site. I had created a bunch of content around how to use the site and I created an email workflow to ensure people got all the educational content. Also, I occasionally followed up with them to offer my guidance on how to succeed with Pinforest. ”

Yemi extended the Pinforest brand by creating branded images for sellers to share on Instagram, unique URLs and automating tweets for traders to share across social media. He figured allowing traders share automatically would drive traffic and the buyers would visit the site. By the time Pinforest was sold, it was processing N100,000 in revenue (not earnings) and acquired 500 active users within Covenant University’s population of 7000.

How did you get to hotels.ng?

Yemi searched for a fast growing company where he could apply what he had learned from Pinforest and got hired at Hotels.ng when a retention marketer role was open.

What are primarily the retention channels at Hotels.ng?

The company focuses on a few channels because hotel rooms aren’t a differentiated product. “If you sell eggs, the eggs you sell are not different from the eggs that some other farmer sells. So for us, we sell room nights and it’s no different from every other Online Travel Agent that sells room nights”. Hotels.ng has an email list of every person who has signed up and used the service. Yemi noted two things about the people who are on the email list
“ 1. People who said they wanted to receive the newsletter. 2. People who have booked with us in the past.”. The company then needs to make assumptions about what the email subscriber would want.

How do you segment users?

“If I was running an e-commerce store, I would want to segment by the gender. But here, segmenting by gender isn’t important”. The goal for retention at Hotels.ng is how the customer engages after segmentation. If on a customer’s 15th pageview they make no commitment or transaction, Hotels.ng sends a notification via email or SMS to the customer in order to make the process easier for him or her. In these situations, the company prioritizes engagement by sending a personal email or text message from staff and offers some help to close the booking.

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The company has also tried filtering users by the class of hotels they’ve booked and sending them hotel rooms they can afford. Another tactic is to tell stories and send out content from the blog

People might say the company should eventually stop sending the emails to people who don’t book hotels but Yemi says it isn’t true for a product like hotel rooms because they are usually planned purchases and not impulse buys. What Yemi and the growth team at Hotels.ng try to do is find customers on other platforms they’re on, engage with them and try to win them back.

Facebook’s advertising product allows companies to find people via emails which is great for retention. Hotels.ng then tries to reconnect with people on Facebook and uses automation tools to get them to visit the site or make a booking. “We have automation that works like this: If a person visits the site after 6 months, we send him a personal email saying we noticed you visited the site again, what’s up?” These emails are very personal and come with an emotional appeal.

Are there any tactics you’ve used to improve open rates?

Yemi says the company ensures that all details and elements are right before sending emails. Hotels.ng uses Mail tester to check each email before it is sent. Mail tester checks its SPF records, DKIM records and DNS to ensure emails reach inboxes and not spam boxes.

Hotels.ng stops sending its regular weekly emails to subscribers who don’t open after a while and sends plain text emails instead that have an emotional appeal that they are mostly going to like even though they don’t use the service again.

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How do you decide on Subject lines for emails?

The growth team at Hotels.ng carries out an in-house vote and implements A/B testing for every subject line. Two subject lines are decided on based on themes. “A theme would revolve around the idea we are testing. For example puns, emojis, numbers, et al.” So they don’t end up testing the subject line, but the idea behind it. The list is randomly split and both emails are sent at the same time and only the subject line parameter is tested while the content is the same so that there are no other variables affecting the results of the test.

When do you remove a subscriber from the list?

“So when you keep trying to engage with someone and they don’t respond, the inbox provider might start sending your email to spam”. Hotels.ng doesn’t take anyone out of the subscriber list but reduces the frequency of emails. “if they unsubscribe or they stop using that inbox, at some point, the email provider will make the inbox inactive”

What do you think about buying email lists?

“The thing is not to buy email lists”. He says there is a high probability that the email list was scraped from another site’s public posts. “Even if you got it from a legitimate source, just because they want it to be a lot, they may give you emails that have bounced in the past”. Email providers create honeypots to trap spammers. Knowing fully well that people buy email lists. Yemi also says the second thing with buying lists is the people on these lists have never interacted with the brand and don’t know what it is. This will result in a low open rate. “I think that an email is like the most obscure of all the marketing tools. Email is the most misunderstood channel. People think that email is like social media that they can just tweet something and everybody will see it”. Email is an agreement and should always be honoured and not be abused. His final word on buying emails is “If you’re buying emails you’ve failed already”.

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What is the rationale behind the Bisola emails?

retaining_customers_at_your_startup
A typical email from Bisola at Hotels.ng

Hotels.ng is known in the tech startup scene for its plain text emails from a character called “Bisola”. They could be about anything from Bisola’s previous travels to her eating habits. “She makes the brand seem more human and people can relate to her. They feel like they know someone at hotels.ng so if they need a booking, they don’t have to go to the site, they just talk to Bisola”. Email providers see engagement with plain text emails as coming from a legitimate source and will increase priority for the sender.

Do these emails convert well?

“With Bisola, It’s more about engagement than conversions”. The engagement for these emails is really high. A lot of the replies are however inquiry emails which would eventually lead to a purchase. “Say 8000 people opened the emails, maybe 100 or 200 would engage and out of the people who engage, another 20% of them would say you know what, I want something. The best part about this engagement is that the inbox provider sees your emails as relevant and this increases your email deliverability”.

Have you ever experimented with retargeted display ads? Like with AdWords?

“Yes but we mostly do that through Facebook”. Facebook is a cheaper retention and acquisition channel than Google display ads. “Because we focus so much on performance, we actively ask ourselves what are our best channels that show results for spending, and then we increase spending and deliberate effort in optimizing it. And if we need to reactivate or remarket to people who have engaged in the past, let’s find cheaper channels.” The company removed Twitter ads off its retention strategy because the ads are expensive.

What’s the one important thing you’ve learned from your targeting?

“Try to find the people on every channel you could possibly find them and Facebook is a good way to do that”. Yemi makes use of Facebook’s advertising platform to reach subscribers not just on Facebook but also Instagram.

Hotels.ng has had success retaining users because The company tries to reach existing customers on multiple channels and experiments with various strategies to find out what has the highest retention rate and return on investment.

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