Becoming an Online Retailer

November 29, 2017

By Barbara Messing



At TripAdvisor, we have 400 million unique monthly visitors, which means that we constantly have to seek out new ways to engage and provide value to our consumers. Over the past few years, we have fundamentally enhanced our business model by offering our visitors price comparison and booking capabilities, shifting us from a media company to an online retailer.

Our challenge was figuring out how to adapt our marketing structures and strategies to meet the new commercial needs of the business. Rather than simply outsource capabilities as a quick fix, which in the long term leaves your business short on the skills you need to grow, we were determined to stay true to our in-house model.

This meant rethinking the way we operated across all of our marketing channels, discovering new channels that delivered against our objectives, and most crucially, shifting the focus of our team away from a content-led mindset to a more holistic travel shopping mindset. It required our teams to adapt, learn new skills, and embrace change. That isn't always easy. Even the brightest talent has a tendency to stick to what they know.

As we began to develop our online price comparison and booking model, we were exceptionally focused on how to leverage most of our existing talent. With the exception of a few fundamental new skills, like online merchandising, we were confident we could develop the talent we had. I found the best athletes to fill the team — those with unique new technical chops and the ability to work in a fast-moving environment. The question was how to drive the right behaviors and actions from that talent to deliver the output we needed.

The first step was to reorganize our marketing functions across three consumer verticals. This created an environment where cross-functional collaboration was essential. Our talent had to think beyond their specialist disciplines to consider how the tactics and executions they owned could support the wider goals of their vertical. It opened opportunities to learn and grow and encouraged everyone to think about the bigger picture of what we were trying to achieve.

Secondly, we established new success metrics to guide our new model. We expanded our data science team to integrate with each of the three vertical teams. This helped them better understand how new executions were performing against the business' wider objectives so we could quickly optimize and improve our strategy. Our test-and-learn mentality became the driving force for change, and enabled us to pave a vision for the future.

Lastly, we took action to better define the company values and purpose so everyone was pulling in the same direction. We were starting from a successful foundation, but we knew we couldn't just stick to what we knew. We had to make it clear to everyone what values we wanted to carry with us from our past success, and what new behaviors were required to forge our future.

We spent a lot of time together defining a set of values that felt true to the company — at the heart of it we placed the idea that every employee should act like an owner. We wanted everyone to know they were part of a workplace where open communication was encouraged, and that everyone could take action to affect change. I encouraged all of my managers to share their POV on what's working, what's not, and how to keep on improving. I also never provided them the answers. I took the Socratic approach to asking questions. If they came to me looking for guidance, I would flip it back and ask them, "What do you think success would look like?" I would then help them through their own discovery. It was this culture of learning and problem solving that we wanted to seed throughout the team.

As a leader, I know I have been successful when I see my team going through the question process in real time with me, and even predicting what questions that I will ask with thought-through, comprehensive answers. I see this style filtering through their organizations, which allows us all to come to great solutions with consensus and an understanding of the thought process.


Barbara Messing is the chief marketing and communications officer at TripAdvisor. To learn more about the impact of the company's restructuring and Messing's lessons for CMOs, download the ANA CMO Talent Challenge Playbook. The playbook features case studies from more than two dozen CMOs from the ANA Masters Circle who are redefining the rules of what it takes to be a great CMO. Learn more about the ANA Masters Circle.

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