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Best Western overhauls its data ahead of a cookie-less future

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As the third-party cookie fades, advertisers have started shoring up their first-party data, more seriously harvesting it (and sometimes peddling it for additional revenue) as signal loss continues to mount.

It’s what Joelle Park, the new svp and CMO at Best Western parent and global hospitality network BWH Hotels, has spent the last eight months in her new role doing — overhauling customer insights to improve targeting.

“We’re looking across the customer journey,” Park said. “We’re using consumer insights and really understanding what is it that travelers are asking for and need to meet them where they are as we position this brand in the future.”

BWH Hotels has 19 brands in its portfolio, and the company’s current goal is raising awareness of said brands, with a specific focus on elevating perception of Best Western. To do that, it’s laying a new foundation of audience data via its media partner, PMG, an independent digital agency.

The hotelier started with its own customer data, and layered in industry data and in-house surveys alongside PMG to understand opportunities for growth. The second piece of that foundation is targeting, with an eye toward developing personas and then targeting media buys across channels like digital and streaming services based on said personas, per Park. Insights about BWH Hotel’s repeat customers and those who are in a good position to be introduced to the brand come from the company’s customer data platform, direct feedback from guest reviews and other regional BWH Hotel properties.

“It’s a marketer’s dream come true to have access to that kind of data, firsthand data and feedback in real time to shape the strategy,” Park said. Using that data, BWH Hotels is leaning into retargeting opportunities, especially across digital and streaming services, both of which were leveraged in its latest campaign launched back in February.

It’s unclear how much the hotel group is spending on those channels, as Park did not disclose specific figures. In 2023, Best Western spent $22.4 million on media, according to Vivvix, including paid social data from Pathmatics. That figure is slightly less than the $29.9 million the company spent in 2022.

Google’s third-party cookie deprecation has been a long time coming. For the most part, many advertisers saw the writing on the wall long ago and began investing in first-party and zero-party data. Google finally started shutting down third-party cookies to one percent of Chrome browser at the beginning of this year, and the company said cookies will be gone completely before the end of the year. It remains to be seen whether the tech giant will make good on its promise, but Google’s progress so far has lit a fire under advertisers, who are now actively preparing for the end of the third-party cookie.

“It just heightened the urgency of what was already in play of leveraging our first-party data to make decisions rather than rely on third parties,” Park said, when asked about cookie deprecation’s impact on BWH’s first-party data strategy.

The proof is in the numbers: 72% of brand professionals said their businesses were actively preparing for the end of third-party cookies halfway through 2023, compared with 56% in 2021, according to Digiday research.

As the fallout continues, more agencies are making bigger bets on consumer research panels and their first-party data to fill the gaps. Meanwhile, retailers are hawking their audience insights with the goal of opening up new revenue streams, and, at the same time, fanning the flames of the retail media arms race. (BWH said it is not licensing any data to outside partners at this time.)

So far though, marketers have been apathetic for the most part. Brands have been “all over the map” in their first-party data strategies, said Steve Knapp, managing director of media and data sciences at Colle McVoy, a full-service creative agency. What all clients seem to be interested in, however, is new opportunities to optimize and evolve rather than banking on one single solution.

“We’ve found a common theme regarding first-party data is simply trying to get a better understanding of its impact on the whole business — not just on digital media plans or in the marketing department,” Knapp said in an email.

Marketers who have the skills to leverage data, integrate it and plug it into media buys are ahead of the game, said Kevin Amos, partner of performance marketing and analytics at Brunner, an independent ad agency.

“All the pieces to the puzzles are scattered all over our clients’ landscape. How do you put that puzzle back together? They’ve had it. It’s been there the whole time, but it’s putting the puzzle back together,” he said.

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