The future for social travel websites? An interview with WAYN CEO Pete Ward

25 Jan

I don’t usually do PR things. But I was offered the chance to talk to Pete Ward the CEO of WAYN (Where Are You Now?) a few weeks back. I vaguely remembered this backpacker social network site from way back – long before Facebook. And, it’s still going strong with some 21 million users. Regular readers will know I am no fan of Facebook. So, how was a social media business like WAYN surviving? I was curious to find out – particularly because they were on the verge of relaunching with a completely new user experience. I found Pete engaging, thoughtful and interesting. Here’s what we talked about:

What’s WAYN’s mission? Has it changed?
Imagine you can see where your mates are on a map. That was how it started. Mainly as a result of my own backpacking experiences. Nowadays it has evolved - to help people make the most out of life. Our vision is to help people discover where to go, what do to and who to meet.

Who are your customers?
It’s a global audience of people who love to travel. But not as big a backpacker market concentration as you’d think. Our biggest demographic is 25 to 35. But our most active demographic is over 50. I think that participating in it made older people feel a bit younger – and even allowed them to be a bit voyeuristic.

What does the new site do compared to the old site?
This has been the biggest shift we’ve ever made. We are only 10% of the way. Even at 10% we’re very excited. Not just the travel website scene but the web more generally has seen the ‘Pinterestisation’ of media, the way we engage with content on line is evolving - fast. Previously we had a quite magazinesque site -  a nice shop front but not much else. But social sites like Facebook reinvented this – things like the newsfeed, the wall for accessing info and ideas are quite different… adding content from people like you – personalization and relevance and timeliness is changing the way we consume and create content. Filtering is a big thing and it's still not done very well.

Why have you made these changes?
I don’t think anyone has cracked social travel including ourselves. Trip Advisor are doing it quite well, Gogobot has nice design features but doesn’t have the scale. We’re been around a while and have an ever growing community. What has been the core ingredient? We are social in our DNA. People come to the site to connect and socialise – that is the glue for our community and that’s what makes it a sticky site.

Our realisation was that if we are going to truly become the leading travel social platform we need to rebuild from the bottom up- but we mustn’t lose the social engagement. So we took the social engagement stuff and fused it with a recommendation engine for where to go and what to do. We recognise that our users will provide some of that info, but there are other things like check ins from other social sites, content like recommendations from Time Out and expert reviews that complement the decision-making process so the wall is a great way to integrate all  those elements and then to personalise it so that it’s really relevant.

What’s your view on making people share more to access more of your services? The premium services look exactly like Badoo - a dating site – is WAYN about dating or about travelling?
Is the impulse the same? Yes from a purely social context. There’s the same human needs that drive engagement – influence – everyone wants to be seen to be influential in something… the more friends you have the better.

People are that shallow…?
[Laughs] Well, they are interested in popularity – it makes them feel good. Everyone. Even the over 50s. Think about the celebrity factor. Much as you’d like to treat these people like anyone else, you can’t help being a bit keen to be their friend. We look up to people who are better than us and want to be like them – it’s in our DNA.

That’s one side of sociability – but there’s a more generous thing. If you can encourage people to share advice and recommendations that makes them feel good about themselves.

Social in the context of travel isn’t ‘I want to meet them because they are fit’ it’s ‘I want to connect with them because I know they are influential on Paris’. So we want to algorithmically bring people who are authorities/experts to the fore – so people can endorse people they see as experts.

Could these experts be professionals rather than members? For example a brand’s social media manager?
Yes. We could say the social media manager for Visit London could be one of these experts. A tourist board can sponsor a page directly. We did a recent promotion where the Air New Zealand marketing manager was promoted as a genuine user and he used it to add content about his travels round the world and we promoted it more. It was hugely successful. Our members really engaged with it.

Do many people use the premium services?
Those who pay are 10 times more active. Less than one percent are subscribers at  the moment. But they represent nearly 10 percent of our traffic.

What’s the core revenue driver? Subscribers or advertising?
The real value is, we think, in monetisation with brands – that is the scalable opportunity. Once you have an active audience, that’s your opportunity - as long as you engage with them in a way that is relevant.

Do you agree that the moment a free service starts to focus more on monetization, the user experience deteriorates?
We’ve come full circle – you used to have to buy premium membership to interact. Then we went free and ad funded and now we are freemium. Money v traffic is the trade-off. We reckoned there is a way to get the best of both. Restrict the things that don’t stifle interaction but that are still regarded as valuable by users.

For example?
Sending messages – now you can send as many as you want. But if you receive a message you have to pay to see it. Another way to offset that is – if you don’t want to pay - do something that we value as a business... do something else to help us and we will give you access. So share WAYN with a bunch more of your friends for example - that gives us new customers.

Do you see a role for professionally written content on WAYN?
I do funnily enough – beforehand it was no. Now we are seeing the value in creating an aspirational platform which inspires people to discover new places and partnering with tourist boards has shown us that. Mostly it’s Tourist Boards that are the people who have the best content on their destination. By doing innovative social engagement campaigns with them we have found that users respond really well. So whether it will be commissioning directly from writers or more likely working with third parties like Tourist Boards I think it’s useful. There’s a place for pro-content on a social platform but it needs to be served up in a really smart way. Like say an awesome photo to get people to engage with something quick and short and then maybe dive deeper.

How is WAYN different to Trip Advisor?
We have a strong advantage over Trip Advisor. You know the 1 to 99% rule? Most people don’t add reviews only a minority do. People go to Trip Advisor much closer to the end of the booking process. What you don’t do is hang out there… it’s not like that. People’s WAYN profiles are much more rich… what people like, where they want to go, what they’d love to do… we have huge numbers of data points about people and social signal data too. You can follow a brand on WAYN as well… just like Facebook. We can break down the 350k friends of South Africa and look at the data and see… what are they looking for? We know for South Africa it’s adventure sports, then wine tasting. We got 160,000 respondents to a survey we did with South Africa. Doing more surveys with consumer brands is something we see as really interesting for our future business – everyone has an opinion and we can aggregate them really fast.

Do you see privacy as a growing issue
I’d say it’s a ‘perceived risk’ with privacy. Despite the naysayers – those same people are adding more content on themselves. Ultimately people don’t feel as protective – they accept it’s part of the process. You have to do it  to make the most of the service. The winning businesses will respect privacy and not abuse that trust. The negative impact is 10-fold… 28-fold. We aggregate data – which allows us to present more tailored offers to you. We’re going to serve you ads anyway – so might as well show you ads that. You might be interested in.

 

Any questions you think I should have asked and didn't?

 

One Response to “The future for social travel websites? An interview with WAYN CEO Pete Ward”

  1. Brian Swanick 25. Jan, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

    Glad you accepted the interview, Jeremy, and I can appreciate that you asked the hard questions like how brands can be involved. I'm involved with a brand as an internal marketer, so I am always looking for ways to reach travelers in a non-intrusive way. It's the ever-evolving approach where it's not a matter of "spray-and-pray" anymore. Clearly, sites like WAYN have the data to target travelers properly AND they offer a really cool experience to the user. Two wins.

    Your conversation (specifically the part about quality writers) reminded me a lot of a comment I read in Fastco the other day. The idea is that even though thoughts are being streamlined through Apps like FB, Instagram, Twitter, and the slew of them, the deep conversations with never cease to exist because without those well-thought conversations, there would be nothing to tweet about. Imagine a highlight show without the games being played, wouldn't exist.

    Great read, cheers!