Orbitz Controversy As Big Data Issue

A Wall Street Journal article that claims Mac users are purposely getting pricier Orbitz recommendations drove Orbitz into response overdrive, with CEO Barney Harford backtracking a bit on what the paper said had been confirmed by company execs during a CNN interview.

“Orbitz executives confirmed that the company is experimenting with showing different hotel offers to Mac and PC visitors, but said the company isn’t showing the same room to different users at different prices,” the WSJ writes.

“Orbitz first confirmed Mac users’ preferences in October and began working them into the complicated mix of factors that determine its search results,” the story continues.

On CNN, Harford emphasized that Orbitz is all about recommendations and finding the “right” hotel for customers, in many cases using criteria that has nothing to do with what type of computer the deal seeker is working on. Still, there are findings that show Mac users spend more, Harford acknowledged that the company makes money as people purchase from the site (of course), and Orbitz has hit some financial troubles of late.

But more than just a case of a company trying to sell customers a more expensive product, the controversy raises the issues associated with “big data.” As Ketchum’s soon-to-be CEO Rob Flaherty said yesterday, big data is opening up opportunities to reach customers in new ways, enhancing and improving the experience. In this case, data is also opening doors to bigger sales.

To be sure, Orbitz isn’t the only company using data to try and reach the “right” customers more effectively. And research has shown that Mac/Apple users spend more.

“Some would call that discrimination, but it hardly scratches the surface of the information that marketers can use to target advertising,” writes InformationWeek. Or PR for that matter.

As with all issues concerning online privacy, we’re wading through the details on a nearly case-by-case basis together. And as with many marketing issues, we’ve stumbled upon a fine line where we’re determining the difference between providing customers with what they want and taking advantage of personal information that customers didn’t even realize was out there.

It’s a customer service issue, a client issue, and an ethical issue. Orbitz comes off looking overly opportunistic in this case, but all customers do have the option to choose a lower-priced deal. And Orbitz can dial back some of its efforts so that they don’t trip over that fine line anymore and land flat on their face.