Vail, the No. 4 company in the InformationWeek 500, has created customer-facing apps that encourage social media posting.
Closer Ties To Marketing
The pressure to get customer-facing apps perfect is one big reason Urwiler reversed his approach to outsourcing and application development for EpicMix. In year one, he outsourced nearly all the development. This past year, he hired staff, including project managers, who work on EpicMix full time; outsourcers are brought in as needed for specialized skills and bursts of capacity. (Read more about this shift.)
Getting the app perfect takes a lot more than good code, though. What's the perfect look, the right operating system platforms to run on, the critical new features? That's where IT's relationship with marketing can make or break customer-facing software.
EpicMix's success depends on close collaboration between CMO Kirsten Lynch and Urwiler, both of whom report to CEO Robert Katz. Now that our customer-interaction world is going online, CMOs are right in the middle of this revolution, and they need to react much more quickly, Urwiler says. "An 18-month plan is not an appropriate plan. We need to be able to spin things up very quickly."
Customer data is where conventional IT systems and customer-facing apps such as EpicMix collide. And Vail Resorts is hoping that EpicMix can help it with a CRM problem familiar to many marketers: It has no data on or ongoing relationship with most of its customers. Two-thirds of the people who ski at Vail resorts are anonymous. They buy a one-day pass, enjoy the day, and are gone.
This year, Vail did away with paper tickets and issued every guest an RFID-based ticket. It uses those tickets to collect skiing data on everyone, and people can use those one-day tickets to get their photos taken for free. The photos and data aren't tied to any name, though, unless the ticket holder signs up to become an EpicMix member.
Urwiler will say only that Vail has had a respectable rate of converting single-day pass guests into EpicMix members. For the coming season, the company will let people see even more data and photos in hopes of enticing more of them to join. Once people are members, Vail can ask to send them customized promotions. Urwiler wants Vail IT to get better at supporting those personalized promotions, by improving its analytics and drawing on EpicMix insights as well as transactional data. Vail recently hired a VP of CRM marketing to help do that.
Vail is putting new emphasis on customer-facing apps, while still working to wring the most value from conventional IT. Honing its EpicMix app requires marketing and IT each doing what they're best at, while blurring the lines between the two disciplines.
Vail shows how keeping the same IT approach won't cut it as customers expect more from their online experiences. "It's a different culture, it's a different level of intensity, there's a different buzz," Urwiler says. "It's just different."