Product managers are often thrown directly into the fire. Sometimes, PMs are required to determine and immediately implement effective measures so that the company can successfully master crises. Oftentimes, PMs are responsible for digital turnarounds that greatly impact company success. So, what does it take to successfully to lead a digital turnaround successfully? Chief Product & Digital Officer Kou Raghavan shares insights on how to build a foundation to successfully lead digital turnarounds. 

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On the digital opportunity – why does it matter?

After Covid, the majority of the admissions products that SeaWorld sold were happening directly on their website. They had an incredible opportunity to double down on this digital adoption and create a frictionless experience for customers both on their website as well as during the customer’s park visit. Here are some of the digital opportunities Kou outlined in his talk:

  1. Communicate why people should experience your product, while also addressing top customer objections.
  2. The path to purchase can be optimized by increasing desirability, eliminating confusion, and reducing friction.
  3. When there is an increase in admissions sales, it also results in more in-park revenue.
  4. When customers are in the park, useful digital tools like mobile apps allow customers to maximize their time in experiences & minimize waiting or planning.
  5. When customers start using these apps, there is increased revenue through in-the-moment purchases, and also decreased costs due to self-service.
  6. Digital experiences also capture helpful data to streamline company operations.

On the first 90 days of digital turnarounds

Prior to a new Digital team being hired, skills like product management, user experience design, and digital analytics were missing. And they had very little data related to their digital experiences. They had to do some pretty foundational things in the first 90 days to change that. These are some things that are crucial to the first 90 days of digital turnarounds: 

  1. Onboard a leadership team: Hire a lean, hands-on team to cover areas like PM, UX, Data, Engg, and Ops. Find people who can embody the team’s mission and attract talent.
  2. Develop a vision & strategy: Build customer empathy, and articulate a clear vision supported by meaningful OKRs (objectives & key results) which change based on need. 
  1. Create strong processes: Understand the business well through data, set up real-time reporting, align with partners on a prioritization framework, and get quick wins!

Digital Transformation: In-park experience (Mobile App)

The old apps at SeaWorld had a number of gaps. They were rated roughly two out of five stars, lacked interactive maps, and were missing information about points of interest. Overall, it was pretty slow and buggy which resulted in low usage in the parks. Check out how the teams transformed the apps:

  • They chose to build new mobile apps from scratch, focused on the “day of visit” experience after clearly understanding guest feedback and narrowing the scope of work.
  • Used a hybrid development approach to have most of the components in native app technology but keep the commerce components in web technology so as to accelerate time to market, and simplify A/B testing later.
  • Cleaned up underlying data by creating new digital maps for 12 parks, developing structured data like physical coordinates for 1,500 points of interest, and automated ride wait time calculations using cameras with image recognition.
  • Aligned park operations to allow redemption of purchases on mobile devices, and reconfigured restaurants for mobile food ordering.
  • Iterated through an internal employee alpha stage, and then external beta stages at a couple of parks before scaling to all 12 parks.
  • Drove awareness through digital and in-park marketing after they saw the Apps were well received.

Digital Transformation: In-park experience (Website)

The old websites had an outdated interface, and friction during purchasing, and did not best represent the brands. The experiences were designed for desktop users while mobile represented the majority of their traffic. And, when they built their data foundation to understand what was going on with the performance, they noticed a higher-than-expected drop-off at the checkout stage of the conversion funnel. This is how their team transformed the website: 

  • First, they developed a comprehensive data foundation consisting of customer feedback, usability testing, conversion funnels, page interactions, and error and performance reporting.
  • Using the foundation above, they identified gaps and opportunities to improve conversion at different stages of the funnel.
  • They ran over 50 experiments across their 12 sites to get learnings for their purchase funnel optimization.
  • The wins from these experiments were supplemented with a brand new design system, then A/B tested during launch to ensure the prior experimentation lifts were maintained.
  • Also improved other aspects of the website like page load & API response times, and reduced errors in critical stages of the funnel.

On Digital Turnarounds: learnings & outcomes

The team’s digital transformation efforts in the first 2 years were successful: The new mobile apps have industry-leading ratings and are being used by more than half the groups in the park. The new websites are modern, and well-received by customers. And the reduced friction has led to tens of millions of dollars of additional revenue for the business.

Kou says: “Be ruthless about prioritization. Review your objectives and key results as a team on a weekly basis. So people are reminded not to do busy work and stay focused on the goals the team signed up for. When you make changes, there will be some metrics that improve and some that may regress. And the most scientific way to understand the impact of digital work is to leverage experimentation.”

Here are some key learnings from SeaWorld’s digital turnaround:
  • Small teams can accomplish a lot with the right process & people
    • hire hands-on teams, prioritizing ability over relevant experience
    • stay focused with a clear vision supported by meaningful OKRs
    • be comfortable saying ‘no’
  • Embrace data & research driven decision making
    • setup daily reporting on product KPI
    • understand project success metrics & counter-metrics
    • prioritize using impact vs. effort vs. risk
    • leverage experimentation (see Optimizely case study for best practices)
  • Execute flawlessly
    • lean on first principles for optimization
    • apply the 80/20 rule and get quick, achievable wins to “pay the bills” while the team works on longer and more complex projects
    • make thoughtful engineering decisions (native vs. web, feature flags)
    • iterate until the feature moves the needle (or cut your losses early)
    • identify partner dependencies early and understand motivations
  • Communicate accomplishments using powerful stories
    • walk through the journey vs. just the outcome
    • extrapolate implications and tie back to company strategy
About the speaker
Kousthub Raghavan SeaWorld, Chief Product & Digital Officer Member
About the host
Maheep Bhalla Sears Holdings,
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