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Small Ball: When a Downgrade is an Upgrade

In this mature age of digital marketing, companies have developed finely honed engines of automated and targeted promotion that factor in individual preferences and behavior.  The idea is to add small increments to revenue and profit. The system evolved in a stable era of economic expansion, but the automated promotions are now running afoul of the reality of a world disrupted by Covid.  Online wine merchants use your purchase history and promotional inducements to encourage you to buy, but, when you do click on the “buy” button, they can’t tell you when they will deliver, due to shipping and distribution disruptions.  This is a problem when a resident must be at home to sign for delivery.  Airlines upgrade their best customers (and deserving idle crew) gratis to first class, which results in first class cabins being full, while economy class sits mostly empty. With free drinks and snacks in first class gone as part of the Covid regime, a crowded first-class cabin suddenly becomes less attractive. “Downgrading” to an empty section of coach was not something the algorithm was used to.  Even if they succeeded in moving out of coach, the favored customer would end up crowded in with other favored customers in the front “extra-leg-room” rows of coach.  The largest U.S. airline has ended up overriding its finely tuned seating algorithms that had evolved over years with fixed rules about cabin density.  It will be interesting to see if they can find a way to monetize solitude.

*The term “small ball” refers to a style of baseball play in which managers don’t wait for low probability, high-impact events (3-run home-runs, for example), but rather cobble together strings of lower-impact but higher probability scoring efforts (e.g. stolen bases, sacrifices to advance runners).  We use it here to refer to the use of machine learning algorithms to incrementally improve revenue, profit, etc.

Calling all thinkers:  Send me your “small ball” idea here