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Using Data to Build Meaningful Human Connections – with Withlocals CEO, Matthijs Keij


“Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom.” – Clifford Stoll.

Technology today makes it relatively easy to gather vast amounts of data from consumers. While some companies are dealing with the backlash of being too invasive in their data gathering, even more are realizing that without context, data is useless. After going through the trouble of navigating consumers’ privacy concerns and finding a process to gather data securely, what happens next? How do you take that data and make meaningful connections with your customers? How do you turn data into information, knowledge and understanding?

Matthijs Keij | Interview

Matthijs boasts a unique blend of product, technology, marketing, and startup experience. He started his first company in 2010: a marketing agency called FreshFruit Digital, before creating data analytics company FLXOne in 2012. This was eventually sold to Teradata, but by then, Matthijs had been bitten by the startup bug.

In 2017, when Withlocals approached him to be their CEO, he jumped at the chance. Matthijs has always been passionate about making the world a better place and Withlocals’ message — to connect people from all different walks of life — resonated deeply with him.

What is WithLocals?

We’re a marketplace full of people who want to get together and explore the world. There are basically two types of users. On one hand, we have travellers who are keen to see something new and fall in love with unknown places. On the other hand, we have locals who’ve lived somewhere for decades and know every nook and cranny of their city. Our job is to connect them together — simple. 

Travelers are getting tired of generic tours, where 60 people gather together and trawl through all the local tourist spots. Many of them want to find the hidden gems, little local institutions that might not be world-renowned but make up the very essence of that city.

How have you leveraged technology to create more meaningful connections between people?

I found it quite frustrating when I first joined, we had no shortage of data, but rather a distinct lack of insights at the company. It’s really hard, and we’ve learnt a lot along the way. We had to learn how to gather these insights and that has been absolutely critical in guiding our approach going forward.

We have had a lot of expats on our platform — they’re wonderful people, but they tend to move around a lot which has an impact on our retention of local hosts, just as they’re beginning to really enjoy the whole experience. We have also been struggling to work out precisely what makes for a good tour experience. Food is great — everybody loves food — but you probably don’t want to go on an 8-hour long food tour!

We found that 3 hours should be the maximum length of time for any walking tour — we used this knowledge to then start building blueprints of what the ideal tour should look like. We also learned to be pretty strict about the number of people allowed on each tour. It limits your ability to make meaningful connections if there are 20 of you, so we limit tours to a maximum of 8 people.

What are some of your biggest challenges at the moment?

Well, the first is obviously the fact that people aren’t able to travel — that’s been really tough on us. We’ve pivoted into providing online tours, but this is still in its early stages. The good news is that our guests love it!

We’ve also been mulling over how we can get people to take advantage of opportunities that are closer to home. For example, you might live in London and go sightseeing whenever you take a trip away, but you’ve never actually visited Brick Lane’s street art. People tend to overlook things that are right on their doorstep. 

Our last challenge (well, big challenge!) lies in picking the right cities. It’s an important decision for us to go through the entire process of setting up in a new city, so it’s crucial that we get this right — we rely heavily on all available tourism data to help us make the right choices.

Do you see marketing, product, and engineering starting to merge?

Absolutely, and I’ve actually seen that in all of the previous companies I’ve worked in — no matter the industry. I’ve personally been guilty in the past of thinking data is the answer to everything — I’m a data guy who likes using quantitative results to guide my actions, so this is only natural. However, I’ve also come to realise that creativity is just as important, and you need technology to pull it all together.

If you get this right, you have a winning solution.

By merging data, creativity and technology, you can eliminate silos — and I strongly believe that silos are one of the most dangerous things for any growing company. You need hybrid approaches and hybrid roles, especially in startups. It’s crucial that everyone understands the link between what they are doing and what people in different departments are trying to achieve — this is the only way that you can get everyone working together towards a common goal.

Data: the good, the bad, and the ugly

As Matthijs stated, data alone doesn’t make for a great product or for great marketing strategies. In fact, in many cases it is making marketing less human. For some marketeers, gathering prospects’ preferences, purchase history, and session data are far more important than understanding their true motivations for buying.

The key is to use data appropriately, by which we mean to bring more value to the consumer. For example, you might gather data so that you can:

  • Offer personalised experiences and communication
  • Better identify customer pain points
  • Inform creation of your next product
  • Improve your marketing practices

And that’s barely scratching the surface of its utility. However, it’s important that you get this right — if you are found to be using data for unscrupulous purposes, the penalties are harsh.

Let’s take a look at three examples of how companies have used consumer data for better or for worse.

The Good

  • Company: eHarmony
  • Purpose: Create meaningful, lasting connections between people
  • Description: eHarmony arguably leads the way when it comes to making genuine data-led connections. The company’s unique compatibility matching system has surveyed more than 50,000 married couples to find out the secret to happy relationships, before applying it to their platform. Couples who met on eHarmony have a reported divorce rate of just 3.86%. Given that the average is somewhere around 50%, they are doing something right.

The Bad

  • Company: Facebook and Cambridge Analytics
  • Purpose: To get more cash in the bank
  • Description: The now infamous scandal took off in early 2018 (though it had been going on since 2015) when it was reported the social media giant had been selling private user data without their permission. Up to 87 million users were affected — primarily in the United States, with data being used for political purposes. Facebook ended up with a fines totalling $5 billion by the US Federal Trade Commission.

The Ugly

  • Company: OkCupid
  • Purpose: Social engineering 
  • Description: Back in 2014, OKCupid admitted “experimenting” on users, seeing whether or not being told you were compatible with someone would affect results. In other words, they set the system up to tell two incompatible people that they were meant for each other and sat back to see what happened. OKCupid openly admitted to conducting these experiments and published their findings in a blog post entitled “We Experiment On Human Beings!” The author, OKCupid’s founder and lead data scientist was unabashed in the article he wrote describing the experiments but later removed the article in the face of growing accusations of ethical violations. As far as data ethics goes, that’s pretty low.
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The key takeaway: However you choose to use customer data, make sure that you use it with your customers in mind — instead of just leveraging it solely for financial gain.

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