It is hard not to grin, watching WestJet’s "Christmas Miracle" video on YouTube. The film shows one of the Canadian low-cost carrier’s employees dressed as Santa taking departing passengers’ Christmas wishes, a mad dash through local shopping centres and then surprising the same passengers with the gifts at baggage claim.
“Merry Christmas to all and to all a good flight,” declared Santa in what was a clear marketing coup for Calgary-based WestJet.
The video went viral. More than 14 million people viewed it within three days of being loaded online and it set a record for number of shares on Mashable, according to aviation marketing consultancy Simpliflying. The video had more than 35.3 million views on 5 February.
“Before this video went live, people outside of Canada and the USA might be forgiven for not knowing who WestJet was,” wrote Vikas Bysani of Unmetric, a social media benchmarking firm, in a Simpliflying blog post. “Most people will now think of WestJet first when they consider flying in Canada.”
The Christmas video is just one example of the many ways airlines are stepping up and making a name for themselves online. While some argue that the revenue generating opportunities from social media – including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube – are nebulous at best, the consensus is that those 35.3 million views can expand a carrier’s brand recognition and provide it with a wealth of data on potential customers.
“More than the click throughs, it humanises the brand more than other media do,” says Steven Frischling, a New York-based airline media consultant. “It makes someone want to have a relationship with your company.”
Air New Zealand has seen this with its "Bare Essentials" and Hobbit-themed safety videos, British Airways with its "Visit to Mum" advert and Delta Air Lines with its 1980s themed safety video that includes the basketball star who also played the co-pilot in the 1980 comedy film Airplane!, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
But social media is a lot more than viral videos. It is about engaging with customers and generating a solid return on investment for the carriers that do it well.
American Airlines and Ryanair are the names most commonly cited as successfully pulling off an about face in the world of social media during 2013. The former expanded its staff and is now the only US airline tweeting to customers around the clock, while the latter reversed its anti-Twitter stance, successfully launching an account in September.
Jonathan Pierce, director of social communications at American, says the carrier's success is a combination of more dedicated staffing with employees from the reservations and customer relations teams, more training and round-the-clock responses.
All of these are important if customer service is an airline’s goal with social media. Real-time responses and ones that actually help travellers – not just providing a phone number for a reservations sales line – boost goodwill and can create loyalty towards carriers, according to SimpliFlying.
“We just got better, I think, at all of those things and throughout 2013 we saw that pay off,” says Pierce. “[And] we’re talking about a breadth of things that are happening at the airline and understanding that our customers don’t just want to see the latest marketing.”
American’s social media team includes 23 employees with 17 dedicated to customer service. Most of the staff are at the airline’s Fort Worth, Texas, headquarters but it also has one employee in London and two in Lima, Peru, to help passengers around the world.
Shashank Nigam, chief executive of SimpliFlying, says American’s evolution in 2013 was a “nice surprise” and calls it a “force to watch” in the social media space.
The integration of American and US Airways may test this presence. While US Airways has a Twitter account and Facebook page, prior to the merger, this presence was widely considered as simply checking a box in the customer service and marketing toolkit – and not a whole-hearted effort to engage with and aid customers.
Pierce says the US Airways twitter feed has already moved to 24-hour responses like American’s feed but full integration – and dropping the US Airways presence – will not occur for at least another 18 months.
“As long as a customer is booking on USAirways.com, then it needs to have a [social media] presence,” he says.
Ryanair is another social media standout from 2013. The carrier notably joined Twitter on 17 September, following years of comments against using the forum by its chief executive, Michael O’Leary. Now the carrier has more than 52,000 followers and the numbers keep growing.
“It’s evolved into a very useful tool for us getting info out but also evolved to allow customers to get in touch with us,” says Robin Kiely, head of communications at the Irish low-cost carrier, who was part of the team that launched its Twitter presence.
Ryanair uses Twitter for both customer service and marketing purposes. Hour-long Twitter chats with a different member of the senior management team each week and one-hour, one-route flash sales are some of its most popular features on the site, he says.
The carrier’s social media presence is still new. While it is good that they are on Twitter, the jury is out on whether it can be considered a success, says Frischling.
“They’re on there but they’re not,” he says. “They’re not using it in ways that align with the Ryan brand. The Ryan brand is selling you stuff, use our credit card [and] book a rental car with us.”
Not every airline active on social media is improving. The level of engagement from Delta and Southwest Airlines on Twitter has declined for various reasons during the past year, says Frischling.
At the same time though, Delta’s safety video creative team appears to be getting more inventive – or retro – every few months and Southwest continues attracting attention with its "Live at 35" series of in-flight concert videos – further boosting the recognition of both carriers with travellers.
In addition, a strong passenger focus appears to have little connection to social media prowess. Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways, two of the world’s leading carriers in terms of in-flight experience, are present on social media but lack the leadership status that they have in other respects.
“It’s a real polar disparity – you’re either blowing hot or cold,” says Frischling.
For those airlines that dedicate staff and invest in social media, the pay-off can be tangible. WestJet generated $1.6 million in additional revenue and about 6,000 new bookings from an April Fool's YouTube video alone in 2012, says Nigam.
“What these statistics tell us is, firstly, you can drive revenue from social media,” he says. “Two, when you invest resources in it, you can drive significant revenue.”
Nigam cites KLM as a good example of positive return on investment. The Dutch carrier generates about €1.20 ($1.63) in direct sales and €2.80 in indirect sales for each €1.00 spent on social media – a four-times return on investment – based on data shared at the SimpliFlying Awards 2013, he says.
KLM’s social media presence is broad but also precise. It has its own blog and is on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube, according to its website. But it is not just “on” these sites – it lays out specific uses for each to its customers, from real-time assistance on Twitter, crowd sourcing ideas on Facebook to finding the ideal seat mate through its "Meet & Seat" function, which uses travellers existing profiles on sites like Facebook and LinkedIn.
This kind of focus is what social media experts say is the main key to success on social media.
“Ensure that you have a solid focus on a key business goal, whether it be revenue or customer service,” says Nigam. “You need to have a razor-sharp goal and then you can achieve it.”
Focused or not, the returns on investment are not always of the tangible variety. American sees its social media team as “part of customers’ decision to choose American”, says Pierce. He adds that the airline derives a return from revenue and click-throughs on Twitter and Facebook but declines to share a number.
Ryanair sees a direct correlation between its flash sales and increased bookings but beyond that the return on its investment is hard to quantify, says Kiely.
“In general, it’s really just made things easier for our passengers,” he says. “I’d measure it as we get far less complaints coming through the press office.”
And often that is the case with social media. Passengers have their concerns taken care of quicker, are more satisfied and are likely to think more highly – or at least not any less – of the carrier at the end of their trip. Maybe the next time they are booking a flight, they will not just go for the lowest fare but pay the one a few dollars more on the airline that they remember helped them on Twitter.