ANALYSIS: Why airlines must adapt to social media evolution

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As more airlines engage with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, those that want to stay ahead must embrace opportunities offered by mobile and on-board wi-fi in order to transform their social media relationships into real-world loyalty, says Shashank Nigam of SimpliFlying

Face it - social media is dead. There are more than 200 airlines on Twitter, and the space is cluttered. Mere contests and free tickets are no longer enough to drive engagement. Too many airlines are trying to woo travellers in the same old ways.

Airlines will need to stay ahead of the competition by identifying key business goals, such as loyalty. They need to engage the traveller in a specific manner, often via mobile phones, rather than social media alone. The bridge between social and real-world relationships will need to be built, as travellers become more connected than ever.

In-flight wi-fi provider Gogo says more than 200 million travellers boarded a wi-fi-equipped flight in the USA in 2011. This number is set to grow manifold in 2013, as heavyweights such as Emirates and Lufthansa breathe life into their in-flight wi-fi offerings. In fact, Turkish Airlines is already experiencing more than 30% take-up rate for its free wi-fi service on its Boeing 777s.

This means travellers will be connected throughout their journey - from leaving home in wi-fi-equipped taxis and buses, to the airport that provides free wi-fi and, finally, in-flight too.

This would dramatically change the way airlines market to travellers - from customising in-flight entertainment based on their YouTube browsing history, to allowing them to order duty-free or even purchase destination tours in-flight via the internet. Opportunities to drive ancillary revenues are immense - if airline managers think creatively.

However, connectivity is a double-edged sword. If a passenger hates how his meal tastes, he is likely to rant about it on Facebook, along with a photo, minutes after the meal. Customer service would have to be delivered in a manner close to real-time to maintain brand affinity. Airlines such as Virgin America, Delta Air Lines and Turkish Airlines are already leading the way.

The recent SimpliFlying Airline Social Media Outlook 2012 report revealed that the top business goals of social media are aimed at brand engagement, customer service and revenue. These efforts will have to be increased further in 2013, as the connected traveller becomes a reality. Airline marketing will have to evolve from mere social media contests to supporting key business functions.

On 1 December 2012, Carrie Bickmore was hanging out in the cockpit of a Qantas A380 despite previously making sarcastic comments about the airline. Bickmore was among 30 social media influencers invited by Qantas for a "tweet and greet". They had opportunities to mingle with Qantas marketing staff to build real-world relationships rather than just social. Qantas is looking to repeat the event this year.

Real-world relationships can go a long way in building online advocates. This also gives senior airline executives a chance to witness first-hand the power of social media, thus creating a better buy-in for future marketing initiatives.

American Airlines allows travellers to view movies from an in-flight server on their own devices, which they can watch within 24h, even in the hotel.

About 74% of business travellers and frequent fliers own smartphones, and many travellers take laptops or tablets with them on holiday. In-flight entertainment needs to evolve with these realities, especially on short-haul or low-cost airlines. Passengers would rather be glued to their own devices than fiddle with the screen in front of them.

In a study SimpliFlying conducted with Cranfield University in 2011, 72% of participants said they would join a social loyalty programme - where they would get real-world rewards for online actions. Today, you can earn miles on United Airlines, Virgin America and JetBlue just by "checking in" to their Foursquare or Facebook locations.

Last year, SimpliFlying helped Estonian Air and BalticMiles pioneer the world's first social loyalty programme and crowd-sourced membership level respectively. This trend is set to grow, especially as most travellers carry gadgets that allow them to engage in online advocacy in return for incentives.

Our study shows that 75% of airlines plan to increase social media budgets in 2013. To stand out from the crowd, a lot of funds will have to be focused on servicing the connected traveller, building real-world relationships and tapping into the gadgets travellers are carrying.

Social media as we know it is dead. The age of the connected traveller and instant gratification is here - and airline marketers need to adapt to stay relevant.

Shashank Nigam is CEO at SimpliFlying, a brand strategy firm helping airlines and airports engage with travellers through social media. Find out more about its strategy consulting and training services at SimpliFlying.com, on Twitter: @SimpliFlying, or email wannalearnmore@SimpliFlying.com