What does it take for a video campaign to be a runaway success - and can an airline really measure the impact of the 'feel-good factor' on its bottom line?
Last autumn, Cebu Pacific embarked on a simple plan to provide live entertainment during a domestic flight but, in the process, it inadvertently became a poster child for how "viral" video can pack a massive marketing punch. The Philippine low-cost carrier enlisted flight attendants to dance choreographed routines to pop songs by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry while demonstrating to passengers how to use their seat belts, life vests and oxygen masks.
"That was actually the first time our cabin crew danced the safety demo on cruising altitude," says Candice Iyog, Cebu Pacific vice-president for marketing and distribution. It was done "to see how our passengers would react to it". React they did. A passenger on board the aircraft videotaped the flight attendants' performance and posted it on video-sharing web site YouTube. People took note of the fun, upbeat video and forwarded it en masse to others via email and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Virtually overnight, the Cebu Pacific dancing flight attendants video became an internet sensation, hurling the little-known carrier into the international spotlight and giving it unprecedented exposure. To date, the video has received nearly 10 million hits on YouTube, has been mentioned by myriad news outlets, including ABC News, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, and was named one of YouTube Trends' "Top 10 most shared videos of 2010".
This kind of free publicity "is something we very much welcome, especially since it has given us, a low-cost carrier, recognition overnight", says Iyog.
"Now, not only are we the Philippines' largest national flag carrier, we are also known the world over as a Philippine carrier that showcases the warmth, friendliness and talent of the Filipino people. The next time they want to fly to the Philippines, they'll think, 'I want to fly with that fun and friendly airline with the dancing flight attendants'."
Whether viral videos occur "accidently", as in the case of Cebu Pacific, or are conceived by marketing teams, they can be powerful tools for airlines to create brand awareness.
When Air New Zealand wanted to generate buzz about its new Boeing 777-300ER offerings, the carrier rolled out a series of videos featuring new brand ambassador "Rico", a convivial puppet with a penchant for double-entendres. "We loved the idea of creating the persona of this furry little fellow that loves international travel and was going to help us showcase the key product features of the new long-haul product," says Air New Zealand director of marketing Jodi Williams.
However, because Rico's comments and interactions on video can be perceived as risqué, people must "opt in" to view his content by visiting the Rico-branded YouTube channel or by following him on Facebook and Twitter.
"Rico has created amazing 'talkability'. He can be polarising. We know that he is not everyone's cup of tea - not everyone appreciates his sense of humour - but we never force anyone to watch it," says Williams.
Shashank Nigam, chief executive of global airline marketing and branding consultancy Simpliflying, notes: "Just as many people who like Rico don't like Rico - and I think that was the intention. The very good thing Air New Zealand did was they didn't just release one video. They initially released two and had future release dates on the other three so even the guy who doesn't like it would click back to see what's next. And the message about Air New Zealand's new Skycouch economy-class seats and in-flight entertainment for the 777-300ER is still getting across." Rico has gone viral "in a way that people are starting to become engaged with him and as they see two or three or four pieces of his content, they want to see more", explains Williams.
Although initially developed to promote the new 777, Rico has morphed into a sort of mascot for Air New Zealand. Subsequent videos show Rico in the role of travel guide exploring destinations in New Zealand. He even makes an appearance in the airline's new in-flight safety video, although the content has been managed in a way that will not be deemed offensive.
"Rico is a sustainable strategy. Air New Zealand is still very much leveraging on Rico. In 2011, airlines need to be mature enough to be able to piggyback off their successes, to make sure they go the distance in terms of social media strategy.
"It is no longer about the tools, it's what you do with them and how you drive the business strategy," says Nigam.
For a video to gain true viral status, it generally needs to fall into at least one of four categories: "cute, sexy, funny or shocking/weird", according to Peter Fitzpatrick, executive producer of full-service production firm RippleKey. "There has to be that 'wow' factor so that people will want to forward to friends and watch over and over again."
A viral video does not necessarily require a lot of time or investment. The best viral videos "cost very little money to make and a tremendous amount of imagination", notes Vueling chief executive Alex Cruz.
By comparison, high-end television commercials can take several months to execute, from initial briefing to completion, and can run into the millions of dollars.
However, Fitzpatrick stresses that you must work to squeeze the full potential from a project. "If you make a great viral video or advertisement and then don't do anything with it, you might as well have not done it. You've got to have that social media [element] in place, connecting to Twitter, Facebook and [ensuring] Google search results. It's a maze, but if you do it right you can really come up with some great results."
That is one of the reasons why traditional and low-cost carriers alike are incorporating YouTube into their broader social media campaigns. American Airlines, for example, considers YouTube to be "one of the pillars among our strategic social media channels", along with Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
"We try to generate as much content for YouTube as possible. Video content enhances the appeal of a particular message or campaign and can generate a good deal of additional buzz," says Andrew Backover, managing director for corporate communications at American Airlines.
"In some cases, such as with our TV commercials, the video can be the story in and of itself, generating large volumes of positive conversation about the brand.
"We also include YouTube links in our press releases for new facilities, such as a newly refurbished Admiral's Club or new product offerings or technology, such as our mobile apps. YouTube is both a platform from which to provide rich video content for our other key messaging channels, as well as a conversation channel of its own."
YouTube is currently Virgin Atlantic's third most important "off-site" social channel after its branded Facebook and Twitter sites.
"We aim to produce many more videos, probably of our ground and in-flight products, and will display these on YouTube and our main web site," says Virgin Atlantic acting head of eBusiness Fergus Boyd. "Our sister company, www.vtravelled.com, which promotes inspiration travel above and beyond the main Virgin Atlantic network, is also active in video production and have many 'video postcards' which promote our destinations."
While Virgin normally only releases advertisements on TV, it decided to break its recent "Has your airline got 'it'?" campaign on Facebook and its website. "We saw 300,000-plus views on our website and Facebook sites. Going forward, you should expect to see much more use of YouTube, Facebook and our website to cross-promote above the line advertising campaigns," says Boyd.
The advantages to airlines in having an online portfolio of videos extend beyond brand awareness and social engagement, however. "You want to be the one telling your own story," says Paula Berg, digital media leader at Linhart Public Relations, who developed Southwest Airlines' acclaimed online communication and social media strategy.
"When you watch one video on YouTube, six other videos pop up. So if someone puts out a negative video about your company, it's great if you have 30 positive ones to balance that out. These things just don't live in a vacuum online."
Even a negative accidental viral video - such as an event filmed by passengers or crew - can create a marketing opportunity for the airline. "I don't know how long this is going to last but we've been in this era of the apology. A company is judged more on how they handle a situation than on the original situation. It is a great time for organisations not to turn their backs on things and feel threatened, but to use them as a gift," says Berg.
Air New Zealand's Williams adds: "Touch wood, we aren't in a position where many people are posting [videos about] a lot of bad experiences but I would say, if someone posted something, it's how you respond to it and sort out the problem for them.
"We see it as an opportunity, rather than trying to ignore it. I can't see [how] you can control it, though, because, of course, nowadays people, through multiple blogs and travel sites, are constantly updating photos and blogging and talking about travel experiences, but you monitor it, you respond and you use it as an opportunity."
Measuring the return on investment of online videos is challenging. American has referral traffic numbers from its AA.com website that show the amount of revenue from clicks from YouTube since July 2009.
"As for a specific video or commercial on YouTube, we cannot quantify that value. For us, it is difficult to draw a direct correlation between online videos and direct revenue but, if done properly, online videos create positive, often emotional associations with your brand, which is less tangible but still highly valuable," says Backover.
Air New Zealand, meanwhile, is "very pleased" with Rico's awareness "and the numbers and attraction he's getting", says Williams. But even he admits it is "difficult to pinpoint and say emphatically" how the Rico videos have translated into sales. "We are getting good sales [for 777 service], but whether or not that's retail or through other channels, it is very difficult to track that."
Among the leading carriers in social media, JetBlue Airways also looks for return on investment "in the larger campaign as a whole, not just the videos by themselves", says JetBlue director of brand and advertising Fiona Morrisson. "Videos have a role to play. They support all the other communications out there. We put them out in conjunction with a new tagline, a new set of messaging, some new online retail advertising, and we use them as a way to back up and support our larger plan," says Morrisson.
"We have goals of how many people we want to get engaged, how much buzz we want to generate and how people respond. We have those goals but they are not tied back to one video must equal 'X' amount of bookings.
"Videos are not a retail offer or a route destination offer. This is branding at its heart and how we see the world and how we see the industry we operate in."
Vueling's Cruz does not believe you can measure the value of online videos in the same way you can measure the value of Facebook and Twitter. "Videos generate emotion and you have to hope that emotion turns into action. Will it make you buy a ticket? It may make you more predisposed towards buying a ticket, but what you do then is you check the price.
"Can you lock people in with a viral video? No. Can you with Facebook and Twitter? Yes. [Video] is a great tool, which contributes towards increasing your Facebook fans or bringing yourself into 2.0, but video is like ice cream. It just tastes nice."
That is not to say Vueling does not have some plans up its sleeve for fresh online video. "I am sure that in 2011 we will do some kind of videos but virality is very difficult to design and engineer. It has to be accidental, spur of the moment, has to come from ingenuity," says Cruz.
- More on the low-down on wider airline social media strategies