Social networking for airlines

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Airlines have been slow to embrace the blog and other web-based social marketing tools. Will their focus on surviving record oil prices deter them from investing in developing their social marketing activities in the future?

Airlines know they are being talked about everywhere, yet they are doing little to hold up their end of the conversation. The rest of the travel world, though, is embracing the internet and forming a complex social network of links, meeting sites, comment areas and blogs.

Large corporate travel departments such as hi-tech supplier Cisco, electronics firm Thomson and others have created internal corporate communities for their road warriors, while travel suppliers such as Concur, a corporate expense reporting firm, have set up community sites on their websites for conversations on travel, data reporting and the like. Sabre and American Express have said they will launch a social networking application some time in the middle of this year through their Sabre corporate booking tool, GetThere, which would allow the sharing of ideas about destinations and suppliers, such as airlines. TripIt, which collects and targets travel itineraries, has developed a travel organiser and social network, while Expedia's corporate travel unit launched a wiki, a platform for user-generated content and forums. Orbitz even enlisted travellers to contribute to its site about unforeseen delays and other gripes.

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But airlines have been slow to move into this form of collective social networking and marketing, and have limited themselves to such things as marketing directly to specific groups, groups that can be identified by their memberships in other social networks such as Facebook. US low-cost carrier AirTran Airways, for instance, reaches college students through videos it posts on collegehumor.com. The carrier has also set up a website aimed at college students (airtranu.com), and believes that it is reaching a target audience through viral marketing.

European carriers have surged ahead in viral marketing, with Finnair, KLM and SAS offering some very clever advertisements such as Finnair's viral video "Early Jack" campaign, which features a business traveller who gets to his destination so early he has nothing to do. And KLM has a few online communities such as its KLM Club Africa, Club China and Flying Blue Golf. Social marketing expert Rohit Bharqava says KLM could certainly do more, for example integrating the sites more closely with its reservations and booking sites. But these are people talking about airlines rather than talking to airlines, or airlines speaking directly to people.

American Airlines is using the Facebook platform. Most airlines have membership or space on Facebook and other similar sites, but in April American launched Travelbag, which is a Facebook application that lets users share travel plans and experiences and set up countdowns to upcoming trips or events. Its Trip-O-Vent feature is not a place to comment and vent but instead is a visual countdown. American says it is "seeking to differentiate and segment" its passengers. "We're trying to learn more about them, what their habits are, why they buy and when they buy."

But this is a very different reason for being than the blog, where the customer is central. "The blog is at the heart of social computing," says Henry Harteveldt, the Forrester Research analyst. "Some airlines just do not see the return on investment in doing a blog, and this is because the bean counters have taken over. And it's not the right thing for every airline it is customers at the centre. And bear in mind that right now airlines are solely concerned with survival."

Indeed, the first US carrier to blog is the one most likely to survive. Southwest Airlines began its "Nuts about Southwest" blog two years ago and has just put it through its first major revisions. Although it is still essentially a blog by Southwest people, it now includes videos and podcasts. Brian Lusk, who is responsible for the Southwest blog, says it has "played an important role in corporate decisions", from changes in Southwest's seating procedure to when it posts and opens its inventory for reservations. It began putting flights on sale a month earlier after an outpouring of user response. Southwest also drew heavy user response during a debate over a scantily clad female passenger who was reprimanded by a flight attendant for being too skimpily dressed. The airline began a "mini-skirt fare sale", but not before rival Virgin America offered the passenger, Kyla Ebbert, a free flight. Lusk says the blog brings in some 30 Southwest employees, from pilots to mechanics, and gets above 60,000 unique visitors a month. "One thing people want is just to learn more about the complexities of running an airline, and that's why we have features such as 'A day in the life'".

The blog faced it biggest test in a recent crisis. In March and April, the FAA cracked down on US airline maintenance after whistleblowers came forward and charged that FAA inspectors and Southwest had ignored serious violations of maintenance procedures. Southwest grounded some 40 aircraft, but the FAA continued its crackdown and within a week or two had moved on to American Airlines. Within days, American cancelled several hundred flights, stranding several hundred thousand people. By then, Southwest had addressed the issue on its blog, and drawn a wealth of responses, from "you lost my trust" to "I have faith".

Meanwhile American, which had no blog, reacted sluggishly. American chief executive Gerard Arpey addressed the public on television, and the airline posted a few items on its website. Then American began a blog - sort of. Taking off-the-shelf software, it posted one or two remarks about the delays, offered no graphics and let it sit. As Harteveldt says, "they should have taken it down".

At Delta, the only other major US airline with a presence in the blogosphere, entry into blogging was far less accidental and if anything almost an afterthought. "We had been through a wrenching reorganisation, and had used internal blogs to communicate with our people," explains Josh Weiss, managing director of delta.com and self-service. "We called it delta.com/change, but as we came out of bankruptcy we saw it as a way to communicate with people about the changes that were still going on at Delta. That was largely an ­internal effort."

By August of last year, Delta.com/change became Under the Wing. Now it is largely a blog for Delta insiders to contribute to, with entries ranging from historical perspectives on subjects such as Delta's continuing overseas expansion. The blog gained fame when it became a testing spot for a series of in-flight videos produced by Delta on aircraft etiquette (see them at flightglobal.com/­planeguage). Interestingly, its links to other blogs including Nuts about Southwest. Both airline blogs have a fair amount of negative comment, and Weiss and Lusk each say that the only editing is for such things as obscenity or if an entry is so clearly an individual ­problem that it deserves offline attention.

But in the rest of the world, airline blogging is as rare as empty seats in first class. Spain's Vueling has had a blog, but it is not active and has had no entries since March. The new British Airways subsidiary OpenSkies has created a blog, which was its main marketing presence in lieu of an actual website on which it could sell tickets. OpenSkies managing director Dale Moss blogs to update passengers on the airline's progress. It includes a time-lapse video of an aircraft being stripped of its BA livery and then repainted.

JetBlue, which has always had an advanced web presence, has yet to dive into blogging, but it has created a community site it calls happyjetting.com. Linked to an advertising campaign, happyjetting offers a few interactive features that are JetBlue hallmarks (quizzes, etc). This is so far a static campaign, but Jet­Blue has been monitoring it using twitter.com, a site that allows the carrier to monitor who is talking about it and then engage in very short messages. It links to Twitter from its happy­jetting website, and the implication is that this will be the basis for a presence on the web.

As the world airline crisis continues, carriers may well be tempted to stick to the very basics and avoid novelty. That may well be a rational decision at a time in which survival is major goal, but Harteveldt says: "Some carriers are fearful of the cultural aspects of such things as blogging. And they don't always see the return on investment. But if they could just view it as return on their marketing investment"


To view David Field's own blog, go to flightglobal.com/leftfield