Many marketers and consultants have been talking about the benefits of social marketing for airlines. Yet today it seems that organic reach may soon be a thing of the past, as airlines now have to pay in order to reach fans on social media. So what happened? Was it a passing fad, or are we talking about two different things?

As it turns out, the answer is the latter.

While organic reach is indeed fading away, this has had little impact on social marketing strategies. The real problem lies in not understanding the meaning of social marketing – what it is, why it matters and when it is appropriate for airlines to leverage it.

In today’s context, the term “social network” is widely used to describe things like Facebook or Instagram, causing its real meaning to be largely lost.

Allow me to explain. A social connection is a link between two individuals. This can be a direct link between two friends, or an indirect link – meaning that the individual is a friend of a friend.

A social network is the sum of connections between individuals, whereby each is a node that can be connected through direct or indirect social connections. At birth this network is limited to a child’s immediate family. The network then gradually expands, getting more complex with time.

In marketing, social networks are important because they represent the structure of society and the natural grid along which all information is shared.

So what do we call that Facebook thing? Facebook is not a social network. The correct technical term should be “social networking service”, or SNS. Facebook is a service or tool that helps users maintain or expand their social connections.

The word “social” in social marketing refers to the concept of social networks, not SNS.

The core of a social marketing strategy lies in leveraging the social network to spread a message. Although SNS are heavily used, they are merely tools.

Unfortunately, this distinction is often missed. A number of well-meaning publications and experts put out large amounts of material that confuses the tools with the strategy.

Many marketers end up basing their strategies on incorrect interpretations, and now face difficulties dealing with the plethora of changes in SNS.

Social marketing is vastly different from mass marketing.

Social marketing takes into account the social network and attempts to create messages that will flow through it. Reception of messages is better because human beings treat information coming from within their social network as more reliable.

Mass marketing focuses on pushing messages directly to individuals, with little regard for its subsequent distribution. Not only does it require greater investment in delivery, but reception among consumers is also lower. However, its advantage is that the messages do not require the same level of consistency needed in social marketing.

Interestingly, these two marketing approaches also reflect a brand’s positioning of its products.

Brands based on sustained product differentiation succeed with social marketing; focusing on building long-term, loyal relationships with the customers.

At the other extreme, price-focused companies that perceive their products as commodities have better results with mass marketing.

To illustrate this divide, we compare Ryanair and Southwest Airlines. At first look they seem to be competing on price, since both are low-cost carriers, but a closer analysis reveals several differences.

Ryanair, often described as “ultra-low-cost airline”, uses a mass marketing approach. Obsessed with cost reduction, Ryanair perceives its product as an absolute commodity, where the price is the only determinant for purchase.

Southwest Airlines, on the other hand, places considerable emphasis on being the “LUV” airline, and leverages social marketing to deliver its value-for-money proposition. While Southwest strives to keep prices low, it also offers excellent customer service and promotes a happy internal culture, constantly giving back to the community.

Customers are more likely to develop a long-term preference and emotional attachment to Southwest. On the other hand, Ryanair customers are only loyal to the lowest available prices.

While the financial successes of ultra-low-cost airlines demonstrate there is room for at least one price-focused competitor per market, these successes are based on shaky ground. Passengers will trade up whenever there are better service-based alternatives within their budget.

Aviation is and will always remain a service industry. The bulk of the airline industry should avoid going down Ryanair’s path of commoditisation.

What’s your approach? Take five minutes to rethink your current marketing strategy.

Is your airline currently doing more mass marketing (more suited for commoditised industries), or should you be investing in social marketing? Do you want customers who will desert you as soon as your prices become uncompetitive, or would you prefer to build a loyal customer base?

Remember, being on social networking sites is not the same as having a coherent social marketing strategy.

Marco Serusi is a marketing consultant at SimpliFlying, one of the largest airline marketing strategy firms, which has worked with over 60 airlines and airports:

Source: Airline Business