Social media enables airlines to connect with, and market to, their customers in a way that is far more personalised and targeted than any of the more traditional communication channels.

The flipside to this is that social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook enable dissatisfied passengers to instantaneously name and shame perpetrator airlines in front of a global audience.

It is crucial, therefore, that airlines get their social media strategies right and take full advantage of the plus sides of engaging through such channels.

"What I love about airlines using social media is that, prior to social media, if you had a poor experience with an airline your options were to write a letter, which would go into the abyss. Today, you can have a real-time conversation that is visible to the public," says Devin Liddell, principal brand strategist at design consultancy Teague.

Rather than seeing such open communication as a threat, however, airlines can harness social media to form closer relationships with existing and potential customers, and to spread awareness of their brands through the use of a range of quirky campaigns unique to these channels.

One carrier doing just that is Air New Zealand, which has garnered almost 73,000 followers on Twitter and 92,000 followers on Facebook through its "Air NZ Fairy" campaign. Followers are invited to post wishes either through the wishing app on Air NZ Fairy's Facebook page or on the Air NZ Twitter page by using the hashtag #WishMeQuick and tagging @AirNZFairy.

"The Fairy receives thousands of wishes every year and grants at least one wish a week, which can range from Air New Zealand sweets, lounge passes, Airpoints, tickets to sporting events and more," says Air New Zealand head of global brand development Jodi Williams. "Something as simple as a giveaway of Air New Zealand sweets can see the Fairy trend online, which is fantastic brand exposure for our airline."

In addition to enabling the airline to spread brand awareness and collect personal customer data – one of the conditions listed is that wish-makers "acknowledge that the promoter will collect details from you and your Facebook and Twitter profiles" – the Fairy campaign is "a way for us to give a little something back to our customers", says Williams.

She adds: "In a fast-evolving, technology-driven world, we know that our customers are also constantly evolving when it comes to how they access information, so a strong and active social media presence is key. It allows customers to engage with the brand through content and sharing, learn about new products and services, and also to gather information and support when it comes to customer queries."

Another airline that has embraced social media from an early stage is Canada's WestJet, which has built up a Twitter following of almost half a million people. "Social media for us is an extension of our brand," says WestJet manager of public relations Robert Palmer. "The voice you read on our social media feeds is something people are accustomed to when they fly with us. It's the same voice you get from our flight attendants, or 'WestJetters' – that's what we call our staff.

"We use it to engage with guests in a way we couldn't before. Social media is very much on a one-on-one basis, so before you could call or email us and now, with social media, everything's instantaneous."

What's more, WestJet has monetised its use of social media to create a valuable extra revenue stream. "You most definitely can make money on social media," says Palmer. "We make millions of dollars on social media every year." WestJet holds frequent seat-sale promotions that are exclusive to its social media channels so that, for example, "on Thursdays, a bunch of fares are only available on Facebook".

KLM also has a strong social media presence and has used these channels in the past to surprise passengers at the airport with personalised gifts targeted to their hobbies and interests – valuable information which the airline is able to access through social networking sites. "Social offers are an excellent opportunity to surprise passengers or fans, based on all the info that people place on social [media] themselves," says KLM social media manager Karlijn Vogel.

KLM has also recently branched into the online gaming industry as another way of gathering information on, and engaging with, passengers. "This offers an opportunity to look at people from a totally different angle, as gaming data shows us a completely different group of people," says Vogel. "Combining social, KLM and gaming data might offer new opportunities."

From the perspective of a branding expert, using social media to get to know their customers better can only be a positive thing for airlines. Says Teague's Liddell: "Airlines trying to understand individual flyers personally is awesome."

Source: Airline Business