Just over a year ago during a visit to Emirates headquarters in Dubai, I heard an interesting story while speaking to the staff.
In June 2009, Paris Hilton was in first class on an Emirates flight from the USA to Dubai. Before the aircraft took off, she posted on Twitter a photograph of the cabin with the caption "this airline is amazing". After landing, she tweeted photos of her flat-bed, describing it as "comfy" and "huge". More tweets followed.
The next day, Arabian Business newspaper analysts put the value of Hilton's endorsement at $1.5 million, since she then had more than a million Twitter followers and the photos were re-tweeted by many others.
While the story is inspiring, the fact remains that even if Emirates had Hilton in its reservation system, it is unlikely that she was in its customer relationship management (CRM) database. Her million followers would not have been in its system, either. Yet, the brand's message reached them and some possibly flew with the airline.
In today's connected world, to send its message to 15,000 people, airline marketers do not have to start with a mailing list of 15,000 email addresses and spam them. They need only to leverage on three key influencers in specific target markets, each with the reach of 5,000 and their goal would be accomplished, at a fraction of the cost.
SimpliFlying worked with Estonian Air on its new loyalty programme, AirScore, based on social advocacy. Fans can get virtual points for sharing photos of the airline, relaying on-board experiences and taking part in Facebook contests. These points can then be redeemed for privileges like business class check-in and lounge access.
In the 10 days after the programme was launched, Estonian Air received more than one million page impressions on Facebook. And that is a big deal for an airline that carries only 800,000 passengers a year.
Whether or not a passenger is flying with an airline, he or she has the power to share and to influence. Airlines that continue to be shackled by traditional CRM systems will lose out in the era of cult relationship management.
When in November 2009 a Qantas A380 made an emergency landing in Singapore because of engine trouble, tweets that claimed the aircraft had crashed caused the company's stock price to drop by 7% in a couple of hours. All the while, it was circling above Singapore, dumping fuel.
The Qantas team was caught off-guard and was ill-prepared to deal with such an event. It failed to engage the cult when necessary. And news channels these days find it futile to wait for a press release from an airline, when social media is abuzz with blow-by-blow details of an incident, even if they are unverified.
Other airlines can learn from the Qantas experience and plan cult relationship management strategies.
According to research by Eezeerdatalab, there are 191 airlines on Twitter. Of these, only 85 tweet actively with 28 contributing 80% of all airline tweets.
That means more than 100 airline marketing managers are only "checking the boxes" for their bosses that they are present on social media. More than 50 do not have enough resources or a strategy to do much beyond pushing offers through social media. And only 28 have a well-defined and well-executed strategy.
This results is in too many airlines only having one contest after another on Facebook and Twitter. While others merely upload their adverts to YouTube. But when was the last time you actually searched for an airline's TV ad on YouTube?
Very few airlines today know how many of their Facebook fans flew with them in the past three months. Or how many of their Twitter followers have ever used them. This results in resources being stretched to the limit when it comes to engaging on social media, because a limited number of staff are trying to answer irrelevant queries from "ranters" or "trolls", who might never fly with the carrier.
There needs to be a concerted approach in which airlines start to focus on pursuing very clear goals such as gaining customer insight and gaining revenue from social media.
Specialised tools can help cut through the clutter of online conversations, or identify real customers within fans, or put sharing elements in the booking path and drive revenue from the cult.
About the author: Shashank Nigam is the CEO of SimpliFlying, a brand strategy firm helping airlines and airports engage travellers through social media profitably. Find out more about its strategy consulting and training services at SimpliFlying, on Twitter or email.