Social media came into its own late last year following the failed Christmas Day 2009 terrorist attack on a Delta Air Lines aircraft. In response to events, the US Transportation Security Administration ordered all US-bound carriers to implement secondary security measures. But while operators moved quickly to execute the new temporary procedures, the proprietary nature of the TSA's action prevented carriers from publishing word-for-word details of the directive.
Taking their lead from the TSA, some carriers released vague statements, warning travellers to expect additional security, a move that did little to stem the chaos and confusion occurring at many airports around the world.
But others, including Canadian low-cost operator WestJet, did not limit their exposure solely to traditional communications channels, such as press releases. Upon learning of the new directive, WestJet alerted customers about some of the new security measures via Twitter and Facebook, two free social networking behemoths that provide a level of interactivity that does not exist through conventional methods.
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By posting "tweets" - messages on Twitter that are limited to 140 characters or less - WestJet was able to quickly inform its followers about the directive, respond to their questions and quell concerns in real-time. In turn, these followers disseminated or "retweeted" WestJet's information to their own social networks on Twitter using the Internet and via SMS messages on their cell phones. At the same time, the carrier's Facebook fan page served as a platform for discussion about the new measures and a reference for travellers.
Journalists, meanwhile, used the information gleaned from these trusted sources to inform the travelling public about what to expect at airports and on flights scheduled to operate before the TSA directive expired at the end of December.
Social media: Quick links
But while WestJet already had a social media marketing strategy in place when the new TSA directive hit - having appointed Hounslow to his post only a few months earlier - the carrier's social media response to the directive represented "the first time we used it for that purpose", says WestJet's head of public relations, Robert Palmer. "Policy is one thing but how does it translate to real life? People wanted to know what the measures really meant in terms of going to the airport. Social media was an integral part of communicating these messages to our guests."
Before an airline opens up that two-way dialogue with customers, however, it should do its homework on social media marketing, This term generally describes the use of social networks like Twitter and Facebook, online communities, blogs, and other collaborative media such as photo-sharing website Flickr and video-sharing website YouTube. Once the preserve of leisure users, these sites are finding a second incarnation as business tools for marketing, sales, public relations and customer services.
Forrester Research guides social media newcomers through a process called "POST", which stands for people, objectives, strategy, technology. This methodology helps airlines gain a better understanding of their customers, define objectives, agree a strategy and decide on the technology to employ, says Henry Harteveldt, vice-president and principal analyst at the firm.
An airline's objectives for incorporating social media into its marketing can be manifold. "It could be to create awareness and preference, or to change the image or perception of the carrier," says Harteveldt. "It can be used for employee recruitment or labour relationships. It can be used for customer research or insight, customer service, or to track operational performance and issues. It certainly can be used to sell product."
Indeed, inventory clearance is becoming an increasingly popular way for carriers to use social media. United Airlines, for example, offers special fares, called "Twares", to the nearly 51,000 followers of its Twitter account.
JetBlue Airways, which now boasts over 1.6 million followers to its main Twitter account, famously ran an "All You Can Jet" promotion last year, offering unlimited travel for a month to any city where JetBlue flies. "JetBlue sent out a press release and a tweet and they sold out because they took it forward with social media. They are using it to drive revenue," says Harteveldt.
But airlines are notoriously closed-mouthed about the financial results of such campaigns. "I don't know that anyone has published specific results and that is the challenge. I can understand the propriety nature of this," says Harteveldt. A return on investment is only one way to gauge the success of a campaign, and "it needs to be complemented with a return on engagement, also known as love or buzz", says Shashank Nigam, chief executive of global airline marketing and branding consultancy Simpliflying.
"I would argue (social media) is more effective in building loyalty than traditional FFPs"
Chief executive, AirAsia X
"It's about one-to-one interaction so you're changing the paradigm from broadcasting the brand using traditional communications tools to personal interaction with social media. Everyone wants to be treated personally. Personalisation matters."
JetBlue sees return on engagement as a big driver for engaging in social media. "Last year, we started "JetBlueCheeps", a Twitter stream devoted to last-minute fares sales, and we are in the process of building up a very strong following there. But the important thing for us is really that sense of engagement. Without that, they will not be looking for the deals, because they are not tied into the process," says Morgan Johnston, who manages JetBlue's social media and customer interactions with assistance from several other employees.
The US budget carrier's European partner, Lufthansa, takes a similar view. "As an airline we believe that social media is not our core business, but, as the marketing department, this is something we have to be engaged in. We realise that marketing is not about a one-way conversation anymore. Today it really is about engaging and being in a conversation with the customer," says Lufthansa director of marketing and customer relations in the Greater New York City area, Nicola Lange.
With this objective in mind, Lufthansa formed "MySkyStatus", a networking tool that automatically sends flight status updates to user Facebook and Twitter accounts. "We hope to create loyalty and good relationships with the customers and ultimately turn them into brand ambassadors," says Lange.
Some operators, including KLM in Europe and United in the USA, have created private online communities. "You develop brands with these truly exclusive private communities, which in essence act like outsourced marketing departments. This is crucial for airlines to do. Members are your most loved and pampered guests and they become brand ambassadors and advocates," says Nigam.
One carrier that is repeatedly lauded by experts as having a deep understanding of the power of social media is US low-cost giant Southwest Airlines. "Southwest is one of the best because they completely interact. They use many tools - Twitter, Facebook and their blog, which is a multidimensional tool that allows you to link right back into their site. And they allow their people to have personalities," says emerging media consultant Steven Frischling. He notes: "Content is king. How are you going to drive people back to your company-controlled portal if you don't have the content to do it?"
Indeed, Southwest's highly-popular multimedia blog, 'Nuts about Southwest', acts as sort of hub or "anchor" for news, photos and videos about the carrier and its various marketing activities. "From there, we go out to our other channels, such as Twitter and FaceBook. All the channels are really working together nicely," says Southwest emerging media specialist Christi Day, who describes herself as a frontline employee, without necessarily being on the front line.
"The beauty of it too is that by building up this relationship, by giving relevant factual information on a regular basis, customers trust us. When we do have an incident, or a fare sale, they know these facts are accurate. And it's not all fare sales or weather updates. By keeping the information changing, it asks our audience to come back for more and it leaves them wanting more."
One thing that Southwest has learned through experience is that no two social media audiences are alike. "They are unique and the way you communicate with them must be unique and different. Facebook is great because it allows people to see the conversation happening. Twitter is one of my favourites personally because the message can be clear and concise," says Day.
"By building up this relationship, customers trust us. They know these facts are accurate"
Emerging media specialist, Southwest
"One of our most successful social media campaigns we've had occurred during the recent earthquake in Haiti," says WestJet's Hounslow. "First, we donated C$100,000 to the Red Cross of Canada and announced we would donate and operate a charter flight to Port-au-Prince that would be stocked with medical and water purification supplies provided by World Vision Canada.
"When the plane was on the ground, [WestJet's] Robert Palmer took pictures on his BlackBerry and sent them to us and we published them on FaceBook. The whole time we were tweeting what we were doing on Twitter. People were really interested in seeing what was going on. The feedback we received was very positive. It was a great success."
But while some of the most dominant airlines on Twitter are located in the USA, general usage of the social networking service is growing in nations around the world, making non-US carriers stand up and take notice.
During the period between 16 October 2009 and 16 December 2009, for example, the number of US unique users was 50.8%, a sharp drop from 62.1% in June, says social media analytics firm Sysomos. This finding comes from research which covered 13 million unique Twitter accounts with tweeting activity in that period (see table below). "This suggests that the use of Twitter outside the USA has experienced significant growth over the past six months," says Sysomos.
In Europe, UK low-fares carrier easyJet boasts over 45,000 followers on Twitter; Virgin Atlantic has over 8,000; and Latvian budget carrier airBaltic has more than 8,500 followers. "Who the heck looks at Latvia as a hotbed for social media? But it is," says consultant Frischling.
Asia-Pacific carriers are also increasingly engaging in social media marketing, and, as in the case of Malaysian carrier AirAsia, are taking a leadership role in the space.
In addition to having its own blog, "Just Plane Thoughts", and a presence on YouTube and Flickr, AirAsia has attracted over 20,000 followers to its Twitter account and over 147,000 fans on FaceBook.
"Additionally, every time AirAsia launches a new destination, they create a 'micro site' for that. People learn about the new destination and it becomes a game, a community thing, and a competitive thing," says SimpliFlying's Nigam. "If you go to the AirAsia blog, there is a section that allows travellers to submit their own blogs about the destinations, which in essence becomes a third party review for other travellers."
AirAsia X is equally enthused about the power of social media to build brand ambassadors. "Social media platforms are a very powerful, yet extremely cost-effective, way to maintain a relationship with our customers and enable our customers to have a more active engagement with our brand. I would argue it is more effective in building loyalty than traditional airline frequent flier programmes," says AirAsia X chief executive Azran Osman-Rani.
Virgin Blue Group manager, group commercial and partnership marketing Michael Betteridge says having a social media presence is "now just a natural/organic part of all our communications, marketing and otherwise". As such, efforts to strictly measure social media marketing via ROI may be a fool's game. "What is the financial impact of a ramp agent having a radio? What is the ROI of the telephone at your desk? Social media is a similar concept," says Frischling.
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