Given the rapidly evolving channels through which airlines can connect with their customers, developing a consistent strategy to maximise this opportunity can be problematic
Cebu Pacific's flight attendants went viral with their upbeat, entertaining dance version of the familiar pre-flight safety instructions
In a desire to be involved with the latest developments, carriers often engage consumers through social networks, with little consideration of where social media sits in relation to their brand, says Steven Klimek, managing director of aviation consultancy AIRticulate.
Speaking at the recent 2012 Airline Business New Airline Commercial Models, Retailing and Merchandising conference in London, Klimek said he believes that by rushing into opening social media channels with consumers, airlines can be opening a Pandora's box for which they must be adequately prepared.
Yet, equally, he feels airline boardrooms are often unnecessarily scared of social media, thanks to a perception that it might take the power to control their brand's image and reputation away from them.
The way in which Qantas' recent attempt at brand promotion on Twitter was turned against it by critics is the type of public relations scenario that causes social media to frighten airline executives. Using the Twitter hashtag #QantasLuxury, the airline asked the site's users to describe a "dream luxury in-flight experience", offering Qantas gift packs as prizes. Yet the campaign swiftly soured when the hashtag, was used as a 'bashtag' to write hostile messages about the airline.
The campaign came only a month after the Australian carrier grounded its fleet in October 2011 due to industrial action, and many passengers who had been stranded hijacked the campaign to vent frustration. One user suggested the phrase meant: "Qantas Luxury means sipping champagne on your corporate jet while grounding the entire airline, country, customers & staff."
Klimek says the first thing an airline must consider about social media is whether serious engagement is actually necessary. "You often hear that you need to be on Facebook, you need to be on Twitter," he says, with reference to other social media commentators, before saying that airlines "absolutely do not have to be involved with social media".
To emphasise his point, Klimek points to Singapore Airlines, which he describes as "really poor at social media, but one of the best airlines in the world". Ryanair and EasyJet are other examples of very successful airlines with limited involvement.
Klimek says it is of less importance whether an airline engages in social media, than what it does if it becomes involved. "If they are going to participate, they have to ask themselves, what are we looking to accomplish here," he says. There is much to be gained if a social media strategy is correctly aligned with an airline's business objectives and well-executed, he says: "Air Asia made a worldwide name for itself through social media".
There are varying levels of engagement in social media, says Klimek, each requiring varying levels of investment. These vary from large teams, such as the 40 employees dealing with all aspects of KLM's social media strategy, to a few members of staff monitoring what is being said about an airline for a few hours each day.
Klimek says that this minimum level is compulsory, since every airline needs to be aware of what is being said about it to recognise public-relation disasters such as the United Breaks Guitars song posted as a video on YouTube. Created by a disgruntled passenger whose instrument was broken by United airlines staff, it was viewed 150,000 times on the first day it was posted and has now been viewed more than 11.5 million times.
The biggest investment requirement is real-time customer service, suggests Klimek. It is also an area of social media in which an airline cannot simply dip its toes. He adds that an airline's Facebook page or Twitter profile that does not respond to posts causes an airline to appear arrogant.
Air France-KLM senior vice president of ecommerce, Martijn van der Zee, says the airline came up with a simple strategy for social media. "If you want people to come to you, you have to help them. With customer service you have to provide answers within an hour, if you wait two hours you're too late." He says that issues must be solved within a day, with "no finger-pointing to other departments", and that a 24/7 social media presence must be provided. While he says that these aims are generally fulfilled by KLM's social media hub, it is a goal, not a guarantee, and during times of crisis it is not always achievable.
The 40 workers in the hub are made up of members of KLM's ecommerce marketing, and corporate communication divisions as well as its service centre in Amsterdam. The service centre, where Facebook queries are dealt with, employs 20 people, some part-time or volunteers. It answers passenger queries 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with 10-15 workers on service at peak times, which could be scaled up to 30 in event of a crisis.
Despite the fact that the problems encountered by passengers are readily available for anyone to see, this does not negatively affect KLM's brand, van der Zee says: "Reputation wise it's very interesting because most of the posts are positive." Even negative posts are not so harmful, he says, because passengers prefer "truth and authenticity" from an airline. Passengers queries are often answered through reading other messages on Twitter or Facebook, which saves time for staff having to answer the same questions.
Van der Zee says KLM estimates customer service via social media is around 40% more effective, based on surveys, although he admits this percentage is hard to measure accurately. Having moved staff from the airline's call centre to its internet service centre, he says posts are dealt with in minutes rather than the 20-30 minutes it can sometimes take for a phone conversation. When a customer has to get their point across in a 160 character Twitter message, they communicate more effectively than they would on the telephone, he explains.
The airline, which has more than 1 million fans on Facebook, answers queries in Dutch, English and Spanish, and intends to start answering queries in Japanese and Chinese later this year. Van der Zee says that in time, the airline's focus on customer service through social media will result in financial savings, but it will keep its telephone call centres for the time being.
KLM's interest in social media is not limited solely to its service centre, but is used throughout the airline. "We are trying to turn into a social business," says van der Zee. He says traditional 'push' advertising and promotional strategies geared toward marketing and distribution channels are much less effective than peer-to-peer recommendations when it comes to increasing business. "We shouldn't push messages, people should push messages and do our marketing for us," he says.
Brand and reputation
KLM's "three strategic pillars of customer service, brand and reputation, and commerce" on which it has based its social media strategy are the main areas of airline business that social media has become connected.
Explaining how an airline's brand can be enhanced through social media, Ohio State University aviation professor Nawal Taneja says how every time it launches a new destination, AirAsia creates a special site about it. In his book, The Passenger has Gone Digital and Mobile, he says airlines like Cebu Pacific and Air New Zealand have created a lot of publicity through developing simple but captivating videos that became viral successes on YouTube.
However, while social networks have clearly demonstrated their value in terms of communication, they are yet to prove their worth as sales channels. Steps have been taken in this area by the likes of Delta, which sells tickets through its Facebook page. As yet, social media does not count for any significant percentage of ticket sales for the industry.
William Owen of Whispering Parrot, an automated system for collecting and publishing offers from a special fare class to airlines' social media sites, says: "Nobody yet knows which social media solutions will work, especially in terms of ticket sales, so flexibility is essential. Any system should allow for experimentation and change."
While the success of commerce through social media remains unproven, its potential, due to the ability to draw on customers' profiles, is undeniable. "Followers are bombarded with offers and deals, so any offers sent to followers should be targeted, with their consent, to fit their own specific interests. This can be based on where they live, when and where they like to go on holiday, when their birthday is, or if they are interested in travelling to certain sporting events," says Owen. Acknowledging the privacy concerns that surround social profiling, he says consumers like offers that are personally relevant to them.
Long-term social media strategising is hindered by the manner in which critical-mass can quickly shift between platforms, like the manner in which within only a few years of creation Facebook supplanted Myspace as the biggest social network.
Many airlines choose to tackle this issue by limiting their social media presence to the principal social platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. However a question mark lingers over their dominance, considering Google's string of social media products - Buzz, Google Friend Connect, orkut and, most recently, Google+ - show how intent the world's biggest web technology company is on toppling Facebook.
A report by Amadeus entitled From Chaos to Collaboration: How Transformative Technologies Will Herald a New Era in Travel, examines the role social media could play in the airline industry over the next eight years.Based on interviews and an online forum of nearly 1,500 travellers from seven markets, it envisages an age of "collaborative travel".
It says that peer groups, the internet and experts will form "an information eco-system which will be more collaborative than today's one-to-one transactional relationships". Amadeus says that to do so, travel providers must shift focus from satisfying the individual travellers needs to providing the environment for networks and flows of travellers as a group.
Eberhard Haag, executive vice president of global operations at Amadeus, feels that airlines have a potential future role as aggregators and curators of social media. He explains that travel guides of the future are likely to have a core of expertly written content, but will have thousands of contributors, fed with content from social media. "People are going to want to tap into the experience of other travellers; their itineraries, what they liked. There's no reason why an airline couldn't help to facilitate that connection to get people on board, perhaps creating a community that had the brand of a travel guide," he says.
He adds that the young generation will not go to travel agents, but will use a search engine to put their trips together. "They will then look how far a hotel is from the beach or the airport, then they will share this with their friends. Then after the holiday they will give this information to their friends," he says. "People triangulate what their friends say, what an expert blog might say and what a search engine might say. They do this because they can do it very quickly."
Amadeus says a key moment for the evolution of social media will be when 4G networks, offering faster and easier access to the internet though mobile devices, become mainstream in around 2016.
However, the online landscape evolves, nearly all observers agree that social networks of some form will be increasingly significant in airlines' businesses.
Given this fact, Klimek says it is imperative that airlines' senior management lose their fear of social media. "Airlines handcuff their staff and take away the need or ability to make a decision," he says. He explains that in the social media age, rigid work processes could leave airlines ridiculed around the world. "Airlines must not be afraid of empowering young people to make decisions," he says.