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08. Case Study: Airlines

Airlines on the Twitter Radar

Introduction

“I need to turn around and understand that customer service is not just a cost center, but an opportunity house…I need to use the tools like Twitter and Facebook…and I need to engage parts of my organization in a way that will go around our existing operational processes…My goal as the CEO of an international airline is to use these kinds of social tools to reach people where they are, to give them what they’re asking for, and to forge a new relationship that goes beyond my gates, my dates, and my planes.” – Interview with Chris Brogan, President of New Marketing Labs

Although this quote is not from a CEO of an international airline, it could be from a Director of Communication or Marketing of a number of domestic airlines. Find out in this chapter exactly which airlines are seeking to meet this goal, despite it not being set by their CEO.

PART I

As a customer –oriented industry, airline carriers should both recognize and act upon the opportunity to use social media to create deeper and more progressive relationships with their increasingly connected and vocal customers.

Social media for many brands, enables them to interact with customers in the communities that they (the customers) feel most in control and comfortable within. In all cases, customers have chosen to use social media to interact with, or comment upon brands, entirely voluntarily, or with only minimal encouragement. This significantly increases the engagement value of brands participating, as it allows them to engage with customers who have “opted-in” by expressing an interest in their brand, or their category at the very least.

Twitter, in particular, is an efficient infrastructure that facilitates brands’ more personalized and direct exchange of real-time information. However, Twitter requires a level of transparency that some brands are unaccustomed to, but all customers require, which challenges the way business is traditionally done….especially for airlines.

Twitter, in its current manifestation, can help airlines to increase customer engagement, brand awareness, and revenue. Specifically, by keeping a pulse on issues as they percolate and interacting with people on a more personal level, airlines can add value to their existing and new customer relationships, even in an environment that can sometimes appear to be very inefficient, due to its seeming one-to-one nature. In a recent interview with Simpliflying, JetBlue said its “ability to answer question[s], direct customers to resources or disseminate information means we have a greater ability to create an informed understanding customer base.” As this paper will cover, many airlines use Twitter as a light customer relationship management (CRM) tool, but there is an increasingly lucrative opportunity, which @JetBlue is exploring through @JetBlueCheeps, to proactively direct business value through Twitter by selling-off inventory at a discounted rate, quickly filling seats, and advertising new routes. Worth noting is a recent study by Compete, which found that Jetblue and United experienced an increased Twitter conversion lift by heavily promoting low fares on Twitter (cheeps & twares respectively).

The following discussion will first cover the rationale for why airlines should be on Twitter; travelers are online; travelers are participating in social media; travelers will increasingly conduct more transactions online. Secondly, this discussion will delve into the derived norms of a sample of airline brands on Twitter; how particular brands are involved in four key stages of a brand’s social media engagement – listen, educate, act, progress. Third, the discussion will conclude with recommendations for brands using Twitter, a list of handles in the airline category, as well as a couple of predictions.

Travelers are online…

Travel is becoming a predominantly online activity. For one, over 87% of U.S. travelers (or 130.3M) are online[i] and two, 62% of them are participating in social computing activities at least every month[ii]. Specifically as it relates to airline travelers and Twitter, “Approximately 1 in 5 visitors to… [Jetblue, Southwest, & United] in July 2009 also visited Twitter.com that month (not accounting for those using mobile clients or other software applications).”[xv]

It should therefore come as no surprise, that social media is used as a tool to discuss travel brands, and airlines amongst them. Data shows that travelers tend to skew towards a slightly higher social and demographic group – as Forrester put it, travelers “…are an elite group of consumers with above-average income, education, and comfort with technology…”[iii] – which is precisely a group that is more likely to join, engage, and be influenced by social media spaces.

The fact is travelers are online and it would be foolhardy for airline brands not to reach and interact with them there. Twitter in particular, because it offers airlines a medium to reach a significant proportion of their customers directly, for free & without time-delays.

Travelers share their stories…

In addition to simply being “connected” travelers are vocal, which is predictable given the very nature of travel. Travel – from planning a trip, to the experiences of the trip itself, to the post trip grading – lends itself to conversations, rather stories that people are eager to share. To quote the New York Times, “[t]he Internet, and social media web sites in particular, [are] giving once-faceless travelers a global – and instantaneous – platform from which to air their grievances.”[iv]

Thanks to Social Computing, every traveler has the potential to be judge and jury for any brand or business. Again, for travel organizations, there is good news here: 68% of US online leisure travelers say they’d be willing to recommend travel companies to family, friends, and other people they know if the travel organization made them feel like a valued customer. The pervasive nature of travel-specific Social Computing makes this compelling: 7% of US online leisure travelers post ratings and reviews on travel-focused sites…[v]

Within the context of social media, Twitter enables people to broadcast their opinions & experiences in 140 character bursts, very quickly & easily to a potentially large audience. As a travel columnist from MSNBC.com points out, “Microblogging could enlighten and empower travelers, who used to be at the mercy of their airline.”[vi] In fact, it is evident that Twitter does empower travelers by offering them a platform to engage with airline brands directly & publicly. Not only are airline brands, such as @AlaskaAir, @Jetblue, & @SouthwestAir listening (as will be discussed later), but they are also responding. As @Jetblue said, “By listening and interacting with customers through Twitter, we’re able to use the real time anecdotal information as a snapshot of system performance, so we can use that to dynamically shape our customers experiences with us.”

…anytime and anywhere with mobile connectivity.

Looking forward, as mobile connectivity becomes more pervasive, the opportunities for real-time story telling and spontaneous booking will increase exponentially, and the need for quick feedback & an enhanced mobile interface will become important for airline brands to stay current. Speaking to the former point, @Southwest explained, “Twitter turns us all into mobile field reporters. We have customers and employees sending us field updates like never before.”

Think back, not too far, to Janis Krums’ tweet that was accompanied by a twitpic of the U.S. Airways plane crashed in the Hudson. Of course, this is a particularly graphic example of countless more mundane real-time tweets that garner a response. Often times people tweet from their mobile when they are experiencing delays, airport over-crowding, stroppy service, moments of hilarity, informative insights or above and beyond quality customer care. This fact, in concert with the enhanced usability of airline sites on mobile devices, will increase purchases direct from mobile applications – including Twitter.

Additionally, Forrester posits mobile will have an increasingly critical role in airline brands’ online business because currently more than 89% of US online travelers own a mobile phone, 10% of which own a smartphone[vii]. As a part of this, Twitter which is continuing to gain more users on mobile (TwitterFon itself captures nearly 5% of the market share of publishing tools[viii]), will serve as travelers direct line to their airline or their ticket to fly!

Not just talking, but continuing to carry out more transactions online too! Alas, travelers have fragile relationships with airlines… but are not averse to becoming loyal!

In addition to being online (mobile or otherwise), travelers continue to increase the rate of transactions they make online. According to Forrester, “[o]nline leisure, unmanaged business, and managed business travel spending is projected to increase from $117 billion in 2009 to $158 billion by 2013, at which time 51% of US air sales will be booked online.”[ix] This increase of spending online, in concert with travelers sharing, joining and participating in social media, give airlines a reason to enhance their customers’ online business experiences. For some airlines, simply managing their brand in social media spaces will help them to retain their customers; deepen their relationships; and affect their purchase decision by interacting with them closer to their point-of-purchase.

Airline brands have generally done very little (visibly) to address the fact that most customers are not impressed. Their brand loyalty has dropped continuously and precipitately to a point where only one in four US leisure travelers consider themselves to be brand-loyal. Inevitably the short-term economic pressures the airline industry has felt have driven this, but understanding the decreasing customer loyalty airline brands face, and then using social media to attract and retain passengers provides an authentic and cost effective way to begin to address this. Particularly as “two-thirds of US online leisure travelers will consider becoming loyal to travel organizations, provided they’re treated well.”[x]

The question airlines must address then, is how they can use the online social tools to simply treat their customers well, be authentic, and add value to their airline-customer relationships. Twitter is one way for airline brands to do this in a personal way that may mitigate customer dissatisfaction or provide understanding, in the case of an issue. Evident from an interview with Simpliflying, @Jeblue gets this: “We aim to build a collaborative relationships with our customers, creating unique levels of engagement as guests of customers’ online communities. As guests of that community, we try to make sure we live within those same parameters.”

PART II

The preceding sections covered a rationale for airlines to be participating in social media spaces like Twitter, and now the remaining sections will cover how five airlines[xi] (see end note for methodology) exemplify how doing so adds value to their brand-customer relationships, as well as their bottom line. From both heuristic analyses and airline interviews, the following insights cover the impetus for launching various airline handles, the momentum behind their implementation, and the ideas that may be fueling their future evolution on Twitter, or a similar infrastructure.

Pre-flight

Wanting to get a handle (no pun intended) on what Twitter was about, a number of airlines set up their accounts before beginning to actively tweet. For example, the handle “@AlaskaAir was reserved by an IT employee on Feb 7th, 2008, but wasn’t actively used until February 09.” Reason being, Alaska was listening first, gaining an understanding of what people were saying about the brand, and identifying the opportunity to add value. Even @VirginAmerica set up their account 8 months before they ramped up their efforts, which exemplifies the point that listening is a valuable first step on Twitter, or any social media space for that matter.

Listening is not a phase that brands progress out of, rather listening should be built into the brand’s day-to-day presence on Twitter. @AlaskaAir, for example, consistently monitors a custom feed from search.twitter.com and derives great value by simply listening to what people are saying about the brand, its competitors, and the category. Listening on Twitter also offers airlines an early warning of potential mishaps and a channel to correct false information before it spreads like wildfire. As @SouthwestAir said, “you can’t control the brand in customer generated media…you can provide factual information and squash rumors before they get out of control.” Case in point, U.S. Airways could have easily put to rest the issue of whether or not “twares” would earn travelers mileage points before it gained so much attention. Though it did respond to individual handles it did not immediately tweet a correction (See @UnitedAirlines profile).

Taxi

While people are still flooding to Twitter (1,382% year-over-year in February[xiii]), brands have the opportunity to educate themselves on the community norms and manage first impressions. Doing so well help airlines be more authentic and believable on Twitter, which best justifies their place in the community. From a number of heuristic analyses of airline handles, the following norms were derived to inform airline brands Twitter background and usage of Twitter semantics.

  • Avatar: Tail fin imagery is a solid and recommended avatar for airlines on Twitter, as it is a quick identifier of the airline brand and is a cue to the larger category in which the handle is associated.
  • Certification: With the proliferation of new Twitter accounts, airline brands should utilize Twitter’s now Beta service to certify their account. Doing so, may address potential confusion surrounding multiple handles that include the brand name, but in fact may be misrepresenting them.
  • Background: The background should be used to differentiate the brand; using a window to identify unique facts, listing other online spaces people can interact with the brand (potentially linking in the future), using imagery that is consistent with branding efforts all seem to be effective tactics.
  • Bio: The single most important aspect of a brand’s Twitter page for search is the bio. Within the allotted 160 characters, airline brands should include their brand name, category keywords, affiliations, hubs or regions served, in addition to using a highly targeting phrase offering insight as to why people should follow the brand.
  • Link: It’s standard for airlines to link to their homepage (or booking page). However, it may be an interesting place for airlines to experiment with various links to increase referrer traffic from their bio page. Links to consider including are the: customer service contact information, FAQs, bill of rights (@JetBlue), fare specials (@UnitedAirlines), or community (@VirginAmerica).
  • Location: Simply using the location of the airline brand’s home office is standard and the most informative.
  • Multiple tweeters: If multiple people are managing the account, which they increasingly are for airlines, CoTweet is the platform of choice due the ability to use the application to take notes on various handles, thread conversations, assign tweets to people, and schedule tweets. Note: It will become even more beneficial when analytics are incorporated in to this service.

  • Multiple handles: Some airlines have keenly created alternate handles to ensure tweets are the most relevant to the majority of followers. This is most effective when separating fare content from news content (ex. @JetBlueCheeps).

  • Providing Rich Media Content: Airlines are increasingly using content they, or their fans, have created on other social media sites to enrich their conversations with customers on Twitter. (ex. @SouthwestAir)
  • @Replies: @VirginAmerica summed up the norm in respect to airlines using @replies: “There is not a set goal or number we try to reach rather each day can bring about very different participation levels depending on the content and the circumstances.”
  • DMs: Using DMs are key for those airline addressing customer service issues on Twitter. They help customers feel comfortable sharing private information that can be used to address their specific inquiries (ex. @AlaskaAir). On the flip side, they enable airlines to address issues out of the public eye.
  • RTs: Though not the norm, the most compelling use of RTs are those that are used to involve the larger community in inquiries (and importantly, responses). @QFTravelInsider does a great job of using RTs to crowdsource information to help connect people with a community of travelers, who can offer unique recommendations on destinations around the world.

  • Hashtags: Consistent promotion and use of specific & relevant hashtags helps airlines to thread/bucket conversations. News tweets and promotional tweets (ex. @VirginAmerica) are especially good to tag.

Take-off

As with entering any new online space, assessing the brand’s business objectives against the benefits of the new platform is key to determining how leveraging it will achieve success. With Twitter in particular, business objectives guide the brand’s content, and in turn establish the value it offers the brand community.

From a number of interviews, it’s evident that most airline brands have multiple objectives for being on Twitter. @AlaskaAir’s objectives are centered around customer service, reaching new audiences, and R&D. @QFTravelInsider is focused on increasing site traffic, and fostering a sense of community. @VirginAmeria is all about customer engagement, marketing, and guest care. There are no golden keys to success on Twitter, rather a number of ways brands can achieve success in different ways. Fortunately, with a dynamic social infrastructure such as Twitter, this facilitates business objectives on a number of different levels. What is consistently cited as a priority, nonetheless, is brand-customer engagement.

To understand how exactly a “brand” can communicate through a single identity, or handle on Twitter, it’s important to understand that brands are in part made up of employees. Thus it is paramount for the people tweeting on behalf of the brand to in fact embody the brands values. For @SouthwestAir that means “be[ing] funny, zany, or witty!…completely unedited” and @VirginAmerica it means being “conversational and personal.” It reminds people that a brand is made of humans like them, which makes the brand all the more believable and approachable in the space.

In the same vein, horizontal management is important for Chief Tweeter(s). Undoubtedly, there is a need for some protocols to be in place in case of a unique/sensitive situations, especially those that are completely out of the control of the handle, but for most of the day-to-day tweeting, the Chief Tweeters should be empowered to speak on behalf of the brand. As @QFTravelInsider shared, “As the person who manages the account, I [Karla Courtney] am aware of Qantas’ policies and am trusted to follow them. If I receive any queries/comments that I don’t feel comfortable handling, we have procedures in place should an item need to be escalated/reviewed.”

Taken together, the human factor and the importance of little bureaucracy, airlines can be quick; which is perhaps the one element of Twitter that airlines have to embrace. As @SouthwestAir mentioned, “With all social media speed is king. But Twitter takes that speed and amplifies it x10. The word-of-mouth is so powerful on Twitter, which allows rumors, news, etc to spread instantly.” Inevitably, if the people tweeting on behalf of the brand have to adjust their tone or their style, as well as get approval for their tweets, they are losing valuable time that should be spent conversing as they would offline.

Flying High – Twitter Best Practices

  1. Empower Chief Tweeter(s) to tweet as themselves on behalf of the brand. Note: This point underscores the importance of finding a brand advocate that reflects the brand’s values and voice.
  2. Form inter-departmental relationships. With relationships in place, brands can ensure their customers will receive the most accurate answers most efficiently – whether people have a question about the weather, or an inquiry about their itinerary.
  3. Promote social media as a job description for every employee. This not only helps seamlessly enhance the customer’s experience but also leverages the advantage of synergy between employee handles and other brand handles.
  4. Find your brand’s existing online communities and give them a reason to engage with you when you join them.
  5. Create as flat of a hierarchy as possible, to ensure the Chief Tweeter is empowered to tweet without needing approval. Twitter’s strength is in it’s immediacy – airlines can provide information quickly and accurately when something goes wrong…or right. It’s efficient and easy.
  6. Integrate Twitter into a larger plan. Content is still important to engage people so have a blog or a video channel as well.
  7. Rely on the company employees on the front lines to do their job. Twitter can not be all things to all people, it defeats the purpose. Ensure that people are still relying on the employees across the company to do their job too.

Instrument Flight Rules (IFR)

It’s important to understand the commitment to social media necessary for brands to become involved. It’s widely known the cost of entry is low, but sustaining an engaging presence is not. Thankfully, the proliferation of tools at a brand’s disposal are helping them to experiment on social media to see what gains traction.

One tactic is to integrate efforts across social media spaces to see what content resonates. @VirginAmerica speaks to this point, “We try to publish media rich content consisting of links, pictures, videos or comments from our fan base. These tend to be the most engaging and have more potential to go viral.” Sharing photos, links, videos etc may prove important in keeping customers attention. Both Qantas & Southwest do a noteworthy job of sharing original content from their blogs – Qantas Travel Insider Blog & Nuts About Southwest respectively – while Virgin America does well with promoting Flickr and YouTube integrations. For @SoutwestAir the team distributes the message on all of our their channels, from Facebook, LinkedIn to YouTube, Flickr and Twitter. They are integrated into every communication plan. Of particular merit though is Alaska Air. Alaska, despite saying it is not in the content business, still manages to participate in a large number of content heavy social media areas, in a very brand-appropriate way. During the H1N1 scare, @AlaskaAir created a video to demonstrate how AlaskaAir is dedicated to keeping aircrafts clean, then promoted this through Twitter. This is both a great example of how a brand can utilize content in another social space, and also the importance of situational relevance of content for it to be successful.

Utilizing 3rd party tools to track such metrics as follower growth, metrics of conversation (@replies, DMs, RTs), sentiment, and click from links may help brands to feel more confident in their ability to use the platform to meet their brand objectives. @QFTravelInsider “The problem is that digital is often associated with quantitative metrics/analysis and as we have spent more time on Twitter I am really trying hard to focus on the engagement, which is tough to quantify.” Some strong metric services that some airline brands are using are bit.ly for tracking links, and twitter counter for seeing volume.

Recommendations

“Twitter is still in its infancy. As more people start to use it, there’s the chance that airlines’ Twitter feeds will be overwhelmed in the same way that other areas of customer service have been. Still, at the moment, it seems to be an effective way to find your way to an actual human.”[xiv] (WSJ)

Research into airline brands on Twitter has underscored the importance of relevancy and consistency regardless of the brand’s business objective for being in the space. Brands are able to be relevant and consistent by implementing tactics to make their feed not only the most relevant to the most number of people, but also the most consistent with their brand values. As for the later point, the way brands embrace Twitter needs to be consistent with the way they would approach business in general. Southwest will be quirky and AlaskaAir will be caring. Brand’s who break all of their own rules on Twitter will ultimately turn more people away. David Armano spoke to this in Harvard Business article, “if [an] organization has a Twitter account with someone practicing “transparent communications” while [their] entire ecosystem is siloed, then [their] existing system may be in need of a re-design.” The idea of consistency being approached as a design is compelling and has traction with airline planning in the social media space.

Additionally, the importance of “quality” should be embodied on a number of different levels when brands use Twitter: from determining the number of tweets shared each day and the number of characters used in each tweet to the number of followers sought. It’s important to note that “quality” is an umbrella adjective that should take into account such characteristics as consistency of tone, originality of content, and relevance of shared information.

Predictions:

  1. In the next 5 years, nearly all airlines, in respect to their usage of a microblogging platform, will add the most value to their customer relationships by taking one of two paths on Twitter: 1) information conduit (wi-fi planes, gate changes, delays, flight cancellations, crisis communication or 2) real-time fare dealer (last minute deals & seats). Both are sustainable and scalable.
  2. A microblogging infrastructure will be integrated into a call-center’s suite of tools, along with live chat. The advantage of microblogging over live chat will be that call center employees can broadcast answers to commonly asked question to benefit a larger audience.

People to follow that are not associated with particular airline carriers:

  • @elliottdotorg (MSNBC columnist – offers the best coverage of travel category)
  • @simpliflying (Leading industry blogger – great cross-section of airline branding and social media expertise)
  • @runwaygirl (Flight International aviation blogger – focused on in-flight entertainment & connectivity)
  • @flightblogger (Leading industry blogger – comprehensive coverage of airline news)
  • @hharteveldt (Airline eBusiness analyst)
  • @AvWeekBenet (McGraw-Hill’s Aviation Week Group Writer & social media enthusiast)

Profiles:

  1. @AlaskaAir
  2. @Jetblue
  3. @SouthwestAir
  4. @UnitedAirlines
  5. @VirginAmerica
  6. @Air_Baltic
  7. @QFTravelInsider

Interviews:

  1. @AlaskaAir
  2. @QFTravelInsider
  3. @VirginAmerica
  4. @SouthwestAir

What is something you wish you had known before you started to tweet?

@VirginAmerica: “Everything changes too fast, that what you didn’t know has already changed by the next day.”

@SouthwestAIr :“Don’t take anything personally.”

@QFTravelInsider :“How big Twitter as a medium was going to get/how much time it was going to take out of my day!!”

Author: Margery Nabors

End Notes


[i] Harteveldt, Henry H. “Using Digital Channels to Calm The Angry Traveler.” Forrester Research. August 4, 2009.

[ii] Harteveldt, Henry H. “Using Digital Channels to Calm The Angry Traveler.” Forrester Research. August 4, 2009.

[iii] Epps, Sarah Rotman. “The Social Technographics of US Online Travelers.” Forrester Research. November 28, 2008.

[iv] Clark, Nicole. “Airlines Follow Passengers onto Social Media Sites.” New York Times. July 30th, 2009.

[v] Harteveldt, Henry H. “Using Digital Channels to Calm The Angry Traveler.” Forrester Research. August 4, 2009.

[vi] Elliott, Christopher. “Microblogging Madnesss: Changing travel one tweet at a time.” MSNBC.com January 16, 2009.

[vii] Harteveldt, Henry H. “Using Digital Channels to Calm The Angry Traveler.” Forrester Research. August 4, 2009.

[viii] Cheng, Alex and Mark Evans. Sysomos study: Inside Twitter. June 2009.

[ix] Harteveldt, Henry H. “US Online Travel Forecast, 2008 –2013.” Forrester. January 20, 2009.

[x] Harteveldt, Henry H. “Using Digital Channels to Calm The Angry Traveler.” Forrester Research. August 4, 2009.

[xi] The list of airlines currently on Twitter is becoming quite comprehensive; unfortunately, the list of airlines adding value to their brand-customer relationships is drastically shorter. Thus, the search for airline brands that were demonstrating their commitment to leveraging the platform in a unique, brand-appropriate way was quite straightforward.

The most valuable resources consulted were social media news sources, such as Mashable & Social Media Biz, for their coverage of airlines on Twitter, which effectively helped me to shortlist @SouthwestAir & @JetBlue. Mainstream media sites also helped to find additional noteworthy handles in the airline category by simply highlighting how various airlines had handled a crisis or a customer service issue on Twitter. Handles added at this stage were @VirginAmerica, @AlaskaAir, and @QantasTravelInsider. Next reviewed were Twitter directories – Twellow, WeFollow, Twit Dir – to determine which handles were ranking the highest on the generic category queries. These resources not only reinforced the running list of strong airline Twitter handles, but also helped identify potential thought leaders unaffiliated with the airlines themselves (i.e. @simpliflying, @elliottdotorg, @runwaygirl ). As the list finalized, these aforementioned thought leaders provided their personal opinion on leaders in the category.

The consensus of the research into the category on Twitter was that @JetBlue, @SouthwestAIr, @AlaskaAir, @VirginAmerica, and @QFTravelInsider could offer the most insight into best practices for businesses on Twitter.

[xii] Interview with Simpliflying. August 2009.

[xiii] Ostrow, Adam. “Twitter Now Growing at a Staggering 1,382 Percent.” Mashable. March 16, 2009.

[xiv] “Airline Customer Service: Can Twitter Fix It?” WSJ.com. April 3, 2009.

[xv] Ajene, Emeka. “Airline ‘Twares’ are ‘Cheep’: Twitter’s Impact on Airline Bookings.” Compete Original Analysis: Twitter and Airline Revenue. August 27th, 2009.

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