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Flying High: Why Airlines Get Social Marketing Right

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Airlines aren’t great at lots of stuff.  Airline food?  Not great.  Getting you to Newark on time?  Not great.  Mergers?  Ask American Airlines and US Airways.  Social marketing?  Pretty great, actually.

In May, social brand agency Headstream completed a Social Brands 100 report ranking, you guessed it, the top 100 brands in social marketing.  In the report, American Airlines took the second overall spot as the most engaged online brand in terms of leveraging Facebook and Twitter as platforms for interacting with fans and customers and for handling customer satisfaction issues.  Take that, guys who rank mergers!

As airline trade publication AviationPros.com reported, “Of the 700 brands studied for their social media presence, the top five performing companies in a wide-ranging report belonged to the travel industry, with American Airlines, Lufthansa, Thomson Holidays, and Thomas Cook UK taking the top spots after videogame franchise Battlefield.”

AviationPros.com also noted that overall travel brands represented 15 percent of the Social Brands 100 list.

Meanwhile, social media analytics outfit Social Bakers maintains nifty industry specific-reports, including one demonstrating how airlines stack up against each other on Facebook.  Though taken from a fairly small sample size of engagement – just the month of May 2013 – some interesting stats therein.  Congrats, Southwest Airlines, for having the most Facebook fans with nearly 3,800,000!

Another report reveals some of the airline industry trade secrets about how they successfully approach social marketing.  This one is called The State of Airline Marketing and was issued in April 2013 from airlinetrends.com and airline consultancy SimpliFlying.

As Samatha Shankman with travel intelligence company Skift noted of the report, and airline social marketing in general, “Social media has blurred the barriers between the corporate inner workings of these companies and the harried frustrated business travelers that they serve. This has brought about a renewed focus on real people, both passengers and staff, and content is created to being shared that relates to real flyers. Airlines are also showing the behind-the-scenes workings of their operations and the people that make the airline run.”

Which brings us to the first of three important reasons why airlines are so good at social media and social marketing:

Reason #1: They’re Sensitive to Customer Service

Airlines get high marks for social media engagement because, well, they’re engaged.  Airlines like Delta are leading the way in real-time customer satisfaction on social.  Why?  Because they have to.

Think of the typical flying experience.  If your flight is delayed, if your seat is dirty, if the flight attendant is snippy, nearly every passenger is capable – dare I say primed and ready – to share his or her dissatisfaction via Twitter or Facebook from their ever-present smartphone.

As you’re waiting to board, as you’re waiting to takeoff and as you’re waiting to de-plane (and, as we all know, air travel is really mostly waiting), the typical traveler’s eyes are glued to their phone and their ability to broadcast exactly what they’re not crazy about regarding their airline experience is simply a few keystrokes away.

Which is why in April 2010 Delta rolled out their Delta Assist program.  According to the The State of Airline Marketing report, “Delta Assist promises to offer 24/7 support and claims to reply to every query within 9 minutes on average, a benchmark that the rest of the industry is racing to catch up with. It has amassed a Twitter following of over 80,000 people and an average day sees it send out over 110 tweets.”

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Reason #2: They Know A Lot About Us

Window or aisle?  Vegetarian meal or carnivore?  First class or coach?

Just imagine how much airlines know about us.  Thanks to our frequent flier accounts, rewards credit cards and travel histories, they know more about us than just about any other brand we interact with.

They know where we live and where we travel.  They know when we travel.  They may even know where we like to stay when we arrive at our destination.  They know how old we are, where we shop, whether we can afford to fly coach or first class, what we like to eat, how often we travel and even which seats we like to sit in.

While every brand, not just those in the airline industry, is experimenting more and more with personalized, real-time marketing, airlines have a treasure trove of data that they very effectively use to create segments of customers that they can then target with more relevant content.

Earlier this year, Virgin famously launched a service whereby passengers could flirt with and send drinks to other passengers via their seat-back entertainment systems.  It doesn’t get more personal, more real-time and more social than that.

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Reason #3: They’re Not Afraid to Experiment

Actually, the Virgin example from above could fit this category as well.  But whether it’s Virgin, American Airlines or AirAsia, airline brands aren’t afraid to experiment with social marketing, which often pays off with impressive results.

Top performing social brand, American Airlines, uses social marketing to humanize their brand and give customers a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes.  Ever wonder how they de-ice a plane?  Or what happens to your bags after they you check them and they disappear down the conveyor belt/rabbit hole into Luggage Land?  American Airlines created their ‘Behind the Scenes’ video initiative to be more transparent and engaging.

As noted in the The State of Airline Marketing report: “Airline officials say that in an age when a traveler’s gripe can echo loudly across the Internet, American Airlines are launching video programs aimed at giving customers a realistic look at the inner workings of their operations.  Says Jonathan Pierce, AA’s director of social communications: ‘We’re really just trying to be more transparent and more open, and social (media) is about giving the customer an opportunity to connect with American and have a conversation with the brand, and we’re embracing that. We feel as though this is a great way of saying to our customers, ‘Tell us what you want to hear from American. Tell us what you what to know.’’ American’s campaign has been well-received, peaking at nearly 11,000 views for the checked bag video, with numerous blogs and sites taking note of AA’s more open style of communication.”

AirAsia, meantime, won a Silver award in the second annual Facebook Studio Award competition with a new spin on an old tactic – the giveaway.  According to Business Insider, “To market its new service to Sydney, AirAsia launched a contest that would award one user with a free flight on an A330 to Kuala Lumpur for the winner and 302 friends. Its Facebook fanbase grew 30%, more than 2 million people saw the competition, and 12,500 applied.”

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And, last but not least, our friends at Virgin (America, this time) are back again with the fun “Summer of Selfies” promotion.

Between July 4 and July 7, fliers were encouraged to snap pics of themselves on board Virgin America flights and with the help of photo editing software and Gogo in-flight internet, share their shots on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Vine with #VXSelfie.

Each day, Virgin America chose their favorite selfie and retweeted them to their entire @VirginAmerica audience and gifted the flier with 10,000 frequent flier points good for blackout-free reward flights.

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Virgin America took something that entered the pop culture zeitgeist in a big way in summer 2013 – selfies – and which people claim to hate – and deftly turned it into a cute, fun promotion.  Not only that, but one aimed at Virgin America’s demographic – young, tech savvy, cool, affluent travelers.  Take a look at those selfies…not a lot of gray hair in there, is there?

Just goes to show you how easy and effective social marketing can be when you know your customers, engage with them and, y’know, experiment and have a little fun sometimes along the way as well.

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