Will online communities by airlines help their brands take-off?

AirFrance-KLM recently launced Bluenity, what they claim as the “first social network for travelers” by an airline. But as Scott Carmichael pointed out in his article at Gadling, Lufthansa was the first airline to launch such a social network called GenFly Lounge – targeted at student travelers. Both of these sites follow the norms of social networks, allowing you to add friends, have a profile page, and of course, update your travel plans and interact with other travelers.

But it’s important for airlines to differentiate their efforts so that they’re not creating yet another Dopplr (which I think is a great community for travelers). So, what are some of the things that airlines can do to ensure that their online forays help enhance the brand overall?

How to “control” the brand online?

Don’t even try! Since it’s the world of user generated content, user opinions often matter more than what the “corporate speak” is. As Michael D’Esopo from Lippincott shared in his interview, there is a need to allow free discourse to take place online. The airline should really just act as a moderator. This way, they will also discover and learn more about their customers’ changing tastes in these economic times.

The other dilemma airlines face is how tightly to couple the online community with the brand. I think there are two ways of doing this. If a community is being built around a specific airline, like Virgin Atlantic’s initiative, it should clearly project the brand promise and align its efforts with its real brand. It’s like a brand extension, just online.

Though, if an airline is targeting the general traveler, I think it’s important to de-couple the brand from the airline, and offer a platform for online interactions between travelers for it to bloom. Furthermore, this forum can be a treasure trove of insights for market research in the future!

Integrate and interact, but do not interrupt

Traditional marketing has sought to interrupt a target customer to seek his attention, for example through an advertisement during a TV show. But new technologies allow companies to interact with their customers without interrupting their lifestyle. Social networks are the “in-thing” at the moment, but it’s important for airlines to go where their target market is, rather than expecting them to come to them.

As Allen Adamson [watch interview] states in his book BrandDigital, it’s important to “identify where people are hanging out and what they’re doing”. A great example of this is Virgin Atlantic’s Facebook page, which has over 7000 “fans” and allows the airline to interact with its potential youth customers in a way they are comfortable with. Similarly, social networks like Bluenity and GenFly Lounge will do well by offering good integration with leading networks like Facebook and MySpace, as well as LinkedIn (and it’s not that difficult!). This way, the barrier to “sign-up” can be significantly reduced and usage is likely to increase too.

To sell or not to sell? Have a measure for ROI

Often, a return on investment (ROI) from marketing efforts is linked to revenues generated from those initiatives. But having an online social network for travelers from “all airlines” and then trying to sell them tickets on your own airline doesn’t sound right. Hence, it’s important to have a measure of success of the online initiative, other than just the revenue it brings in.

For example, I’m sure in addition to sale of special recommended fares on Virgin Atlantic, the creators of the page also probably had a target of 5000 “fans” in 2 months. Bluenity probably measures success monitoring the amount of “buzz” created by people sharing travel tips and connecting with other travelers. Such “ROI” measures are also likely to help sell the project internally in the airline.

What do you think? What are some of the other things airlines should consider when building online communities? Which other airlines are doing a good job with this? Let’s hear it in the comments section.

Up next…an exclusive interview with VP of Sales & Marketing at Jet Airways USA. Remember to watch it on Wed, 19 Nov.

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Showing 14 comments
  • Rob Mark

    Your point about the inability to control the brand is an important one, but is a topic lost on most senior marcom people. If they can’t manipulate it – so the thinking goes – how do we make it delver what we expect? The problem is that many senior execs have little or no idea what they can and should expect from a social media campaign. Sometimes the buzz is simply plenty.

    In a world though where employees are often asked how productive they were on a given day, this kind of slippery sort of marketing is tough to grasp. But although I made fun of the Air France folks at Jetwhine.com last week, it was just that, a bit of curmudgeonly fun. I really do think it’s interesting that they are at least making an attempt to understand the audience which is the key component of selling anyone anything.

    I think Southwest does a pretty nice job of seeding the world with info about the airline. But what makes it even more valuable, I think, is that the Southwest people will jump in and respond to customer concerns when they see it. Let’s just say that emerging media doesn’t seem to frighten them.

    That’s a lesson for others.

  • Shashank Nigam

    @Rob: You’re right about the “control” dilemma. Traditionalists believe strongly in creating a particular message to showcase a brand to the world, whereas new media is all about collaborative messaging. The sooner airlines (and other brands for that matter) adapt to this new reality, the better they will be able to leverage this to their advantage.

    Good case studies in the airlines world are JetBlue, Southwest (as you mention) and Malaysia Airlines – all of which have taken decisive steps in creating a strong online presence. And indeed, others should learn from them.

  • Shashank Nigam

    Dear Readers, I had posted this article on LinkedIn and there has been a very active discussion there. I’m posting it here for your reference.

    As I have so far in Thailand is Bangkok Airways which has its own Facebook and handfuls of members. I don’t remember which URL to access it but you just search for Bangkok Airways Facebook. It shows in Google.

    In term of ROI, I think it will be a long term result after an airline or any company having its Facebook or even other social sites like Wayn. People will talk more about you and your brand will be recognized. Well, in my opinion, ROI comes from various ways to measure. Social media is kind of marketing in the world of Web 2.0 but to get better ROI, your service will have to meet customers’ satisfaction as well, and of course, with many more factors.
    – By siri yi, Internet Marketing Executive at Exotissimo Travel, Thailand

    Interesting question. I think this is something many companies across all industries are asking themselves.

    On one side, it is easy to tap into an existing community such as Facebook and leverage the captive audience. It is cheaper, quicker and less risky then creating a self-branded community. Facebook members are growing at an astonishing rate, especially in Canada & the US. The idea of becoming part of something this big is almost a no brainer. So…a company should create a company profile on Facebook, a channel on YouTube and a Twitter account. The idea of extending your brand into these 3rd party communities & applications is an important piece to a healthy Social Computing strategy.

    For companies who choose to launch their own community, the trick is how to build one where clients join and more importantly, become participants. Some companies offer membership to a segment of their clients in hopes of fostering a common thread among members leading to active participation. Others open the front doors and let everyone in including prospects with hopes of winning a numbers game & earning new clients. I think the the latter approach is the wrong approach.

    A successful community has a host of benefits….clients who belong to a community are generally more loyal, spend more $ and visit the company website more often – all good things. However, the biggest benefit may be the content itself. The idea of members exchanging answers to questions and ideas around ways to improve the products & services will prove invaluable to an organization…lower support costs and insight into R&D.

    The key to a successful community may boil down to 3 things.

    1. What do your clients want? No need to build something they have no interest in using. Ask them how they engage with Social Computing today? Are they joiners, observers, participants or do they choose to stay out of game entirely?

    2. Ensuring the community is properly managed – someone to promote the benefits to internal stakeholders & someone to manage to community itself. After all, the hope is the community evolves into a beast.

    3. Where does the accountability of the community sit within the organization? Traditionally, it has been within Marketing. Makes sense from a product and sales standpoint but not from a client engagement/relationship building perspective. There is a trend now where Support is taking accountability for this piece of the puzzle and leaving Marketing to their expertise. Product Development is also getting into the mix to ensure R&D opportunities are captured and put to good use.

    Exciting times no doubt. We will see many organizations get into the Social Computing game over the upcoming 2 years – some will succeed & many will learn valuable lessons.

    – By Steven R. de Blois Consultant, Online Strategy

    Dear Shashank,

    I am sure you would agree that launching such online communities will certainly have an additive and beneficial effect on the business of these Airlines. The first reason is that these communities will result in some kind of unsaid bonding. Secondly, it would also help these people know more about the activities and latest info about these Airlines.
    Thus naturally, these activities will tie the community members to the Airlines in some way or other.

    Amitabh Thakur, SP (Intll), Faizabad

    I’m not involved in such projects, but give my traveler’s opinion.
    One cannot be in all communities.
    Maybe there is room for a small number of travel communities (e.g. air, hotel, etc…).
    Why not create something which could look like Flyertalk 2.0 … Can someone ask Randy 🙂 ?

    – By Gilles

    Chaps… Horses for Courses. If I can provide some additional comment. There is no need to be everywhere at once. Don’t set up an expectation that you cannot deliver. Or publish useless rubbish in your blog – as DL does. Social Networks take commitment and manpower to keep valuable. Don’t think that by participating that you can control because – guess what you cant!

    The best form of communication with your community- be it social or a supplier type relationship – is to be straightforward and upfront. In the USA, Southwest does a great job at this. jetBlue is a close second. In Asia, Air Asia is far and away the best player here. But you can easily screw it up by invalid, inaccurate or condescending remarks. Also once you are in there you have to keep it up. Neglect is easy to do. And people do notice.

    Timothy aka Professor Sabena

    Once again, I just expressed my personal opinion on 2.0 initiatives, not any opinion on the AF/KL Bluenity Project.

    Regards, By Gilles

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  • Free Games

    i Think if they did it consistently and seriously, it's not an impossible thing that online communities will help their brand. Any

  • Free Games

    i Think if they did it consistently and seriously, it's not an impossible thing that online communities will help their brand. Any

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