We reached out to Justin and he was good enough to share some exceedingly useful insights into the workings of an airport that’s done extremely well in engaging today’s connected traveler while driving business goals. An edited transcript of our interview follows:
1. What kicked off MCI’s social media presence? How did you decide which platforms to tackle more aggressively than others and why?
In May of 2009 I attended the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Travel & Tourism conference. Peter Shankman gave the keynote address, titled “Change”. (The archived podcast lives here.) In 2009 I had a personal Facebook account that I had used to reconnect with old school friends, but that was about it. I had heard of Twitter but thought it was mainly where people would stalk their celebrity crushes. During one breakout session at that PRSA event a presenter was fielding audience questions live from Twitter using the event’s hashtag. I had never seen that before. I learned two things in that moment. 1. Twitter’s default privacy setting is “public” and 2. Twitter is completely searchable. I knew instantly that we needed a presence there, even if our only purpose there was to listen. Twitter’s searchability and obvious function as a customer service tool made it the platform where we invested the most time.
2. How do you measure the success (ROI) of your social media efforts? Have they translated to additional revenue and/or customers?
Airports are quite different than most other businesses in the social sphere in that the primary purchase that brings someone to us (airplane tickets) is not a product that we manufacture, sell or deliver. The airport’s role is, first and foremost, to deliver customer service. That said, of course promoting our airline partners’ fare sales and route expansions was a piece of our social messaging. Over several years I can point to multiple instances where we did in fact have people express to us that they only bought a ticket because of a tweet or a Facebook post of ours. So yes, social media does sell tickets and generate revenue. But that was never the primary purpose of our social efforts. Listening to our customers was, is, and forever will be the airport’s primary purpose in social.
3. Alaska Air recently began service to Seattle from MCI and the airport found a unique way to tap into that airline partnership through social media. Can you tell us a bit about the route launch?
From the moment Alaska Airlines informed us that they would be inaugurating new service between Seattle and Kansas City, we knew social media needed to be a substantial part of our communication plan. Alaska and Horizon have done such an incredible job of listening and engaging their customers over the years, they were actually one of the brands we kept a close eye on as a “best practices” example for the aviation industry. They were very open to allowing me access to broadcast before, during and after the inaugural, and of course their inflight Wi-Fi made such communication extremely easy. The crew was very cooperative and they seemed mutually excited about showing off the brand-new sky interior we had on that first flight. Tweeting images of the view from 37,000 feet as we crossed the snow-capped mountains of Idaho was something I’ll never forget.
4. You have previously identified the Kansas City International Airport’s social strategy as being two-fold, and quite simple: 1) Listen 2) Be Helpful. Please tell us a bit more about this.
Those two goals, listening and being helpful, were the foundation of everything we did at KCI/MCI. We learned very early on that brands who focused the majority of their social voice on broadcasting were often discounted and pushed aside. They had become noise. We realized we needed to stop tweeting press release headlines and become human. In fact we found that it wasn’t until we truly shifted our minds from broadcasting to one-on-one engagement that we began to be embraced by our local community. Listening allowed us to identify both our frequent fliers and infrequent fliers as we saw their tweets related to travel. As we began to engage these customers with simple replies like “Welcome back.” “Thanks for flying.” “Bon voyage!” and “Welcome home.”, we saw new friendships begin to grow. Those with whom we had earned trust and respect started mentioning us in their travel tweets, saying they were “Finally home at @KCIairport” rather than “Finally home at KCI”. Listening directly led to being helpful, as the tweets that would show up in keyword searches like “delayed Kansas City”, “KCI ?” and “cancelled Kansas City” were obvious opportunities for engagement.
5. Being the kind of social airport that Kansas City International Airport is, what sort of internal employee policies (if any) does the airport have with respect to social media?
A social media policy was determined shortly after we launched our Facebook and Twitter efforts. It wasn’t overly complex and reminded those who represented the City of Kansas in social channels to use common sense. After the infamous Red Cross/Dogfish Beer tweet, one thing I changed on my own cognizance was to split the two accounts I managed on my mobile device. I moved the airport account to Seesmic and kept my personal account on Twitter for Android. That ended lots of “Oh-no-did-I-just-tweet-that-
6. Do you work with an external agency? What sort of tools do you use to manage your social presence?
We didn’t have any agency help. Tweetdeck was our preferred tool because it allows for such a concise return of keyword searches. Foursquare and Gowalla (RIP) were great tools that delivered many tweets to our predefined searches. People love to tweet their check-in at airports. We had looked into setting up a special with Foursquare but that never was completed. Splitting the two accounts to two different clients as mentioned above was also a big help. One thing that we also found as we grew relationships was that we had quite a few brand ambassadors come along side of us. Partners like @SMCKC, @VisitKC and @SportingKC, as well as individuals like @User47, @benasmith and @vivid13 became eyes and ears for us, helping us identify people that might be in need of some assistance. That kind of collaboration became a huge advantage for us, allowing us to extend Midwestern hospitality to someone whom we may not have identified without someone else’s assistance.
7. What has been your biggest takeaway/reward from your journey with MCI?
There is a huge personal gratification for anyone who represents a brand in social. The powerful voice that a brand can have is an amazing thing to inherit and is something that must not be abused (cue the Wizard of Oz quote, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”). Without a doubt, the most rewarding aspect of representing a brand in social media is the real-life relationships that grow out of it. It wouldn’t often take more than a few replies from the airport before a customer would ask, “Who am I really talking to?”. I never hid who I am in real life and I personally enjoyed opportunities to get direct feedback from our customers. One of KCI’s most frequent fliers, @JasonCupp, has actually become a great friend and travel companion of mine. That relationship wouldn’t exist if it were not for @KCIairport. Brand managers are often wired the same and having the chance to brainstorm with the individuals who manage voices like @Garmin, @Applebees, @HRBlock, @Boulevard_Beer, @AMCTheaters and others was extremely gratifying.
8. What mistakes, if any, did you make on your journey and how did you rectify them? Any absolutely essential advice to share with others building their airport’s social media presence?
One of my biggest lessons learned in the first years was to understand the context of a tweet. In 2010 a frequent flier tweeted a Foursquare check-in at the airport, my reply from the airport’s account was something along the lines of “Welcome back! Heading somewhere exotic this weekend?” The customer replied that no, in fact she was flying to attend her grandfather’s funeral. She had tweeted that information just hours before and if I had taken just five additional seconds to read her recent timeline, I would have known that the airport’s voice needed to be one of compassion. Other tips I’d offer: Listen, of course. Stop broadcasting noise. Be human. Don’t retweet people who talk about how great you are because there is no need to convince those who already follow you that you’re worth following. Be consistent with your voice, which takes a concerted effort when multiple people are speaking using one account. Find brands in your community that are doing a good job in social and get to know them. Learn about what they do. Figure out how you can work together.
9. If you had to pick (just one) social media “hero” of your own, who has influenced you and/or helped to guide you in developing social strategies and integrating them into the strategic plans of the airport, who would you choose?
Wow, that’s incredibly tough. I’ll say it goes to the Social Media Club of Kansas City @SMCKC. The group was instrumental in helping the airport plug into KC’s social-savvy community. They truly embraced what we were trying to do at the airport and it was through that organization that I really learned what excellence in social media looked like. The group’s creed, “If you get it, share it” was evident in every single interaction. SMCKC served as a real incubator for KCI and put us on the fast track for success.
10. Just weeks earlier, you announced a new position at the Tampa International Airport. What can you tell us about your role at TPA and the hand you may have in evolving the social strategy of the airport?
My title at Kansas City International Airport did not include social media. It was something that I simply became passionate about and worked into and around my full-time responsibilities as the airport’s air service development lead. When I accepted the opportunity to join the Tampa International Airport team as their Director of Air Service Development, it was with the expectation that social media would not be a part of my responsibilities. While that has been the case to date, I have been honored to have been asked to provide some insight and guidance regarding TPA’s social media strategy. While I do not expect to ever serve as a voice of the airport through social media channels (my new job will keep me plenty busy) I am excited to see how the airport moves forward in social engagement with customers and community partners.
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