Billboards are no longer enough to attract well-connected travellers. Social media and the internet have moved the goalposts – and airlines need to be far more savvy, writes Shubhodeep Pal, head of operations and innovation at consulting firm SimpliFlying.
If at first it is not apparent, look again: there’s a tectonic shift under way. Airline marketing is undergoing a phase that’s exciting, unpredictable and creative. Debatably, this new and constantly evolving state of airline marketing is unprecedented – in terms of its ingenuity, its previously unseen empathy for the customer and its exceptional brand-building capabilities.
A number of factors have contributed to this renaissance. So, before moving on to what airline marketing really looks like today, it would be useful to consider what exactly is different about it now.
Firstly, the age of advertising is dead. Quite simply, it is no longer reasonable to expect travellers inundated with one-way marketing messages to respond to “because people need to fly”. Such tactics no longer sit well; we’ll see why in a while.
Secondly, effective airline marketing today employs a hybrid model. The pervasiveness of the internet and social media almost necessitates the adoption of marketing tactics that involve both online and offline space. Notably, even Ryanair – the fine fellows who are not known for their customer care – ran an online initiative to offer ticket refunds to their customers through a game called ‘Play and Win’.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, airline marketers now have access to powerful tools to run efficient campaigns that could not have been dreamt of even five years ago: think crowd-sourcing, location-based campaigns and the like. This is the time to be creative and to dream big.
RIP, traditional travellers
Easily available access to the internet, coupled with the mind-boggling popularity of social networks and smartphones, has led to the rise of a new socially savvy traveller who is ever-connected on a mobile device. This traveller – both characteristics and behaviour – has important implications for airline marketing strategy.
The travel cycle itself has changed. A three-stage lifecycle – namely planning, booking and travelling – has arguably been replaced by an evolved five-part cycle. In the Connected Traveller Lifecycle model developed by SimpliFlying, based on empirical observation and analysis, it seems that airlines need to look beyond booking. While booking is indeed the driver on which the airline ultimately depends, now it must be reached through the path today’s traveller adopts.
Sharing the secret
Nowadays, travellers conduct extensive research on search engines, travel websites and online travel agencies (OTAs) before they actually make a booking. Now here’s the point: why should airlines let the fate of a passenger’s ticket depend on an external party? What can airlines do to pull potential customers to a decision to buy? Two things: make sure customers dream of flying to an airlines’ destinations before they have even made a conscious decision to travel (the dream stage). Vueling, for instance, asked users to create an Instagram image of a Vueling destination and share it using the hashtag #vuelingairgallery in order to win free flights and have their image featured on the exterior of a special Vueling plane.
In the next plan phase, airlines can make it easy for travellers to finalise their decision and move to the booking phase. Cebu Pacific promised a free flight to their fans on Facebook to the first group of 150 people ready to travel to the same destination.
While booking is still largely handled by traditional means (online booking systems), some airlines have chosen to use social media to spice up the booking process. JetBlue, for example, clears inventory through a dedicated Twitter account @JetBlueCheeps that sells cut-price tickets.
While the pre-booking phase of the new travel cycle differs from traditional models when it comes to achieving the booking, there is a radical difference in how the connected travellers and the traditional travellers behave once they start the journey – because the former, through their smartphones and social networks, automatically become a conduit for messages, photographs, thoughts and emotions that go out to a potentially large social network, where the impact of the content can be multiplied manifold. Hence, it becomes incredibly important for airlines to consider the travel and share phases of the connected traveller lifecycle and provide not just effective ‘social care’, but encourage sharing in a way that enhances the online brand. Witness how easyJet encouraged its fans to create a full-blown ‘Memory Maker’ holiday video about its destinations and share it on Facebook. Each week, the most voted video won prizes.
Today’s travellers are no longer content with just accepting whatever good or bad the airline dishes out to them. They are extremely tuned in to the power of social media, as citizens of a virtually connected world. An airline brand can no longer be ‘controlled’ by the management and corporate speak. Today’s airline brands are moulded as much by management direction as by the goodwill of social advocates.
The bottom-line: if airlines are not where their customers are, if they are not connected to them and tuned in to their behaviour, they stand to lose a lot of business. The bad news is the flow of online opinion cannot be controlled. The good news is that customers are happy (and, in fact, want) to engage with brands and spread a good word. Being transparent, responsive and helpful online will go a long way.
Making it fly
Over the last six months, SimpliFlying has published its Airline Marketing Benchmark Report, in partnership with airlinestrends.com. Across the near 100 innovative marketing initiatives that were featured to date, SimpliFlying has identified eight trends through which Airline Marketing 2.0 can be defined.
Arguably, the biggest traditional function disrupted by social media has been customer service. The speed, transparency and interactive nature of social platforms make them a boon for customers, as well as an effective channel to disseminate information far and wide for airlines. Given that good customer service is an excellent marketing and branding exercise, the importance of social care cannot be overstated. Many airlines have accepted this new reality. Consider how AirAsia has done away with its phone-based contact centre and now performs customer service wholly on social media.
The second biggest achievement of new media campaigns has been their ability to leverage positive emotions and spread good cheer among customers and audiences, thereby engendering a happy association with the brand. Examples range from kulula’s wacky “most South African flight ever”, to JetBlue’s humourous take on the Mars rover landing by offering “flights from 2052 or later”, to Southwest Airlines giving away free $1000 gift cards during their holiday season contest, ‘12 Days of LUV’. Such feel-good initiatives do not just pique interest in the brand but also help drive loyalty. (It is worth noting that even when the real initiative happens offline, airlines, more often than not, depend on their online audience to spread the buzz.)
Last but not least, an increasingly connected world has made the flow of ideas freer than ever before. And airlines have been quick to leverage this in order to improve their own products and services. Many airlines have used crowdsourcing as a great way to achieve several business objectives at once: to engage customers and build the brand; seek new, innovative ideas for products and services; drive revenue or bring down costs; drive brand loyalty by involving customers in the brand; increase brand reach; get more people interested in the brand; and gain new customers. Consider how WestJet claimed to have saved over $10 million by crowdsourcing ideas from employees on how to reduce costs. Ryanair, on the other hand, ran a memorable crowdsourcing campaign to find new ideas for ancillary revenues.
The fun, of course, has only just begun. While airlines spent the last couple of years getting their foothold on social media, we are finally at a mature stage where they can come into their own and leverage the true power of social media (beyond just fans, followers and likes), while combining them with the power of traditional and experiential campaigns.
Airline Marketing Benchmark Report is a monthly report that assesses the effectiveness of a selection of 15 of the most innovative airline marketing campaigns from around the world. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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