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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