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SimpliFlying’s Airline Social Media Outlook 2017 reveals an intriguing disconnect between perceived business needs and the role of social. Respondents indicated a significant shift in social priorities away from brand initiatives (down from 60% in 2015 to 29% in 2016) towards customer service (up from 32% in 2015 to 52% in 2016). But while social customer care is now the top priority, almost 50% of airline senior management still intend to allocate social budgets towards increased advertising spend.

While there’s a verbal commitment to social customer care, words aren’t guiding wallets – the lion’s share of funding is still being directed towards traditional brand and marketing initiatives rather than improving customer experience.

Why?

I don’t think it’s a case of airline executives crossing fingers behind their backs. I actually believe the contradiction stems from the industry’s underutilisation of social to date and its origins within Marketing.

The ‘social media’ lens limits business impact.

Over the past ten years, airlines have been conditioned to think the opportunity – and value – of social lies in the media channels themselves: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. These are marketing channels used to build communities, target prospects and access notoriously hard-to-reach audiences with deals and promotions.

Furthermore, a quick review of Australian airlines’ social practitioners reveals 75% have a marcomms background, so naturally their focus will be towards Marketing opportunities over service.¹ And even within the service realm, airlines still use social to refer customers to traditional service channels – ‘Thanks for your tweet. Please contact us on email for support.

Given this context, and the sorts of industry social media activities prioritised today, it’s perhaps unsurprising to see these results from SimpliFlying.

An example of this brand marketing legacy can also been seen in Qatar Airways’ recent Annual Report. In a notable break out section within the report’s Brand Equity section, the airline trumpets becoming the first airline to achieve 10 million fans on Facebook.

How was this number achieved? Very likely through advertising spend on content and fan acquisition in the channel. It’s no surprise many believe this is the role social should play – channels through which audience access can be bought to distribute key brand messages.

What did this number contribute to in terms of business performance? Who knows. It’s seemingly more attractive – or at least more accessible – to talk about the size of a community than the business return generated from that community. Despite acknowledging it wants to “…grow fast while growing smartly, growing revenue while reducing costs, and keeping (its) focus on the customers’ needs,” the report doesn’t mention social’s contribution to these goals.

The business opportunity behind social capabilities.

Here lies the clue to the huge discrepancy behind aspirations (improved customer experience) and reality (increased marketing spend): most simply aren’t sure how social can play a role contributing to business outcomes.

But ‘most’ isn’t ‘all’.

Look now at KLM’s Annual Report, where social features multiple times within Our purpose and strategy, Reigniting KLM and Customer & Product. Social isn’t a marketing tactic but a series of capabilities that help the airline make customers “…feel recognised, at ease, comfortable and touched.”

And the impact of KLM’s commitment to broadening the role of social capabilities can be felt across sales (where it attributed €25 million of new revenue from social transactions in its first year), product (where it now offers passengers the option to find and book flights with a Twitterbot), service (where passengers can access and update their booking status via Messenger) and marketing (where it balances cute puppy videos with genuine brand utility).

By extending the role of social beyond channels, KLM has uncovered new sources of genuine value. Social isn’t seen just as a brand and marketing initiative, nor is it seen just as a customer service channel. Social presents a series of capabilities that drive customer-centric innovations and contribute to bottom line improvements.

How social capabilities can deliver bottom line returns for airlines.

So where should airlines start when looking to extend social’s role outside marketing and communications? How can they shift interests and investments away from channels and towards initiatives that impact the bottom line?

We believe there are six key opportunities, but all require leadership commitment to social as a strategic business enabler:

  1. Intelligence: identify, capture and analyse social customer (and prospect) conversations through social listening technology, distributing key insights to shape product and service improvements across the airline (e.g. passenger preferences);
  2. Service: harness channels and technology to provide relevant, timely, on-demand social customer care (e.g. during flight delays when other service channels are blocked);
  3. Marketing: leverage social customer data to uncover prospects or drive conversion through targeted marketing (e.g. identifying prospect travel cues and behaviour);
  4. Sales: empower social customer care staff with transactional tools to drive sales and revenue within social channels (e.g. one-click authentication in channel to perform secure bookings and upgrades on Facebook Messenger);
  5. Production: use social customer data to create new products or offerings for lucrative customer segments (e.g. offering opt-in networking opportunities for business passengers); and
  6. HR: attract quality talent and reduce recruitment costs by leveraging staff networks to source candidates (e.g. thought leadership content distribution and amplification among staff).

To compete effectively in this day and age, and enjoy the benefits of real business impact, airlines must move beyond legacy attitudes of social as a brand and marketing channel. If gains across service and other business areas are to be realised, the industry must define what ‘social’ means to them and how it will play an important role in better understanding and servicing today’s customers.

¹ Propel conducted a top-line LinkedIn review of Australian airline social practitioners in December 2016. Of those professionals with a publicly accessible profile, 75% of airline social practitioners had a background in marcomms, while 13% came from service-related roles and 6% from HR-related roles.

Author: Roger Christie

Roger Christie is Founder and Managing Director of Propel. He understands the importance and value of a customer-centric approach to business, and has worked with a range of public and private sector organisations to help them leverage data, technology and operational change to deliver practical business solutions. Over the past decade, Roger has advised boards and executive teams across government departments and ASX top ten corporations, and understands the challenges facing organisations looking to excel and remain viable in an increasingly competitive, discerning marketplace. You can connect with Roger on LinkedIn and Twitter, and follow his thoughts on Medium.

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