The Secret to Virgin America’s Social Business Success (infographic comparison)

Want to know what it might feel like if an airline actually treated its customers like friends? Not a superficial, phony performance marked by fake smiles and fake actors (think the aviation version of the Truman Show). But an airline that runs its business by listening, supporting and doing what’s best for its customers.

Instead, we’re subjected to dysfunctional relationships in a system that supports regular and repeated conflicts, which has led to apathy. Onboard and emblematically, no one pushes the flight attendant button anymore because we’re either accustomed to being ignored, or we’re met with a look that says “What’s your problem?” No wonder why our relationship with airlines is filled with so much emotional baggage.

In all my years as a business traveler, I have learned there are only a few airlines that could pass the “we’ve-got-better-customer-service-than-the-Department-of- Motor-Vehicles” test. The remainder, under the mantra of public safety, keep us locked up for hours languishing on planes sitting on tarmacs, often ignore our complaints, and generally make hospitality, inhospitable.

As a result, according to Gallup, only 29% of us have a positive view of airlines.

It’s so bad that Congress, with an even lower approval rating of 14%, had to step in to help. What other industry requires a legislative act and customer Bill of Rights to enforce common sense?

A Social Airline that Thinks Differently

Virgin America was built to be social. The customer acquisition strategy is social. Their teammates (Virgin’s term for employees) are social. Their Executives are social and Virgin Companies are social. If you ever considered what an airline would look like if designed from the ground up to be social, it’s Virgin America.

“The whole point behind the airline was really to try to reinvent the domestic travel experience and make it better and make it more focused around our guests,” said Abby Lunardini, Director of Corporate Communications at Virgin America, “and from the beginning, our teammates were really active in the social media space, which helped support that goal.”

One example of how Virgin America is focused and responds to employees and customers is how Virgin named the plane that flies between San Francisco to Boston the #NerdBird. According to Jill Fletcher, the Virgin’s Social Media Manager, the plane was dubbed the #NerdBird after employees and customers frequently used the nickname to describe its passengers and crew.

Fletcher explains, “We definitely have used our social media fans to crowd source new products and service onboard our planes.” Like requests for cocktails to be sold on flights, in-flight entertainment options including a 3000 song MP3 catalogue and the ability to keep an open tab for all customer purchases. Why doesn’t every company do this?

Interestingly, the comparison of sentiment analysis and social rankings seem to confirm that Virgin’s social strategy is working.image-9015756

Dr. Natalie Petouhoff, Chief Strategist and Evangelist, Social Media, Digital Communications and ROI explains, “Social Business is about using the data — social media monitoring data — to make mission critical decisions. What Virgin is doing is listening and integrating that feedback back into their company. Consider a company that does listen and respond. Consider their competitors that are not. Maybe it won’t make a difference today, but look forward 2, 5, or 10 years. Companies that don’t understand how vital real-time social media data is to running their business, I predict, just won’t exist.”

What Social Tools does Virgin Use?

To support the objectives of Virgin’s social media programs, the company created a social listening and engagement strategy. They use Sprinklr to, “watch everything that comes in through the feed. Any time somebody mentions Virgin America we pretty much see it on Twitter and Facebook and respond accordingly. We’re very close to what’s occurring operationally,” explains Lunardini.

Virgin America also uses SiteCatalyst from Omniture (Adobe) to calculate the revenue impact of their social programs. Programs like their partnership with Twitter for the #FlyMoreGiveBack campaign to promote the Stand up to Cancer research project. Which was one of their highest selling days in company history.

Like IBM, Virgin America empowers the entire organization to communicate on social channels. Yet they do have a guide to the rules of engagement. Lunardini explains, “We put together a social rule book for teammates that illustrate obvious things not to do in the social media space. But we designed it to be more positive while encouraging people to be in the social space because we know we have a pretty young company. They’re all online anyway so we approached it from that vantage point.”

What Brands can Learn from Virgin America

Virgin America is a young airline, but an experienced airline. They don’t act their age; they act as if they are decades more experienced. With that wisdom, they have learned to emulate Edelman’s Trust 2011 Trust Barometer where trust, employee welfare, honest business practices and high quality service matters. For them, in many areas, it’s converting to measurable ROI.

Yaacov Cohen, CEO of social email software provider further emphasizes the importance of trust in today’s business environment, “There is a need for authenticity behind every brand. Sadly, most brand messaging is diminished by indifference, and the superficiality eventually backfires. But Virgin stands out in its ability to maintain a positive altitude in the area of customer trust.”

Of course, Virgin America is not going to sit idle on the runway. According to Lunardini, the company is going to spend the next 12 months focused on integrating their guest relations and social programs and preparing for more cross promotions with other Virgin Companies.

Watch this company. The days when companies can simply ignore their customers are gone. Sure there are a lot of social initiatives that will not take off, but we need to learn from the ones that do. For we’ll all soon be measured by how well we support and engage the communities built around our brands. Not by how we sat by and overlooked them.

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