Frequent Flyers Flock to Social Media

Frequent Flyers Flock to Social Media

The mantra seems to be: Let no Tweet go unanswered.
~tnooz.com

Frequent travelers were quick to flock to social networks and members of these programs now use social media channels as a concierge, customer service agent, soapbox and a place to meet fellow travelers. They share what they’ve learned while on the road–the good, the bad, the ugly, the amusing and the mundane.

Frequent travel programs have learned that it is best to meet the frequent flyers where they are–in online travel communities. Some programs have been better than others with social media, but none of them can afford to ignore it. We recently conducted a poll and asked, “Which frequent flyer program do you feel is most successful at using social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, online communities such as FlyerTalk and milepoint) to stay in touch with its members?” Delta and United tied for first for frequent flyer programs, followed not far behind by American. On the hotel side, Starwood was the clear favorite.

In this article, we’ll take a look at some case studies of how the relationships between frequent travel programs and social media has played out in the real world as well as talk to some of the people behind the scenes. And we’ll also take a look at some of the online travel communities. But before we dig in, what exactly is “social media”? If, for example, InsideFlyer publishes an article, and the gist of the article is picked up by a blogger, and then the blogger’s statements are picked up by someone who Tweets about it and that in turn is featured on Facebook … is this social media? These days, the argument can be made that all information will eventually become a component of social media.

And from the travel programs’ point of view, how does social media differ from public relations? Sunny Matteson, Corporate Media Manager, Red Lion Hotels R&R Club described the difference this way, “Social media is relaxed and conversational to the guest. Public relations is a more structured way of creating awareness of the brand and doesn’t necessarily give an outlet to converse or respond immediately.” Alice Wilson, Associate Manager, Social Marketing Southwest Airlines, says that social media is a tool of public relations but is more conversational, “PR is a broadcast one-to-many. Social is designed to be one-to-one communication.” Lora O’Riordan, Social Media Manager for Continental OnePass and United Mileage Plus says, “[social media] is a unique way to engage with individuals, reinforcing our brand and ultimately giving fans/followers more incentive to fly with us.” And Tony Landin, Manager Member Communications Web Editor EuroBonus, SAS, said that in his opinion, social media is much more important than public relations. Furthermore, many will agree that the core of social media is that it is consumer generated. So, because frequent travel programs are basically marketing programs to gain customers, the marriage between travel programs and social media is a strong one. Add to this a down economy and the relatively low-cost of finding and retaining customers through social media and the time is ripe for even more synergy between frequent travel programs and social media.

Case studies

Frequent flyer Kevin Leibel discovered the power of Twitter when his Marriott hotel stay was not what he’d hoped for. When he noticed that the bedspread in his hotel room had a cigarette burn and was dirty, he sent a Tweet along with a photograph to MarriottIntl on Twitter. They responded to ask for more details and then forwarded his Tweet to Marriott customer service. At that point, the hotel staff intervened, apologized, deducted the cost of the room from his credit card and asked him to consider trying Marriott again. Leibel says that he will. He believes that the response was faster than normal customer service, “easier, and it seems that the Twitter Marriott Concierge was specifically tasked to do these types of things.”

JetBlue received Web fame when it promoted its second all-you-can-jet flight promotion solely through social networks. No emails were sent out to any TrueBlue member–and yet the promotion sold out in just two and a half days and beat the previous year’s numbers by 15 percent–helped in great part by the airline’s Twitter followers. JetBlue currently has over 1.6 million followers on Twitter.

Alaska Mileage Plan reversed a decision on a proposed change largely because of backlash from frequent flyers in social media. In 2008, Alaska Mileage Plan announced that their popular AS50 Money and Miles Awards would no longer earn miles. Within a week, Alaska backtracked on the change and said in a post on FlyerTalk, “Based on your feedback and better understanding of this award’s importance to our most valued customers, we have modified this decision.” Within a week, Alaska Mileage Plan members went from saying things like, “AS50 will no longer accrue mileage. Bad move Alaska. Very, very, very bad move” to, “I’m glad Alaska listened to myself and others and offered what I consider a fair compromise. It’s nice to know our voices were heard.”

Social media is powerful, but it doesn’t always bring about the changes that those making the noise are hoping for. Take Spirit Airlines for example. The airline received a lot of negative reaction online when it introduced fees for carry-on luggage, but did not back down–the fees are still in place.

Social media also plays a big role in helping members find the soft spot of bonus promotions–the “loophole” that makes the promotion much more lucrative for members of the travel programs than what was originally intended. Take for example the case of the Emmi cheese promotion in 2006. The promotion was simply this: Earn 500 AAdvantage miles for a purchase of Swiss Knights Fondue and Cheese. FlyerTalk members quickly started the great cheese search in their local supermarkets. FlyerTalk member, tmcneill, summed up the promotion like this, “… 10,000 AAdvantage miles for $60 plus cheese sounds like a pretty good deal to me.” The news spread quickly, and especially since the promotion did not have a limit to the amount of miles you could earn for buying cheese, it became quite lucrative for a lot of frequent flyers. That is, until Emmi cheese pulled the plug on the offer. The company obviously did not know what they were getting into when they offered 500 miles for a mere cheese purchase.

The Emmi cheese run is just one example. There have been many other times when promotions have been made bigger than intended with a push from online forums.

Loyalty programs on the web

TheLobby.com, Starwood’s foray into the blogosphere, officially launched in April 2006. “The Lobby is a place to go and find out what’s happening. When you’re inside The Lobby you’re a part of us,” said Jennifer O’Connor, Senior Manager, Loyalty & Direct Marketing for Starwood Hotels when we spoke to her when the site was still in beta. Since the end of 2010, the site is no longer updated and Starwood is instead focusing on several websites (spg.com, spg.com/resorts, westin.com, sheraton.com, as well as an advisory board site) and the hotel group has over 1,000 Facebook pages spread over SPG, the hotel brand and individual hotels. There are also two Twitter handles: @SPGInsider and @StarwoodBuzz. To keep up with all the different ways that SPG is found online, visit http://www.spg.com/stayconnected

Another of the earliest online communities launched directly from a hotel with a loyalty program tie-in was Hyatt’s yatt’it. Debuting in March 2008 after an alpha launch in August 2007, the online community was pulled in October 2009. When it was launched, Rene Mizwicki, Director of Hyatt Gold Passport, said, “The goal of yatt’it was to provide a community where our frequent Gold Passport members, basically our loyal, savvy travelers, could share and learn insider travel information and tips.”

In 2010, Jeff Zidell, Vice President of Hyatt Gold Passport, when asked why yatt’it had been discontinued answered, “Yatt’it was an experiment and the social networking landscape changed dramatically between the time that yatt’it was conceived and launched. … You will see us become more active in existing online communities while we continue to look at new ways to extend our dialogue with customers.”

Hyatt currently hosts the Keyed into Hyatt blog that features news from Hyatt. Although the site is interactive as far as comments are welcomed, there were no comments on any of the stories the day we visited the site. Members can follow Hyatt on Twitter at @HyattPR and @HyattConcierge, both of which aren’t specifically tied to Gold Passport, but are more lively than the blog. There is also a YouTube Hyatt Channel.

In an interview published by InsideFlyer, Zidell had this to say about Hyatt’s social media strategy, “Relationships with travel and loyalty bloggers are extremely important to Hyatt. These trusted sources provide travelers with candid insights into our industry and Hyatt. As part of our relationship with this community, we often engage them in specific promotions and offerings, many of which are geared towards Hyatt Gold Passport members.”

Marriott Rewards Insider, which is still currently in beta although launched in March 2008, seems to be going well. Marriott has chosen to announce some changes at the Marriott Rewards Insider site before making an announcement to the larger public–no doubt to help build loyalty to the site. There are forums on the site for Marriott Rewards members but the site is more than just a typical travel forum. There’s a quick “Ask & Answer” section and an “Insider’s Lobby” with news directly from Marriott. You can also interact with Marriott at Bill Marriott’s Marriott on the Move blog, on Twitter through @marriottintl. There are also quite a few individual Marriott properties on Twitter. There is also an unpopulated MarriottRewards Twitter account with 45 followers. We’ve noticed this a few times–travel programs are creating accounts with their name to be used in the future if they decide to launch a program-specific presence.

Priority Club Connect was launched April 2009 and the press release to announce the site said it offered, “a multitude of benefits for Priority Club Rewards members participating in the community.” Some background information about the site was revealed by Cassandra Jeyaram, PhD, who is Social Marketing Manager, Global Consumer Marketing at IHG on www.tomhcanderson.com: “… members from our private communities named and created the public online community Priority Club Connect. Their pictures are on the site, and they decided on the kind of content they wanted on there, and they named the community. It’s extremely customer centric.”

Members of Priority Club Connect can blog on the site, upload photos and video content about their travel experiences and get details about special offers available only through the community. They can also directly communicate with Priority Club executives. There is also a site called Priority Club Insider–but it is hosted by a customer of IHG hotels and is not affiliated with IHG. Like most programs, IHG can also be found on Twitter and youtube.

Club Carlson, the program replacing goldpoints plus, has a presence on Facebook and Twitter and a representative from the program monitors FlyerTalk daily. Jackie Astleford, Senior Director, E-Commerce Carlson Hotels Club Carlson said, “We can leverage social media to shape how potential and existing customers identify with and perceive our brands.” Something that she sees as especially important as their brands evolve.

Hotels are not the only ones to pay attention to what’s being said online. The airlines have certainly not ignored social media. The granddaddy of all frequent flyer programs, American AAdvantage, has the AAdvantage Milestones Travel Guide, which is like an online glossy magazine to entice members to earn and spend miles. The site was launched in June 2007 and a press release at the time stated, “Over time, American hopes the vault of valuable information gathered, along with the entertainment features, will become a guide to future travelers and AAdvantage members.” The site continues today.

The airline has more recently made moves in social media including announcing their social media presence through a press release and giving away miles to draw attention to their social media program. They claim that they are the first airline to launch frequent flyer program specific channels on Twitter and Facebook. On Twitter, @AAdvantage is the official AAdvantage Twitter feed, “a community dedicated to all the ways to earn AAdvantage miles.”

Within one month of being on Facebook, AAdvantage had over 250,000 “likes” and the program promises, “special mileage promotions, giveaways and news of great ways to earn miles and some of the fun things you can do using them.” AAdvantage’s Facebook page, however, is not meant as a channel for AAdvantage customer relations issues–members are encouraged to call the AAdvantage Desk.

JetBlue and Southwest Airlines are both well-known for their blogs. JetBlue’s blog, Hello JetBlue, (http://blog.hellojetblue.com/blog) and Southwest Airline’s Nuts about Southwest (http://www.blogsouthwest.com) are both popular with their customers although the blogs focus on the airlines, and not specifically the frequent flyer programs. Southwest says it does not want to fracture their communities with separate accounts for Rapid Rewards or other products. JetBlue has its own online community called TrueBlue Community (https://trueblue.jetblue.com/web/trueblue-community) which is currently in Beta. The site was launched last year and TrueBlue members can not only communicate with other members by asking and answering questions, but they can link their public profile to Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Flickr. The site seems to be popular with members. Southwest chooses not to host their own social networking site. JetBlue has a healthy number of “likes” on Facebook at over 470,000 but Southwest blows all the airlines and hotels out of the water with over 1,350,000 “likes”.

Delta has also made an effort in the social media space. The airline can be found on Twitter @DeltaAssist. DeltaAssist on Twitter was recently singled out as one of the “Top 10 Twitter Initiatives by Airlines” by Shashank Nigam of SimpliFlying. Nigam pointed out that DeltaAssist listens and responds to members and, “They’re not even afraid to apologise!” Delta is also on Facebook, which features a private form that members can fill out so that everyone on Facebook can’t read what they input. “Delta’s Ticket Counter” on Facebook features the ability for members to check-in online within 24 hours of departure, check their flight status, view trip details and in-flight amenities along with being able to view their SkyMiles account balance. Members can also share their travel information with others via Facebook. So far, though, Delta has not garnered many “likes”.

Anna Gianpetro, Analyst, Dividend Miles had this to say about US Airways’ online presence, “Social media is about having a dialog with our customers. Our goal is to communicate timely information to our customers and also listen to what they have to say.” US Airways is on Facebook with around 12,500 “likes” and Twitter with about 110,000 followers. But like most airlines, it does not have an online social network presence centered around their frequent flyer program.

KLM has been active online and with their partner, Air France, are active in Facebook and Twitter and various other online communities. Travelers who “like” KLM or Air France on Facebook can access the latest news, special events, games and exclusive promotions. Currently, Air France has over 318,700 “likes” while KLM has over 162,000.

Also in Europe, Lufthansa is active online with a Facebook and Twitter presence and a mobile social app called the MemberScout, making it easy for Miles & More members to find each other when traveling and to share travel experiences.

Regardless of how the programs try to access their members through websites they’ve created, the 800-pound gorilla, the one travel site that no program can ignore, is FlyerTalk.com. A product of the fertile mind of InsideFlyer’s Randy Petersen, for over 20 years, FlyerTalk has been the go-to place online for all things related to miles and points. Next, we’ll take a look at FlyerTalk and other online communities, including an up-and-coming community.

Frequent traveler communities

If you are reading InsideFlyer, chances are you’ve heard of FlyerTalk. Launched in 1998 by the editor of InsideFlyer, Randy Petersen, through the years FlyerTalk became the number one place on the Web for frequent travelers. The online community is so strong that members regularly get together in real life for “dos” worldwide. Marriages have resulted from FlyerTalk members meeting in airports and more than one FlyerTalk member has received help from the FlyerTalk community. It has become much more than just a place to talk about miles and points. But miles and points is the focus and frequent travel programs have learned that the wrath of FlyerTalk members is a force not to be ignored. The programs will often run ideas by FlyerTalk members before implementing a change in their program and several programs have regular representatives available on the site to announce news and field any questions or concerns.

But just like there’s room for more than one town in a county, FlyerTalk is not the only place where frequent flyers meet online. The fastest growing website for frequent flyers is milepoint, the new Web venture of InsideFlyer’s editor. Launched officially on March 1, 2011 after just a few short weeks in beta, the online community now boasts more than 26,000 members and nearly 300,000 posts and looks to be on track for creating the next generation frequent flyer community.

FlyerTalk and milepoint are not the only frequent travel programs out there. Another site, TravelingBetter.com features vBulletin forums, an outdated blog section and photos. Although there are some active discussions, most are not from 2011.

Next, we’ll look at the ways in which the travel loyalty programs engage with their members in these and other online communities.
Loyalty programs in travel communities

Rather than let their customers spiral out of control on a forum thread, some programs have decided to send in one of their own to answer questions and to announce program changes and other news. On milepoint, there are already several official representatives from the programs, including UA Insider, Starwood Champion 1, 2 and 3 and Hyatt Gold Passport Concierge. And you can bet that there are many other programs who are lurking on milepoint, Facebook, various blogs and every place where their customers congregate online.

One of the first and most well-known representatives to join online communities was William Sanders, the “Starwood Lurker” in FlyerTalk and “Starwood Champion 1” in milepoint. Sanders and his team members monitor sites like FlyerTalk, milepoint and the SPG Advisory Board community (a private community of select SPG members) among other sites. Chris Holden, Senior Vice President, Starwood Preferred Guest says, “Social media is a vital way we communicate with our guests and our team of associates monitor feedback 24 hours a day … Social media gives our members one more way to have a conversation with us.” Starwood has also given SPG Facebook fans advanced access to sales, breaking news and last-minute deals. When milepoint was in its infancy, Hyatt Gold Passport Concierge, Chrissi R., posted a welcome that said in part, “We’re looking forward to connecting, listening, sharing and learning with you.”

Delta Air Lines’ SkyMilesInsider is a member of FlyerTalk and the airline also has a growing social media ambassador program with about 6-8 contributors under various screen names. According to Paul Skrbec, of Delta corporate communications (aka SkyMilesInsider), these Delta employees come from various business units across the company in areas of interest expressed by FlyerTalk members, such as Michelle_DeltaSkyMiles who is part of the SkyMiles team, Danny_Delta.com who is part of the eCommerce team and who responds to questions related to mobile apps and technology and also Donna_Delta.com who focuses more on Delta’s website. Skrbec said, “As we continue to build the program, we have added additional business area perspectives to the team and hope to introduce them in the coming weeks.”

He says this new media ambassador team monitors online communities and serves as both information gathering sources and subject matter experts to community members. “They also frequently author entries on Delta’s blog (blog.delta.com) that have a wide appeal to many customer segments. As an example, Danny and Donna have each written blog posts for us related to updates on our mobile apps and changes to delta.com.” Delta currently does not have an official presence on milepoint, but they are monitoring the site.

Lufthansa Miles & More has a representative on FlyerTalk called the Lufthansa Lurker who is proactive with helping Miles & More members with any issues they are experiencing. Dr. Torsten Wingenter of Lufhansa’s Global Social Media Marketing department says that Lufthansa’s social media mission is to “help our customers to become better connected travelers–offline and online.”

Not all programs have a carefully planned social media policy and are simply monitoring the situation before fully stepping in. Milepoint member, NordsFan, speaking about his reasons for why he thinks Air Canada/Aeroplan has not been vocal in online communities like milepoint and FlyerTalk summed up one reason why we might not have heard from Air Canada and other airlines in these types of forums, “By their very nature, social media are not truly two-way streets … and in large part they are open to being hijacked and derailed by just a few fools who decide to disseminate untruths on the WWW, which then spreads the stupidity far and wide.” He continued, “Meanwhile, a corporation which is constrained by a multitude of rules and regulations, including those dealing with privacy and personal information, disclosure of information by publicly-listed companies and concern about maintaining a ‘good’ image, cannot easily respond or fight back.” Aeroplan is active in social media with their own sites, such as their “A Life More Rewarding–Stories, Ideas and Inspiration for Aeroplan members” blog at http://blog.aeroplan.com – There is a small Facebook presence for Aeroplan with 1,493 “likes” and members can access @Aeroplan on Twitter.

Tom H. C. Anderson of Anderson Analytics says that it’s important for the programs to engage with members, “I would argue that the benefits of embracing social media as quickly as possible as a complimentary component of your marketing greatly outweighs any risks.” He continued, “It’s better to learn as you go as opposed to spending too much time planning the perfect SNS Strategy.” (Read the sidebar to this story to hear more from Tom.)

Closing comments

Based on members’ responses to this InsideFlyer issue’s “Reader Meter” (page 12), it is clear that travelers believe that the programs belong in online communities with over 83 percent saying that their presence in sites like milepoint and FlyerTalk is either “extremely important” or “important” with only just over seven percent saying it’s not important. The programs’ hosting their own online communities is not seen as being as necessary, but still nearly 60 percent see it as “extremely important” or “important” for programs to host their own communities.

Regardless of how you feel about Twitter or Facebook or any of the other online communities, as a frequent flyer, this is a good time to pay attention to what the programs are offering through these channels. This is still relatively new and just like online booking bonuses that were offered to draw members to book their flights online, the programs are using bonus offers to entice members to these new communication venues–who knows if the bonus offers will continue–so take advantage of what you can now.

One thing is for sure. Frequent flyers, as the ultimate consumers for the airlines and hotels, will continue to have a strong voice through social media.

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