- “It is the season to tell someone you’d love a Southwest giftcard”
- “Want to see the airport gate makeover, Southwest style?”
- “Do you like the nuts Southwest offers on it’s [sic] flights?”
- “Need a job at SouthWest?”
Log on to the Southwest Airlines page on Facebook, and you’ll encounter these comments and others like them. As the airline embraces social media to create new customer touch-points, you can witness the emergence of social networking as an interactive marketing communication tool that works from a relationship marketing perspective.
With more than 56 groups on Facebook alone, with the largest boasting a record 45,000 members, Southwest has proved that the discipline of interaction with the customer has evolved substantially in recent years. As the Online Marketing Team posts videos and discussion threads on new Southwest features, services and procedures, the group is also being used to foster customer relationships.
‘While more than 60 percent of group members have joined the group for “understanding Southwest schemes and offerings,” about 30 percent have done so to share experiences.’
Southwest customers and employees have created an interactive environment, with more than 900 wall posts and around 100 discussion threads. The cost effectiveness makes you sit up and take notice. As Facebook brings new brands to the customers, customers can become “fans” of a particular brand and showcase them on their home pages. The era of the “Fansumer” has arrived. Your consumers can now gain access to brand preferences of their friends and peers. You already know how valuable the influence of peer opinion is on consumer behavior. Now you’ve created a need to go with that: to positively influence a prospect’s friends enough to have them become your fan, too.
The key elements of this interactive marketing communication tool are these:
- Volume (customer focus group size)
- Frequency (of interaction with the customer and between customers)
- Content of brand communication (promotional/relationship building)
These, coupled with low investments, facilitate the ongoing dialogue between enterprise and customer. While increased access to customer information improves marketing performance, enhanced exposure to a brand further increases customer loyalty.
Take a look at the discussions that abound on the enhanced boarding procedures Southwest recently introduced. Some hailed it as a pragmatic experiment; others described it as an efficient and amazing experience; still others were “eagerly waiting to try it.”
Not a vacuum
Such customer reaction is not posted in isolation. Participation from Southwest eradicates any anomalies in customer understanding of the new procedures.
And group membership encourages experience sharing. And in this case, you can find plenty of positive customer experiences, especially from people who appreciate the Southwest flight crew. The highly personal relevance of these messages creates an atmosphere of reciprocity, exchange and participation, and consumers absorb the brand information almost subconsciously. This further accentuates the degree of consumer interest and sends customers on a journey comprising more product-relevant thoughts, thereby influencing customer perception. When these stimuli are processed in the mind of the customer, interest is created and a relationship is developed. When these cues are reinforced, the impact on customer beliefs and attitudes results in positive buyer responses, thereby rewarding the product with higher customer loyalty.
Responses to a query posted as a thread on the group show that, while more than 60 percent of group members have joined the group for “understanding Southwest schemes and offerings,” about 30 percent have done so to share experiences. The driving force behind the group is clearly the customer.
A BlogPulse Trend Analysis (primarily for blogs) check reveals a jump in the volume of consumer-generated media for Southwest for the month of September 2007, when the blogosphere erupted over the news that a customer service rep in San Diego in July lectured a woman passenger over her attire and briefly took her off a flight to Tucson, Arizona. The graph indicates the attention the issue garnered, but the increased volume of brand communication cannot be ignored.
Sure, not all consumer views were in favor of Southwest, and experts screamed volumes, criticizing how Southwest dealt with the passenger, but the crux of the matter is that, despite the uproar—or even because of it—Southwest scored. These are true conversations with the customer, and it takes guts to let people post negative views about you. It is a simple way to build trust that shows you really do care about what your customers think. Threads on the Facebook group with several members defending Southwest’s actions are testimony to this.
The Online Marketing Team at Southwest sums it up best, “What we’re trying to do is provide a space for customers to be able to talk to each other as well as to Southwest Airlines. We want to be where our customers are to listen to them and provide an opportunity to interact with us.”
To me, that’s the model for other airlines—and other businesses.