Building Loyalty the Southwest Way: Let Your Customers Drive the Discussion


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  • “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)
  • Personalization
  • Participation
  • Interactivity

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.

Vandana Ahuja, PhD.
Amity Business School
Dr. Vandana Ahuja has over 21 years of experience across the corporate sector and academia. She is the author of the book on Digital Marketing - published by Oxford University Press. She is a Professor with Amity Business School and has several years of research experience across the domains of Digital Marketing, CRM and Social Media Marketing. She is an expert in the usage of Digital and Social Media platforms across diverse industry verticals.


  1. Vandana

    We are all fans of Southwest. And not only because they are not the disfunctional US majors! It is an an airline that is easy to like, despite its sometimes dumb customer service mistakes.

    I have three questions for you:

    1. Do you think listening to raving fans is the best way to get real insights about how to improve things. What about the much larger majority of customers who aren’t fans? Or those lead customers who are silently pushing Southwests’s offerings beyond where they were supposed to go. Or those who defected to other airlines?
    2. Is there hard evidence that Southwest is actually changing things as a result of listening? It great to trigger lots of conversation with raving fans, another entirely to use it to drive continuous improvement like Toyota does.
    3. And the $64,000 question. Is Facebook the right platform to be holding a conversation of this kind on? Facebook has had serious problems with privacy issues and as Robert Scoble showed us all, considers all the conversation online to be its sole and exclusive property, not a user like Southwest’s. Ditto for the details of SouthWest’s many fans.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

  2. Dear Graham,

    A facebook type of a platform is more relevant to answering user queries. Where else in the world would you have a group where you can have customers bash up your assigned seating program or discuss the intricacies of the same?Social media or for that matter any other platform will not be able to cover the complete data, specially with respect to those silent customers going about doing there job.

    But in an era when you talk about using your customers as advocates as well as customer to customer networking where they can collect and have discussions about a product or service, having a set of fans spreading positive word of mount about a product or service, cannot be a liability for ANY organization.

    A 45,000 plus group cannot have only fans-there are dissatisfied clients also…and there are company representatives responding to their queries/raves and rants…. Involvement obviously is a way to tell a customer you care about what they have to say….Customers are going to have those conversations anyways-with or without organizational participation(that’s what Dell learnt).So why not be a part of what they have to say.

    The organisational objective behind the fansumer approach is clear—to use an individual’s social graph to spread a product’s reach to his circle.
    Facebook as a platform…I understand your reservations if you think from an organizational perspective. However, think like a customer-I recently read somewhere about an internet user’s reservations about bothering to log onto a company specific site….On the other hand, when you log onto facebook, you go for multiple purposes…Southwest could be only one of them. You may just peep into the group, since you just happened to be there- the nos. that the community depicts may not have happened on a company specific online community hosted on a Southwest domain.Why would the usage of Southwest’s blog be low otherwise??

  3. Vandana

    Thanks for responding. I decided to test your suggestion about customer responsiveness on Southwest’s Facebook and Blog sites by reading through a selection of recent threads.

    The issue that seems to be exercising most members on Facebook is changes to Southwest’s boarding processes. In particular, changes to pre-boarding for familes which makes it difficult to sit together with their small children. Quite a discussion is raging about this emotve topic. Anyone who has small children will know exactly what I mean. One member is sufficiently incensed to have started a blog called Stop Southwest Airlines Family PreBoard Policy Changes. (PR alarm bells should be ringing loudly at this point). But of the almost 50 comments in the thread, Southwest is conspicuous by its absence. It hasn’t tried to engage customers at all. The only exception is a stewardess who tried to provide helpful information early in the thread and a staffer from DFW.

    If we apply the three tests outlined above, Southwest suceeded in gaining some insights about customer attitudes, failed miserably to engage customers in any meaningful way and it shows how hard social media is as a platform unless you engage actively with members.

    Just like on the Facebook site, the furore over boarding is a big issue on the blog too, having gathered over 50 comments so far. Like on Facebook, they are split roughly 60% in favour of the policy and 40% against. And once again, Southwest is conspicuous by its absence. The only excpetion is a Customer Service Agent from Nashville who is as helpful as he can be. But his hands are tied.

    If we apply the three tests again, Southwest suceeded in gaining some insights about customer attitudes (again), failed miserably to engage customers in any meaningful way (again) and it shows how hard social media is as a platform unless you engage actively with members (again).

    All in all, hats off to Southwest for providing fora for customers to talk about their experiences with the airline. But poor marks for their engagement with customers (not counting individual staffers responding themselves). And no marks for showing that they are really responding to customers problems by fixing them.

    It is not enough to just start using Social Media without having an explicit strategy to gain value from it. Social media has to be much much more than the wishful hope for more viral marketing if it is to create value for all parties.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

    Readability Index: 12

  4. Graham, your analysis is interesting, and you’ve proven once again that no business is perfect. Who is?

    Business is not about perfection, be it social media strategy or anything else. I think Southwest is taking some bold steps without knowing all the answers, and this is part of being a leader.

    There’s an old joke about two campers who are sleeping in their tents and are attacked by a bear. They both get up and run for their lives. Then one camper stops to put on his shoes. The other camper says: “Are you crazy, you can’t outrun a bear in those!!”

    To which the camper with shoes replies: “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I only have to outrun you.”

    Successful businesses stay ahead of their competitors, they don’t have to be perfect. Frankly, I think too many companies, especially bigger ones, suffer from over analysis, no doubt helped by many consultants, and lose their window of opportunity.

    Southwest has been at the top of the ACSI ratings for years, and is one of the few (maybe the only?) major US airline to consistently make money and grow its market value over the years. We can pick at some of the their problems, but to me their social media approach is a good example of a company willing to take risks and reach out to its customers, albeit imperfectly in some aspects.

    That puts them ahead of other major airlines like American, United, etc. — who continue to struggle with much more serious problems. Let’s give credit where credit is due, in this new world of the social web.

    Bob Thompson, CustomerThink Corp.
    Blog: Unconventional Wisdom

  5. Southwests Facebook page is a lot better than what the competition is posting up.

    American Airlines for example has a facebook page where they feature a video about their new cockpit. Real customers don’t care what the cockpit of an airplane looks like. Customers are interested in good customer service, on time flights, cheap fares, and their bags arriving with them.

    The difference is that American Airlines uses their facebook to speak to themselves where as Southwest Airlines uses their facebook to let their customers talk to the brand and to each other. When Southwest does post it is of interest to their customers. Their posts include special fares, presenting their new coffee, and raffles for customers to win free flights.

    The Southwest Airlines facebook is doing what is suppose to. A place where Southwest Airlines customers can speak their mind.


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