WisBusiness: Southwest Airlines uses social media to build customer loyalty

By Tracy Will

For WisBusiness.com

WHITEWATER — Southwest Airlines “Blogger-In-Chief” Paula Berg has blogged, “tweeted” and made new social media sites the centerpiece of the company’s outreach strategy, including touting Southwest’s plans to serve Milwaukee’s Mitchell Field next month.

“That’s right, we’re coming to Milwaukee in November,” Berg, director of emerging technologies, told the UW-Whitewater Public Relations and Social Media Summit on Wednesday.

As to the power of social media in attracting business, the airline’s biggest online sales day followed a social media promotional campaign.

“Social media offers the speed and ability to distribute information to 750,000 Twitter followers. We launched a $30-$50-$90 ticket sale campaign in July 2009 and advertised it only through social media. It was our biggest single-day sale ever,” Berg said.

“We are at the stage where we can define how to use social media. It can own you, if you don’t own it,” Berg warned as she described how her part-time blogging grew into a key facet of a multi-tier communications strategy for Southwest.

“The demographics of each of our sites are really diverse. We found that Facebook has the strongest appeal to women. The Web site is by far the place where older males get their information about Southwest Airlines, and Twitter is all over the place,” Berg said.

At first the process of blogging was added to her daily duties, but she and others gradually began to apply tools like Twitter, e-mail campaigns and Facebook to augment traditional customer communication.

“We started out blogging 24/7, but once you begin you learn how to use it to augment existing customer fulfillment practices,” Berg said. “We put something out our blog every day, sometimes two or three times a day. A new poll every week.”

Berg said the social media are used in addition to traditional communications as a way to further connect with customers to build loyalty. The advantages: it’s low-cost, offers immediate contact and communicates with self-identified supporters and airline customers.

“Rather than replacing traditional communications, social media provide an additional piece that will continue to augment traditional customer communications. We have a pretty sophisticated customer relations program. If you write us, we write back; if you call us, we take time with you on the phone. We started off our social media without taking away from that” traditional approach.

“Now we are really seeing that more and more people are turning to these tools to get customer care, and so we are going to have to continue to find ways to do that. The challenge for us is how to give the customer service we have built our reputation on, in 140 characters,” Berg said.

She also said the airline has incorporated social media as part of its overall communications campaign to get ahead of news stories.

“We had a tear in the top of one of our airplanes in flight in 2007, and within a few minutes we were ready to blog and e-mail out our statements to address any concern about the dangers,” Berg said.

Then when the plane landed and all was safe, Southwest went ahead with a multi-level series of reports that celebrated the passengers and crew for dealing with the incident safely and calmly, staying ahead of any press on the event and getting their story out first.

“In the end these are the times when you see what social media can do. You do not want to wait until you are in crisis to start using these tools,” she advised, giving her top 10 tips:

– Complete integration of social media into every communication;

– Don’t be afraid to use these media;

– Make it personal;

– Engage the positive;

– Establish channels before a crisis;

– Act fast — tomorrow is too late;

– Don’t rely on the numbers alone;

– Get an executive sponsor;

– Live and breathe social media;

– And have fun! This is not a burden — it’s a gift.

Especially the final tip, Berg said before bounding off the stage to grin and have her photo taken with conferees and their cell phone cameras.

“If you are just getting started in it jump right in. Enjoy,” Berg said.