5 Lessons In Social Media Strategy From Southwest Airlines
Southwest Airlines and Social Media Strategy: 5 Lessons for Marketers
Southwest Airlines and Social Media Strategy: 5 Lessons for Marketers

One challenge I’ve had with many corporate clients is getting employees to blog. Most corporate folks feel like they don’t have the time or skills. So it piqued my interest when I found out Southwest Airlines has a slew of employees writing their Nuts about Southwest blog. I was drawn in by the energy and spirit of the blog: All homegrown.

Curious, I sat down (virtually) with Christi McNeill, who manages SW’s corporate social media strategy to discuss the blog and social media program.  Turns out they’re doing a lot right down in Dallas. The social media program, started in 2006, is showing impressive results: 12 million monthly visits to its website, 1 million Twitter followers, 1.3 million Facebook likers.

Logotype till flygbolagsbloggen Nuts about Sou...
Image by bisonblog via Flickr

The goal with their program is a combination of conveying news about SW, highlighting its culture and engaging with its “fans” (ie, customers), according to Christi.

Below are my five key takeaways-what I liked best about SW’s approach to blogging and social media:

  • They leverage their employees: The Nuts About Southwest blog is mostly the result of employee posts-writing about their life at SW, issues, people, etc. There are about 30 regular bloggers, but more appear to jump in on occasion-such as the recent 40 year anniversary campaign. Different employees have been writing about their unique experiences over the years, creating a tapestry of memories.  Example- one employees posted his favorite photos from the early 1970s.

Christi says they motivate employee-bloggers with “little perks, goodies.” “But mainly these are  people who love their jobs-and they love to talk about it.” Lesson: tap your employees’  interests, passion.

  • They clearly represent the brand: At times the blog has a bit of a rah-rah cheerleader feel, but SW is a vibrant, people-oriented brand-and that’s what they’re reflecting. Overall I get the feeling employees are speaking out authentically vs a canned program that’s micro-managed by PR/Legal/HR.  “We don’t hide behind the brand, we want people to speak out in their real voice.” Lesson: be authentic.
  • They employ stories: Personal and business stories are far more memorable than facts, and few blogs utilize them well. SW’s blog feels like one set of rolling stories, starting with the program’s history (SW launched its blog and social media efforts in 2006, after ending its participation in a cable TV reality TV show (“Airline”) – in a sense, they were “continuing the conversation.”)  Many of the employee posts are personal stories. One pilot talks about his early days in 1973 when SW had only 3 planes and a handful of employees, a “David & Goliath” story. Lesson: Tell stories.
  • They’re lean, efficient, focused: They operate from a web COE (center of excellence) model with Christi’s group enabling social media activities across SW. Christi only has five people on her staff, including one editor who manages all of the content. Three of them rotate to monitor conversations and respond to comments. They do little editing, so employee bloggers retain their true voice. Lesson: you can do more with less if you’re organized, focused.
  • They listen: SW was dinged back in early 2010 when the airline  kicked off an overweight passenger who didn’t fit in the seat.  Turns out he was a budding filmmaker with a large Twitter following, and promptly started blasting SW. SW’s communications team immediately responded with tweets and phone calls to see what they could do to rectify the situation, winning a “commendable” nod from Mashable. The situation eventually faded away. More recently-this week-it’s being hammered for the stupid acts and rants of one pilot.

But from what I can tell, SW does a reasonably good job listening via Twitter and Facebook and providing relevant tweets and posts-example, harsh weather conditions affecting flight schedules, discount deals and so on. Right now as I’m scanning its Twitter account, they’re trying to put out fires regarding glitches on their website handling last minute summer travel sales. Lesson: Listen, and be ready to respond … fast.

It’s easy to talk about a company’s social media programs in a vacuum. This may be misleading because social media efforts are largely a reflection of the company’s culture and attitude.

SW may have an edge in this area, if my personal experience is any indication. Maybe it’s not that SW is perfect on the customer service front-they’re not-but many of its rivals are so weak (I’ve been flying SW for over 20 years). United Air is a good example. When I complained about their charging my wife and I $150 apiece recently for having to put our reward two tickets back in our account (we couldn’t use them for the original rewards-based flight), the response was consistently negative and “we’re doing this by the book.”

I tweeted about it several times, not a peep (or tweet) response from United. (maybe the problem is “the book.” You can pull miles in and out of accounts at SW).

As the old saying goes, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. Don’t think you can sugar-coat a company’s culture and business approaches with social media programs.

Final lesson: think of your customers first, second and last (the profits will follow).

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About the Author

Mark Ivey
Mark Ivey is a social media consultant with the ION Group and a published author with a broad corporate background in editorial, marketing, social media and executive communications. He’s served as a Bureau Chief at BusinessWeek magazine, national media spokesman for Intel, and recently, as Editor in Chief for Hewlett Packard, where he pioneered a new program to drive its enterprise blogs and other social media activities. Besides family, friends and good wine, his passion is social media-training, strategizing, and exploring new digital paths for his clients. Find him on Twitter at @markivey.
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  • Great article!  I’m a social media intern at a company and I feel like I’m fighting and pushing to get them to respond to their customers, it’s ridiculous

    • Join the club ;) . Seriously we’re all fighting this battle at different levels. Good luck! 

  • All great points, Mark! SWA is a great example of a successful social media plan and team. They’ve really done an excellent job using employee stories to humanize the brand as well as not shying away from bad press by using social media (among other methods) to resolve issues. Goes to show that proper social media monitoring can really boost your brand!

    • Good point. We’re working with a new client now, a small company, but first thing we’re doing is helping them set up an effective listening program–and then begin to work on how to respond and operate proactively, as SW does. thanks for your comments. 

  • Love the insight here.

  • Love the insight here.

  • Love the insight here.

  • nancy

    My friend always quotes Back to the Future when her children aren’t listening to her and she says ‘Hello? McFly?’a la Biff. Another young friend asked her why she kept saying that and was she a big fan of McFly?! We felt ANCIENT. She’d never even watched the film!

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  • Creekjim

    nice article but a budding filmmaker? are you kidding me? it was kevin freaking smith! the dude is a legend in film. budding…thanks for the laugh.

  • too bad that traveling with them is not nearly as enjoyable as their Social Media efforts.

    I travel AT LEAST 2 times a month and even live in Arizona….never fails that something goes wrong. lost luggage, bad service, flight attendant issues, changing planes, leaving on time, seating (ACK)….usually the pilots are funny and entertaining but that buck stops there.
    It’s easier to fly them out of Tucson, but I usually go OUT OF THE WAY to fly someone else.
    If you knew me, I really easy going and am SO not alone in my opinion of SW.too bad too, they USED to be my FAV. :(

    • Hey there, good lookin’! Thanks for swinging by. Odd that you’ve had bad experiences. I’ve become quite the SWA fan. I prefer to fly them. Funny, but everyone seems to have polar opposite experiences with any airline. I hate United with a passion for dozens of reasons, the primary of which is they at least used to have like 1 guy in Louisville. The same kid checked me in at the front, then 45 minutes later boarded the aircraft. And he might have been 20 with no personality or concern for the customers. But I’ve heard people swear by United, too. Same with Delta and US Air.

      But if you’ve had a couple bad experiences, the brand usually loses you. I understand. 

      BTW … Nashville to Louisville on SWA is uber cheap. ;-)

      • Hey honey! I know what you mean. If at all possible, I prefer to fly Frontier. Used to like American Airline until they stranded me for 72 hours, were very unaccommodating, lost my luggage, got me sick and broke my computer by stuffing it in the overhead.

        At least SWA lets you check your baggage and doesn’t charge the price of a kidney thus encouraging people to check bags.I leave for Nashville on Sunday…super excited…lots of good news to share with you.
        talk soon!

  •  Hi Mark! Great share . This is a fine example on how social media can be used to connect with our potential customers or clients and develop a good relationship with them. Thanks for the share.

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  • So far, the over riding strategy I see with most successful social medium marketing is allowing people/clients to tell their stories. Thanks for sharing.

    • You’re right- story telling is now a key part of social media strategy. Thanks for the comment and stopping by…

  • Thanks Mark, great breakdown of how Southwest have been able to use social media. The importance of telling stories is a good point, I think that can be overlooked, and like Jenn commented, made up stories just won’t cut it.

    I like the idea of sharing photos and stories from the 70s, what a wonderful way to preserve those memories and share them with the new generations – customers and employees alike. That’s something that we should see more of.

    – Jon @Freshnetworks 

    • yeh, the nostalgic pics is a great idea–reminds people SW has a rich history, and people have played an enduring role. Thanks for mentioning, good one…

  • Great read, Mark!

    Airlines (and brands of all kinds alike), should take a page out of Southwest Airlines social media playbook. Long gone are the days where we expected and accepted made up stories for the sake of a flashy looking campaign intending to hypnotize us into believing in the product or service. In  fact, clever marketing seems less clever today as the internet makes ideas and splashy events less exciting to those who claim to have ‘seen it all’. What consumers seem to cry for the most now is simply authenticity and transparency. Gone are the days where consumers make a selection based on ‘who has the biggest budget for bright lights and glitter?’ and instead they seek out ‘who listens when I talk and has a heart beat just like me?’. Bravo once more Southwest Airlines – you set the bar high! Jenn Seeley – Community Engagement @radian6:disqus 

    • Jenn- agree, it’s all about authenticity and truly connecting with your audiences and customers now. This is not an easy change for most companies, so it’s interesting to see how a people-focused company like SW is tackling it. thanks for the feedback! 


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