“Airlines were initially social media punching bags when these tools first came out; complaining was a way to get attention when call centers took forever to resolve a problem,” says Serial Marketer’s David Berkowitz. “Now that novelty is gone, and airlines' satisfaction ratings have generally risen for the past decade. That means airlines have been able to do more to promote their brand and not just defend it from attack.”

Airline industry social media teams are growing, as are social media budgets, in an investment strategy that is emblematic of the way airlines are trying to connect with customers outside of “traditional” marketing.

Of course, airlines are far from alone in relying heavily on social media to engage and retain customers. The dining and hospitality industries in particular share a dedication to customer care and review response. But the airline industry is unique in the sheer volume of social interactions it processes, and the real-time nature of the requests customers make through social media. 

How many requests would that be, exactly?

Well, according to The Atlantic, JetBlue Airways now makes contact with more than 20 people per hour. American Airlines receives more than 4,500 mentions per hour — 70 to 80 percent of them on Twitter.

“In this industry more than any other, changes happen moment to moment and these changes have a significant impact on flyers,” says Brandy Kemp, senior director at Merkle, a performance marketing agency that serves many major airlines, including United Airlines. “Delayed flights, canceled flights, and overbooked aircraft all continually impact flyers. The good news is that travelers and airlines have many two-way communication tools – Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat – to not only resolve issues but to turn naysayers into evangelists.”

But the need to translate public Twitter ire into productive private discourse is a relatively recent phenomenon. As user engagement with social media evolved dramatically over the past decade, airlines’ use of social platforms has shifted in tandem.

“Travel is woven into the fabric of the world – as is social media,” says Maggie Schmerin, managing director, social & digital media at United Airlines, citing the vast increase in consumer time spent with social media over the past decade. “So [of course] it plays an increasingly important role at a company like United.” 

From Twitter to TikTok: How evolving social platforms shift strategy

Airlines embraced social media fairly early: Delta issued its first tweet in 2007, back when Twitter was a nascent platform used mostly for telling friends what you had for lunch.

Social platforms proliferated over the next decade, a 10-year period that has seen the advent of Instagram, Snapchat, WeChat, and TikTok, among others. Consumers today interact with businesses via more platforms — and more often — than ever. This is true across industries, but airlines feel the impact perhaps most profoundly due the increase in volume of social interactions they’ve seen over the past decade.

“Most industries do not manage over the course of a month what airlines now face in a day,” Kemp says. “The coordination of large teams empowered to help flyers takes major commitment from airlines.”

In order to accommodate this growth in interactions, social teams have grown larger over the past five years. Airlines often staff social media customer-support teams with long-time employees who understand the carriers’ existing systems for rebooking flights and solving similar problems. The changes in staffing levels are stark: Three years ago, social media teams with less than five people were found in over 60 percent of the airlines, according to research from SimpliFlying; In 2019, this number dropped to around 30 percent.

“Every major airline [now] has a team like this,” Alexis C. Madrigal writes for The Atlantic. “Southwest runs what it calls a ‘Listening Center.’ American Airlines calls it their ‘social-media hub’ in Fort Worth, Texas. Alaska has a ‘social care’ team in Seattle that responds to the average tweet for help in two minutes and 34 seconds, according to a report by Conversocial.”

In addition to a change in the sheer volume of requests airlines must process, the past decade has seen a profound evolution in the way consumers interact with airlines’ content on different platforms. The early days of Instagram were marked by real-time posting of static images. (Check out these early images, and it’s impossible to miss the contrast with Instagram today.) But over the past several years, the advent of Stories and the proliferation of influencer content has lent the platform a polished feel and made it a destination for “aspirational” content. Airlines must pay attention to these small evolutions in order to understand what kind of content is likely to resonate and on which platforms it can drive engagement.

“The use of social channels for airlines mirrors broader usage,” explains David Berkowitz, a consultant and industry expert at Serial Marketer. “Facebook has become much more important for advertising, but less so for spreading content. Twitter has leveled off, but monitoring conversations there is as important as ever. Instagram is a very powerful channel for spreading branded content and telling stories. Snapchat hasn't been quite as critical for airlines, and TikTok is going to skew younger too. LinkedIn is one of the more interesting channels given how airlines can reach business travelers and corporate travel managers.”

Essentially, the evolution of the way consumers use these platforms shifts how airlines approach them. If customers are more likely to engage with an airline’s ad on Facebook but would rather look to Instagram for inspirational content — perhaps by liking or resharing aesthetically appealing travel shots — airlines must use this knowledge to deploy the right content in the right places. That’s why we see more advertising content on Facebook, where ad impressions overall increased 37 percent in 2019, and more playful, fun content and filters on Snapchat. Likewise, airlines know that aggravated customers are often most likely to take their frustrations to Twitter. (For the most part, airlines aren’t yet active on TikTok — but we’ll see.)

Every airline is doing things a little differently, but they all seem to understand the importance of developing engagement with current and potential customers. (KLM has started to offer real-time flight data over Twitter, and Delta has the largest presence on Instagram.) Today, engagement increasingly depends on meeting customers where they are.

“Airlines do not get the luxury of choosing their preferred social channels. When someone tweets a problem, respond on Twitter. When positive or negative posts hit Facebook, respond on Facebook,” Kemp says. “Today, airline social media teams must be fluent in all channels so, in this way, every social platform has now become equally important.”

Conversations, conversions, and CRM: How airlines define social media success

But what does success look like across these diverse platforms? How do airline social media teams define success in a world that has moved beyond merely counting impressions?

Considering social media’s impact on sales remains critical, of course: According to SimpliFlying, the search for ROI remains a primary concern for 61 percent of C-level respondents at airlines. But this impact can be difficult to measure, since many do not track the funnel from social media through the booking path, and a lot of resources go to non-revenue generating areas, like customer service. As such, it’s key to distinguish between social advertising (aimed at generating clicks/sales), social storytelling (aimed at driving brand awareness), and the growing importance of social care (responding to customers personally and transferring them to direct messaging channels).  

Airlines look closely at customer relationship management (CRM), which is uniquely important in the industry due to the aforementioned volume of social interactions ­that their customers generate. Social listening is a particularly valuable tool here to measure the volume of mentions an airline receives, as well as the sentiment behind them. Airlines can get a more complete sense of their social media successes and failures by keeping track of CRM metrics that are important across industries, such as churn, Net Promoter Score, and customer retention.

“Airlines absolutely have to consider how well they handle customer relationship management and mitigate negative feedback,” Berkowitz says. “One measure that can also be extremely important is how well they shift conversations from public to private channels. Many airlines were among the first brands to adopt Twitter's direct messaging tools, and those help minimize public complaints.”

But over the past several years, the industry has witnessed a bit of a shift.

“Airlines were initially social media punching bags when these tools first came out; complaining was a way to get attention when call centers took forever to resolve a problem,” Berkowitz continues. “Now that novelty is gone, and airlines' satisfaction ratings have generally risen for the past decade. That means airlines have been able to do more to promote their brand and not just defend it from attack.”

This is the point at which airlines can pivot from defining success primarily in terms of social sentiment and conversation volume and think bigger in terms of brand storytelling. Social is not just important for customer care — it’s also a vital channel for storytelling. And the airline industry does have great organic stories to tell.

Think about Delta sharing a photo of their all-black, all-female flight crew during women’s history month, or KLM celebrating travelers who check in on social media. Airlines measure engagement on these types of social posts and campaigns and the effect that they have on overall brand awareness — though metrics around “brand awareness” are often confidential and vary from company to company.  

“Airlines enable wonderous adventures. Airlines have rich content, and social gives these stories a voice,” Kemp says. “But keeping Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and all the other channels working in synchronicity for impact and scale is not as easy as it may seem. This is where agencies are playing a bigger role.”

For example, let’s say an airline sends a social influencer to Brazil to share their adventure as part of a larger South America travel campaign. That seems easy enough, but marketing opportunities can be left on the table if not thoroughly planned. But that idea doesn’t imply a carefully micro-managed program for an influencer to follow. It’s all a matter of allowing room for the spontaneity of true social media moments worth capturing to match up to a clear goal for the airline’s brand.

“Today, we are tasked with ensuring that airlines are leveraging the influencer’s audience outside of their own platforms, supporting their story through paid media, ensuring that retargeting is part of the plan,” Kemp says. Success metrics are then defined through overall reach and impressions from the initial and retargeting campaigns, as well as from which customers converted directly from that content.

Expect to see more extensions of these types of social campaign in the future: Airlines are also increasingly tying in offline opportunities to influencer social media campaigns, propagating influencer content on screens from club lounges, to monitors in and around gates, to seat backs. This gives them an opportunity to provide a holistic, seamless brand experience that ties into other marketing objectives — rather than just creating content that lives siloed in one or two platforms.

So what is the future of airline industry social media strategies?

Expect even more campaign extensions, developments in dynamic content, and a continuous retailoring of content as older platforms evolve and new ones proliferate. But what’s unlikely to change is the function of social media as a primary tool for customer care — and airlines aren’t giving up on turning skeptics into believers.

“Social media gives us the opportunity to dynamically demonstrate how we as an airline not only get our customers from point A to point B safely,” United’s Schmerin says. “But [even more so] how we’re prioritizing the things that matter most to our customers and the communities we serve.”