KLM has attracted plenty of attention for its various Facebook initiatives over the years - but is there any value to it all beyond PR and getting "likes"?
Obviously travellers having some kind of affinity for the Netherlands-based carrier has helped part of the way to it reaching some 5.5 million fans in just a few years, alongside some of its useful, imaginative (and wacky) promotions.
Compared to other major carriers it has soared, eclipsing airlines such as Delta (1.3 million), Cathay Pacific (700,000) and British Airways (1.2 million).
At the Ancillary Merchandising Conference in Barcelona, Frank Reeuwujk, KLM's head of marketing communications, says the airline has put a lot of effort into its Facebook strategy only to establish a direct relationship with customers.
"It doesn't mean we are the best - it just means we have used the opportunity well, especially as the reach is actually way beyond five million when you factor in those seeing their friends' activity [on Facebook]."
Still, the question which many travel brands still struggle with has not gone away: as Reeuwujk admits, can Facebook become a solid revenue source or does it simply remain a "brand enhancer"?
Companies obviously want to leverage the viral aspect of social media into becoming a key marketing channel, as well as understanding more about their customers - but can a platform such as Facebook become an important direct sales channel as well?
In short, as Peter Marriott, director and chief technology officer for GlobalLoyalty, a company KLM has been working with to try and figure it all out, says: having five million+ likes is nice, "but ultimately it's about monetising the visibility".
A few elements around travel and social media which Marriott claims are prime opportunities for a carrier such as KLM, include seizing on the viral nature of Facebook and integrating frequent flyer programmes into the system.
Platforms are now being created which allow carriers to integrate flight auctions, daily deals, up-selling of ancilliary products, group purchasing of tickets and the FFPs run by most airlines or alliances (although cross-integration for the latter can be problematic).
For example, an auction can be created which automatically sets prices for, say, a seven-night trip to San Francisco (incl hotel), where friends can collaborate to bid for the already discounted product.
There might be only a handful of "winners" of the auction (a tick there for a direct sale), but the bigger opportunity comes in the post-auction activity.
Marriott says the smarter carriers should use the obvious enthusiasm by people to take part (hey, they entered in the first place) to then hit participants with a discounted deal which doesn't hit the yields.
- 120 total bids
- Winning bid goes for Euro 705
- The top 10% bid Euro 600+
- The following 40% bid somewhere between Euro 400-600
- ... so hit the top 10% with a deal valued at Euro 620 and the next 40% at Euro 450
The auction model might seem like a bit of a headache to those that use something like Facebook purely for engagement, but when hard numbers can flow back as a result of being a little bit more imaginative. then perhaps there is something more to it after all.
Even simpler ideas such a "gifting" products and services to fans if they encourage friends to join FFPs are a decent place to start, Marriott says.
Yet perhaps the relative infancy of the channel as a lucrative one for brands, means that experimentation is one of the key things to consider, not least when adding mobile to the equation.
Marriott and Reeuwujk point to a world where services on mobile can be pushed via channels such as Facebook (hey, how many travellers - especially of the leisure hue - are busily checking the network before they fly?) which enhance the pre-trip experience but also continue the ancillary revenue opportunities - think of partnerships with airport retailers, pre-ordering of in-flight services, etc.
So the question is this: in the world of aviation and ancillary revenue, how many airlines are REALLY thinking about their social media strategy as one which can be used to generate revenue as well as the obviously rather flaky metric of social buzz?
Very few (similar to those in the hotel sector, apart from brands such as Starwood), it would appear.
NB: Disclosure – Accommodation for the author’s attendance at the was supported by Airline Information.
NB2:Social loyalty image via Shutterstock.