There seems to be two very distinct types of airlines using Twitter - those who "get it" and those who don't.
The difference doesn't seem to be due to a lack of technical infrastructure, expertise, or even corporate policy. The underlying difference seems to be cultural.
In a recent discussion with Greg Hounslow, Emerging Media Adviser for WestJet, I asked some pointed questions about why WestJet seemed to be having success with their Twitter strategy while so many other airlines seemed to be stumbling.
Having a Clear Strategy
There was a a time when WestJet didn't have a strategy for Twitter or Social media in general for that matter. This isn't altogether surprising since most companies lack a cohesive strategy.
During this time of flux, a keen WestJetter took it upon themselves to be the keeper of Twitter. Although this wasn't their primary job, they did it anyway.
That seems to be the nature of many employees at WestJet, they tend to be brand advocates even when they are off duty. Once the company as a whole identified that they needed to have a cohesive strategy, the Twitter account was left dormant until a policy could be developed.
According to Hounslow there is a six month period where the account sat idle. This was a delicate time because six months of inactivity on any social network generally spells doom for a brand. In the case of WestJet however, this was a necessary period of planning.
Clear Commitment to the Channel
Once the strategy was developed, the organization was committed to making the channel work for them. This meant that resources were dedicated to social media, Hounslow was brought on board to manage it, and the team was tasked with ensuring it was successful.
This kind of commitment can be difficult to make for many organizations, especially those that don't understand the requirements or impact. Hounslow explains that Twitter is only one part of a cohesive strategy that includes reputation management and Facebook.
He goes on to say that Twitter and Facebook are just like any other communication medium. A customer may call, email, DM through Twitter, or post a message on the Facebook wall. It doesn't matter which channel or medium they wish to use, the response from the company is the same.
Extension of the Customer Service Culture
Hounslow theorizes that the success of WestJet's Twitter and Facebook strategies are largely due to the company's focus on a customer first culture.
When a customer contacts WestJet, whether it is through Twitter or Facebook, the team responsible for Social media communications responds with the same care and attention that they would if it were a phone call.
Hounslow goes on to explain that most of the one on one communications with customers through Twitter are taken off-line or done through direct message. He goes on to explain that followers are not interested in hearing where another passengers bags are.
Besides being a customer service channel, the Twitter and Facebook accounts are used to promote specials and last minute deals.
Keeping Followers Engaged
Hounslow explained that one of the most popular ongoing events on their Twitter account is "Winglet Wednesday" where passengers are encouraged to send photos of WestJet winglets as viewed from inside (or outside) the aircraft and post them on Twitter.
Encouraging brand interaction and rewarding followers by being responsive and personable can go a long way to building loyalty. Although Houslow wouldn't share details about the WestJet strategy, he did say that being responsive to followers and being aware of activity around the brand on both Twitter and Facebook is an important way of staying on top of potential problems.
So what can other airlines (and travel brands) learn from the WestJet experience? It would seem that the first thing an organization needs to understand is their customer service culture and how social media fits into the big picture.
Next, the organization needs to decide if social media and Twitter specifically is something the culture will support, commit to doing it if it is, and then put the resources behind it in order to make it a success.
You can follow WestJet on Twitter and you can also follow Greg Hounslow.