This week, someone in the Qantas PR team had the great idea to run an experiment with a competition on Twitter to promote the luxurious nature of its first class product
A few days on, after a hurricane of negative tweets, posts and down and dirty insults, Qantas has learned that social media is too powerful and dangerous a form of media to experiment on, especially when your staff and customers are looking for a fight.
Here’s what happened. Early in the day (November 22 Sydney time), Qantas launched a promotion around luxury and first class. Entrants had to tweet their "dream luxury in-flight experience" under the hashtag #qantasluxury.
The prize was a pair of first class Qantas pyjamas and an amenity kit. That’s right – the prize was not a flight, rather some left over stuff from the back of (okay, the front of) the plane.
Eighteen hours later and Twitter was still registering 25 tweets per second on this hashtag – almost all of them negative. At its peak, the hashtag stream was running at Matrix-like speed – impossible to read but impossible to turn away from.
#Qantasluxury became the place for customers (and presumably staff) to rant about the recent grounding, the failure of the subsequent enforced negotiation period, general declining levels of service, lost bags, bad meals, missed connections, declining service, the CEO’s pay increase and to just crack gags.
Here are some of my favourites:
#QantasLuxury - "when the passengers arrive before the couriers delivering the lockout notices do" @GrogsGamut
BREAKING NEWS: Qantas introduce #QantasLuxury class. Same as standard class, but the plane leaves the ground.@PuppyOnTheRadio
QANTASS - Quite A Number of Tweets, All Sarcastic #qantasluxury @michaelsname
#qantasluxury Somewhere in Qantas HQ a middle aged manager is yelling at a Gen Y social media "expert" to make it stop.” @kiwi_kali
My (possibly too-inside baseball) contribution:
#qantasluxury when words mean what they mean. When "streamline" ≠ me doing it, enhancement ≠ less points and new spirit ≠ pissed off staff” @hughestim
And the best of the responses actually goes to Qantas itself, when it tweeted(not realising the humour):
At this rate our #QantasLuxury competition is going to take years to judge.
The social media virus spread quickly. Stories appeared in mainstream press including newspapers such as The Age and The Australian. Forums such as Flyertalk and Frequent Flyer lit up with best of the best campaigns for tracking funny tweets.
The customer backlash on the social end of the spectrum spread to every other media channel.
The storm is reminiscent of the issues that Australian online accommodation provide Wotif hit in March this year over another failed social media competition. While the fall out was similar, the cause was very different.
In the case of the Wotif storm the cause was that the promotion did not live up to the hype. Wotif spent days building up a competition only to leave thousands of disappointed customers.
In the case of Qantas the failure was an a head-in-the-sand like mentality that it could ask people to say nice things about the brand while all around them the brand was taking a hammering from other issues.
I mentioned in a post on social media in March 2010 that a critical element to social media is having built up trust. Qantas launched this promotion at a time when trust in its brand could not be lower.
The news was dominated by the days Qantas spent grounded and by the news that the three-week peace between management and unions was over.
Customers are genuinely afraid that Christmas holiday plans are going to be smashed by industrial action. As much as Qantas spends on marketing trying to push "a new spirit", passengers on flights are encountering angry staff and a bizarre pre and post flight announcement by the pilot reminding everyone how important it is for Qantas to be flown by Australian pilots.
Qantas's trust levels are at all time low, consumers were looking for a way to rant back and staff were on the warpath. In other words the absolutely worst time in the world to be running a campaign encouraging people to say anything they wanted in an open forum.
We may be unsure as online executives whether or not social media is under-hyped or over-hyped but it is clear that you cannot leave social media as an after thought activity run in the same way as other marketing activities.
The airline's big mistake here was believing that they could control or manage the responses in an open (social) environment. It appears they treated this competition like something you would submit on the back of a cereal packet. Where staff could review the ones they liked and chuck out the ones they didn’t.
Qantas gave life and a forum to the discontent out there.
Big lesson for all of us:
- do not do social media activity in isolation from the state of your brand.
Big message for Qantas:
- focus more on keeping your planes in the air and customers happy than the thread-count on your first class pyjamas.