Airlines continue to increase social media staff, but are also adding responsibilities with a greater prioritisation of customer service related interactions over marketing and brand promotions.
The finding is part of the annual Airline Social Media Outlook for 2017 from Simpliflying.
There has been what Simpliflying characterises as “a sudden rise in prominence of hybrid teams,” as airlines grapple with staffing limitations and customer demand for greater, more varied, engagement.
“Hybrid (43%) and dedicated (39%) team structures continue to be the most popular. This year hybrid structures have made a comeback likely due to their lower costs and better integration with the rest of the airline’s structure.”
Customer service only emerged as a priority for airline social media teams in last year’s Simpliflying report, but this year it has become a predominant. A growing number of airlines have placed their social media teams in their customer service departments.
“Customer service was indicated as top priority by 43% of respondents and remains the top goal driven via social media. The constant increase in customer service focus is a response to user demand for faster and more efficient interactions that have the ultimate goal of improving the airline’s brand image.”
The channel has also proven critical to airlines in handling travel disruptions and other service breakdowns, with many airline social media teams doubling as fire-fighters.
“Crisis communications was the most common new responsibility added to teams (31%) coming to the fore after a challenging year. The focus on customer service as a way to improve brand image and match user demand has brought a renewed emphasis on social-media-led crisis management. This is especially true after a year filled with scandals and major operational issues.
Speaking at the Aviation Festival, London, Shashank Nigam, CEO of Simpliflying, says the recent crises in airline customer relationship management on social media have lead to greater visibility of social media initiatives at the C-Suite level.
The PR fiasco that was United’s passenger dragging incident, and media frenzy it generated, was a wake-up call to other airline CEOs, Nigam suggested.
Simpliflying suggests any airline’s crisis communications plan should consider the following key realities of social media:
- Early identification of a crisis is critical.
- Crises do not necessarily involve operational problems or accidents (i.e. product). Very often, a crisis is likely to break out based on how people are treated online or offline (i.e. service). Most of the times, you’re likely to hear about an operational problem on social media than from the Operations team. Ensure the two teams are integrated.
- Crises cannot be controlled with an ad hoc plan. Proper processes are required in advance.
Though they are more aware of the importance of social media, many airline CEOs still have to follow through on supporting their teams by ensuring adequate budget and staffing allocations.
“On the input side, they must ensure that resource and budget constraints are managed adequately. On the output side, they must emphasise the need for social engagement to be aligned with top-level strategy. For instance, it is no longer enough to merely respond or engage with customers online. Most customers expect brands to resolve their queries and complaints on social media…
“Every year an increasingly larger percentage of the marketing budget is allocated to social media. While about a third invest between 10-25%, only a handful invest more than 25% of their marketing budget on it.”
“Despite the growing role that social media is assuming, it’s a major concern that budgets remain restricted, mostly to under 10% of the marketing budget.”
As staffing strategies evolve, a small number of survey respondents suggested that social media should be an independent, dedicated department.
One-third of survey respondents said that they would choose to dedicate any additional budget they are allocated to team expansion. This is a significant increase over the 17% of respondents said they would prioritise financing more staff last year. It is also at odds with where the likely increase of the budget will go next year.
Not all staff needs are for direct engagement in social media, though, Nearly 32% of survey respondents said they need data specialists to help make better use of social media activity data.
“Social media metrics and data analytics remain underdeveloped with 33% of respondents highlighting the need for data specialists and another 31% the need for tools and software.
"Airlines have started measuring and gathering data from social media but it appears that the data is not yet being put to good use and sometimes the metrics being monitored are not the ideal ones.”
Close to another third of survey participants said they see a need for better software and tools to support social media teams.
Simpliflying continues to encourage airlines to experiment with social media platforms to help reach customers, and has introduced the industry’s first dedicated Slack channel for airlines, intended to help social media team managers exchange insights and resources.
The repot include data from a survey of 117 airline staff participants, representing 83 airlines in six continents.
Airlines want customer service and social media teams as priorities