I was recently reading an article in The Huffington Post when one of those bottom banner headlines caught my eye. While I usually ignore these grabs for clicks, the title drew me in: JetBlue's 'Flying It Forward' Gives Passengers Free Flights, Just For Being Nice.
As I read, I found the concept of JetBlue's free flights to be a very smart combination of conscious capitalism and social media marketing efforts.
JetBlue bought Tameka Lawson a “free” plane ticket to New York City so she could attend a nonprofit conference. However, the ticket came with one condition: once her flight had concluded, Lawson had to choose another person in need to receive a free plane ride. Her selected recipient would then have to do the same, creating a generous daisy chain of free plane tickets. The success of the campaign made its way onto Twitter and Facebook, and has since gone viral.
However, the ingeniousness of this campaign wasn't just its viral nature. It was the campaign's simultaneous authenticity that helped bolster JetBlue's brand as well. One writer on Ad Age described this social, humanitarian initiative this way, and I believe it's perfect:
“JetBlue is turning an airline ticket into a chain letter of human goodness.”
JetBlue's Secrets to Success
Social media success is rooted in connecting with customers. Genuine social media connections are born from not simply seeing your audience as just your “market” or “customers,” but as collaborators in an online conversation space. As we have discussed previously, customers today want to engage with brands they authentically enjoy; they want to spend money in a place they feel is “real.”
With the help of a few social media platforms, JetBlue incorporated a thoughtful transparency into their brand. Marty St. George, JetBlue's vice president, explains it this way in an article in AdWeek:
“Social media is sort of beyond a natural for us … If it didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it because we have this goal of having this human connection with our customers… it actually facilitates that one-to-one brand connection that marketers have wanted for so long.”
Another lesson to take from the JetBlue brand: When something goes wrong, own it. Easily said, much harder done. Unless you're JetBlue, who adopted this as a fundamental pillar of their business while social media was still in its infancy. In February 2007, JetBlue ran into a nightmare of a storm that could have harmed the company just as fast as it grounded its planes. Coined the “Valentine's Day Crisis,” a massive storm of freezing rain and ice left planes stranded on runways for hours and hours, and more than 1,000 flights eventually delayed or canceled.
While the ensuing outrage was expected, JetBlue's response was not. In a five-minute YouTube video, David Neeleman, founder and then-CEO, apologized to its customers, accepted all blame and promised to get better. And though not every customer accepted Neeleman's apology, the response was generally positive. David Gianatasio explains the reaction this way in AdWeek:
“That early use of a social channel, along with JetBlue’s general openness and willingness to take responsibility, helped it soar above the media circus and resume its steady course as a consumer favorite.”
JetBlue saw this crisis as an opportunity. Be honest, admit a fault, and use this negative turn of events to positively interact with customers. Using social media, they engaged in an open and authentic dialogue, and their brand only grew stronger.
Conversations on Twitter can't be treated the same way as phone calls or emails to customer service teams, largely because they're public and open.
But with thousands of messages a day, they have to be active and calculated as well. This strategy, known as “smart engagement,” focuses on identifying the proper messages to respond in order to spark honest and productive conversations with customers. Eventually, these conversations become more than customer service interactions. They become open dialogues where customers can share and exchange stories directly with other people. They are impromptu opportunities to live up to the values of your brand.
These ideals are at the heart of JetBlue's social media strategy. Bill Green, strategy chief at Noble Mouse and blogger for AdVerve in the above-linked AdAge article:
“The brands that do the best job with synchronizing their communications have a few things in common, and commitment is one of them. They don’t do it halfway but recognize the value of engaging fans and customers where they live.”
Take this example:
In May 2014, Alex Burrows (@Alexa_Burrows) tweeted @JetBlue letting them know she was unhappy about her vacation ending, and she (very jokingly) asked for a parade when she landed. Well, ask and ye shall receive! JetBlue had forwarded the tweet to their crew at Alexa's arriving airport and, when she landed, she was greeted by an army of signs, streamers and music!
And while actions like these garner thousands of retweets and likes on a variety of social media sites, they also make people feel happy, welcomed and wanted. And when you're running a company as big as JetBlue, making just one personal connection with a single customer can go a long way.
Al Eidson is the owner of Eidson & Partners, a business and marketing strategy consultancy, and a founder of SparkLabKC, an early-stage startup accelerator program in Kansas City. He's an expert in taking products to market and has launched more than 220 new products and ventures through his career. He's also proud of killing off a great many problematic products before they hit the market. His vision involves meaningful and lasting products through innovation.