Southwest Airlines and Social Media Strategy: 5 Lessons for Marketers

by Mark Ivey |

One challenge I’ve had with many corporate clients is getting employees to blog. Most corporate folks feel like they don’t have the time or skills. So it piqued my interest when I found out Southwest Airlines has a slew of employees writing their Nuts about Southwest blog. I was drawn in by the energy and spirit of the blog: All homegrown.

Curious, I sat down (virtually) with Christi McNeill, who manages SW’s corporate social media strategy to discuss the blog and social media program.  Turns out they’re doing a lot right down in Dallas. The social media program, started in 2006, is showing impressive results: 12 million monthly visits to its website, 1 million Twitter followers, 1.3 million Facebook likers.

Logotype till flygbolagsbloggen Nuts about Sou...
Image by bisonblog via Flickr

The goal with their program is a combination of conveying news about SW, highlighting its culture and engaging with its “fans” (ie, customers), according to Christi.

Below are my five key takeaways-what I liked best about SW’s approach to blogging and social media:

  • They leverage their employees: The Nuts About Southwest blog is mostly the result of employee posts-writing about their life at SW, issues, people, etc. There are about 30 regular bloggers, but more appear to jump in on occasion-such as the recent 40 year anniversary campaign. Different employees have been writing about their unique experiences over the years, creating a tapestry of memories.  Example- one employees posted his favorite photos from the early 1970s.

Christi says they motivate employee-bloggers with “little perks, goodies.” “But mainly these are  people who love their jobs-and they love to talk about it.” Lesson: tap your employees’  interests, passion.

  • They clearly represent the brand: At times the blog has a bit of a rah-rah cheerleader feel, but SW is a vibrant, people-oriented brand-and that’s what they’re reflecting. Overall I get the feeling employees are speaking out authentically vs a canned program that’s micro-managed by PR/Legal/HR.  “We don’t hide behind the brand, we want people to speak out in their real voice.” Lesson: be authentic.
  • They employ stories: Personal and business stories are far more memorable than facts, and few blogs utilize them well. SW’s blog feels like one set of rolling stories, starting with the program’s history (SW launched its blog and social media efforts in 2006, after ending its participation in a cable TV reality TV show (“Airline”) – in a sense, they were “continuing the conversation.”)  Many of the employee posts are personal stories. One pilot talks about his early days in 1973 when SW had only 3 planes and a handful of employees, a “David & Goliath” story. Lesson: Tell stories.
  • They’re lean, efficient, focused: They operate from a web COE (center of excellence) model with Christi’s group enabling social media activities across SW. Christi only has five people on her staff, including one editor who manages all of the content. Three of them rotate to monitor conversations and respond to comments. They do little editing, so employee bloggers retain their true voice. Lesson: you can do more with less if you’re organized, focused.
  • They listen: SW was dinged back in early 2010 when the airline  kicked off an overweight passenger who didn’t fit in the seat.  Turns out he was a budding filmmaker with a large Twitter following, and promptly started blasting SW. SW’s communications team immediately responded with tweets and phone calls to see what they could do to rectify the situation, winning a “commendable” nod from Mashable. The situation eventually faded away. More recently-this week-it’s being hammered for the stupid acts and rants of one pilot.

But from what I can tell, SW does a reasonably good job listening via Twitter and Facebook and providing relevant tweets and posts-example, harsh weather conditions affecting flight schedules, discount deals and so on. Right now as I’m scanning its Twitter account, they’re trying to put out fires regarding glitches on their website handling last minute summer travel sales. Lesson: Listen, and be ready to respond … fast.

It’s easy to talk about a company’s social media programs in a vacuum. This may be misleading because social media efforts are largely a reflection of the company’s culture and attitude.

SW may have an edge in this area, if my personal experience is any indication. Maybe it’s not that SW is perfect on the customer service front-they’re not-but many of its rivals are so weak (I’ve been flying SW for over 20 years). United Air is a good example. When I complained about their charging my wife and I $150 apiece recently for having to put our reward two tickets back in our account (we couldn’t use them for the original rewards-based flight), the response was consistently negative and “we’re doing this by the book.”

I tweeted about it several times, not a peep (or tweet) response from United. (maybe the problem is “the book.” You can pull miles in and out of accounts at SW).

As the old saying goes, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. Don’t think you can sugar-coat a company’s culture and business approaches with social media programs.

Final lesson: think of your customers first, second and last (the profits will follow).

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About the Author

Mark Ivey

Mark Ivey is a social media consultant with the ION Group and a published author with a broad corporate background in editorial, marketing, social media and executive communications. He’s served as a Bureau Chief at BusinessWeek magazine, national media spokesman for Intel, and recently, as Editor in Chief for Hewlett Packard, where he pioneered a new program to drive its enterprise blogs and other social media activities. Besides family, friends and good wine, his passion is social media-training, strategizing, and exploring new digital paths for his clients. Find him on Twitter at @markivey.