Cak shows the way

PITTSBURGH — A session titled: ‘Social Media, BFF or Frenemy,’ drew full-attendance here at the Airports Council International-North America 19th annual conference and exhibition. Among panelists was Akron-Canton Airport (CAK) senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer Kristie VanAuken. VanAuken’s team is considered an industry leader in terms of leveraging social media to create genuine relationships with customers and to amplify the airport’s core brand messages.

Attendees at ACI-NA’s session on social media in Pittsburgh last September were treated with a comprehensive case study on social media, and how Akron-Canton Airport has had considerable success in utilizing the Web’s social sphere to enhance the airport customer experience as well as further establish its core brand message: A better way to go.

CAK has been actively involved with social media from the beginning as the first airport in the country to have a blog, and the first to have a Facebook fan page. “We’ve always been kind of change-chasers,” comments VanAuken.

“Social media tends to match with who we are, and our core commitment to transparency. It is our responsibility to our community to be open and accessible.” Social media facilitates that goal, she relates.

A deeper conversation

“We consider ourselves an uber-marketing small-hub airport in the Cleveland-Ohio region with a laser-focus on customer care,” explains VanAuken. “The more adequately you define your airport, company, or brand, the more likely you will be successful in communicating what your differentiations are in the hearts and minds of your customers. We know exactly who we are; we translate that across every communication channel, not just social media.

“It’s really important to know what your brand stands for; that gives a high level of believability and buy-in.”

With some 1.5 million passengers annually, CAK is not a large airport, however, it has grown 275 percent in terms of passengers in the last decade.

Why utilize social media?, VanAuken asks. “Because we can create a connection,” she adds.

“We don’t have a direct conduit to our customer in any other platform because the airport is outside of that interaction between the customer and the airline. We’ve never been able to join that conversation before.

“Now, we get to be active participants in the conversation; that’s why we are there.”

A relationship for life

New media is transforming, says VanAuken. The use of smart and genuine social media strategies can transform the customer relationship into one that is for life, rather than just simply advertising acquaintances, she adds.

With regard to blogs written by airport staff, or even directors, VanAuken says they are a great way to get an insider view that we simply cannot get from any other human being.

CAK utilizes visual media sites like YouTube and Flickr quite extensively. Comments VanAuken, “We recently unveiled our capital plan on YouTube and have gotten nearly 2,500 views on that alone so far.” The airport has also supplied staff with Flip video cameras to produce customer testimonials at the airport setting.

The Flip, a small video camera that connects with a USB drive for easy editing and uploading of brief videos to the Web, is “Very easy to use and allows you to tell an ‘insider’ story,” says VanAuken. “During snow storms we would take our flip out on the snowplow and ask the operator, ‘Hey what kind of broom is this? How many passes does it take to clear the runway? How long does it take?

“Our customers don’t get any idea of what we do everyday, and we get to show them. They get this inside view of what the airport business is about — and they are just eating it up.”

CAK also talks to customers while they are waiting at a gate for a flight, asking questions about the passenger’s destination and airline. There is zero-cost outside of the time it takes to shoot the video, relates VanAuken. “We throw those videos up on the Web and thousands of people watch them,” she says.

Facebook is the center of CAK’s social media strategy,” remarks VanAuken. “We use it to amplify our core brand.”

To increase the airport’s Facebook fan base, Van Auken says it uses a lot of contests, special promotions with airlines, coupons, trivia, and other types of creative marketing initiatives.

And if someone posts something negative on the airport’s Facebook comment wall? VanAuken’s advice is to start dialoguing with the customer, and express that you want to help them solve their problem.

“Is there anything better for validating your brand than solving somebody’s problem in public?,” asks VanAuken.

Bringing it together

“It’s really important for us to bring it all under one brand presence,” explains VanAuken. “At Social CAK, customers get everything we’re doing, every social channel at one website portal, including an online chat with our CEO.

“Social media is very fragmented, with many different platforms; it can be hard to manage all those platforms. What we needed to do was bring it all together, and we wanted to do that with our branded presence on the Web/airport homepage [].