Harness the Power of Social Media

Aug. 28, 2013
Airports can drive deeper brand relationships by fulling embracing social media platforms

Did you know that more than 1 million travellers have “checked-in” on Foursquare at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport? As they announced their location, they also shared their preferences, seeking services and openly voicing their opinions across a swath of social networks.

What are airports doing to respond to the connected traveller of today? When we ask airport CEOs this question, we tend to receive more questions. That’s because most airports are attempting to understand the ever-changing technology landscape and the consumer trends that are emerging from the connected traveller.

Helsinki Airport Director Ville Haapasaari recently stated that the number of wireless network users increased by 168 percent between January 2012 and January 2013. In fact, user volume is now almost 30 times greater than that back in January 2009. A recent research by eConsultancy.com also found that 75 percent of frequent travellers use smartphones while travelling, and more than 70 percent of them log-on to free airport WiFi.

With the internet and smartphones becoming ever-present,  social media is becoming an effective tool for gathering information, sharing reviews, planning trips, gaining advice and most importantly, making the decision to travel through a particular airport. It is apparent that the age of the connected traveller has arrived. Airports globally have recognized this trend and have responded in kind by building up their social media presence, though mostly limited to marketing. What was unclear till now is how large a role social media plays in airports’ business agendas and how that role will pan out in the future.

Airports Online

A few months ago, SimpliFlying released its annual Social Media Outlook 2012/2013 report that elaborated on the results of an extensive survey with more than 50 airports from different regions across the globe. Participating airports were selected on the basis that were both socially savvy and actively engaging today’s connected travellers, with an eye on driving business goals such as customer service, crisis management and revenue. The study found:

  • Approximately 55 percent of today’s airports invest more than 50 man-hours per month on social media, with the majority of airports reporting that they have one to three staff members working on it.
  • 98 percent of the airports have social media staff working across departments, with marketing as the most common cross-functional role.
  • Airport budgets for social media span from a few thousand dollars to more than $100,000. About 63 percent of the airports surveyed currently allocate less than $10,000 annually to social media, but some airports reported plans to increase that allocation.
  • Most airports have mapped the value of their social media performance to business goals such as  brand engagement, customer service and revenue.
  • The biggest challenge faced by airports is the insufficient allocation of resources to social media. The second largest challenge is the lack of budget.
  • Only approximately 40 percent of the airports surveyed plan to increase to their social media budget in the next year. In contrast, more than 70 percent of airlines in a recent study plan to increase overall social media spend in 2013.

 How many industries have their customers passing through their facilities -- some for up to several hours -- multiple times a year?  Airports more than most businesses, hold a unique opportunity to engage their passengers with the online social media experience.

Gatwick Gets Connected

According to Mandie Armstrong, digital communications manager at London Gatwick Airport (LGW), social media “is a unique opportunity to connect people to your brand for two-way conversation."

Recently, LGW challenged itself to become a more family friendly airport. As a way to keep the stress levels of parents (and nearby travellers) low, the airport found a creative way to store audio stories and keep children busy while they wait. Working in conjunction with the online distribution platform, SoundCloud, Gatwick invited unpublished children’s authors to submit their stories.

More than 70 budding authors took part, with the most popular stories being listened to over 200 times. Gatwick measured downloads and engagement levels, but the No. 1 performance indicator was the number of ”happy” kids. The project is soon to be released to the wider local community.

Engaging instantly and directly with target customers in a way and time that is convenient for them, has allowed Gatwick to communicate the new”brand Gatwick,” with a distinctive tone of voice.

The Gatwick personality is further revealed through the recently held third of its Q&A sessions on Twitter, featuring a senior executive. Its 46,000 followers (since rising to 61,000 followers) had the opportunity to ask the CEO, Stewart Wingate, any questions they may have had regarding the airport. Most airlines and airports wouldn’t dare to venture close to a free-for-all like this in such a public way.. Gatwick’s latest session, held April 4, invited followers to pose questions to Tina Oakley, HR director. 

Today, there are more than 300 airports on Twitter. Gatwick has certainly stood apart from competition, by attaching a face to the brand through its Twitter chats. Airports that follow the lead of Wingate and Armstrong could foster a much better relationship with customers. And guess what, they’d tell the world about it through social media!

Engage the Audience

Not too far from London, Dublin Airport Authority’s (DUB’s) social media activity is about high engagement levels and telling “stories.” Public Affairs Director Paul O’Kane has a journalistic sensibility to their social approach.

DUB aims to significantly enhance the airport’s existing relationship with its customers and stakeholders by leveraging original information and content across a variety of social media platforms. O’Kane is acutely aware that social media is not measured by the number of likes and followers, but rather through real engagement with the audience, which is what his team delivers – daily!

After spending many months developing an effective social strategy for DAA, O’Kane advises, “It’s as useful to know what you don’t want to do with social media as it is what you do want to do. And, Tweeting without strategy is just typing!” Last December, @DublinAirport was named Best Airport Twitter Feed in the world in the Moodies Awards.

The mobile transformation alone has extraordinary implications for every airport, as the connected traveller will expect airports to be accessible through connectivity, charming through excellent customer service and improved customer insight while on the go.

O’Kane had this advice for the rest of airports on social media, “There are two types of aviation people in the world -- those who’ve got social media, and those who are about to get it.”

From Dwell-time to Spend-Time

Beyond brand engagement, airports like Abu Dhabi International are already driving incremental revenue from social media. After just one month in the social sphere, the airport has used Twitter to promote its pay-per-use lounge during off-peak hours --   an initiative that drove more than 18 new clients to the lounge in the first attempt! And the creative folks at Abu Dhabi have much more in store, in the coming months.

Consumers Demand Something New

This year will see some significant changes in how the airport brand and consumers use of social media, which could prove to be a real wake-up call for many airports. 

Airports will need to think very carefully about the content they put out into the social media world, ensuring it is relevant and interesting to the connected traveller. Sharing good content shows you understand what adds value to passenger experience.

Consumers aren’t just craving new experiences — they’re demanding them. Successful airports will be those that adapt and develop from customer insights, both positive and negative.

No matter how you look at it, if you wait another year to introduce a digital strategy, your airport won’t just stand still — it will fall even further behind. Especially when the likes of Gatwick and Dublin are constantly innovating.

David McMullen

Vice president for airports


McMullen is vice president for airports at SimpliFlying, a leading consulting firm that has advised more than 30 airlines and airports on customer engagement strategy. Following five successful years at Routesonline working with airports in route development strategy and marketing communications, McMullen currently leads global airport engagement projects for SimpliFlying.

About the Author

David McMullen