American Airlines' High-Flying Social Strategy

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Customer Experience
Customer Experience
The airline is using social channels in innovative ways to give customers a better understanding of the business and engage them in conversation.

Today it's do or die for organizations to use social media to communicate with customers and prospects and stay top-of-mind with them.

The most forward-thinking organizations are not only building robust social media strategies to better engage customers, they also understand the importance of creating integrated social media teams that span their organizations. American Airlines is one of these savvy social innovators that decided to create an integrated social media team made up of people from two different functional areas throughout the business, the reservations and customer relations departments, notes Jonathan Pierce, the airline's director for social communications. "They sit together and work collaboratively," he says.

Because the 25-strong team comes from different departments, their expertise spans across the company, allowing them to interact with customers about various topics. "This skills base in one team makes sure that customers can ask us anything on social media, from an operation to a product question," Pierce stresses. Customers have come to expect that organizations are able to answer their questions quickly and efficiently and because of their diverse background and expertise, this group of experts have become the go-to specialists for different issues. For example, if a customer has a question about reservations, there's someone who can give a comprehensive answer. "You need to have a really diverse team with different experiences to meet customers' expectations," he says.

Apart from being more efficient in communicating with customers, the integrated team also helps when it comes to sharing insights gleaned from social media interactions with the rest of the organization, allowing different departments to understand what customers are saying about their part of the business and identify areas of improvement. "We have relationships with every single business unit within the organization," Pierce notes.

Taking customers behind the scenes

But social media is not just about answering customers' questions. Organizations need to go beyond responding to queries and interact with their clients on social channels throughout their journeies. It's all about engagement. As Pierce notes, the aim is to create customer service experiences that are memorable and will ultimately be shared. "We want to create relationships for life," he says. "When a customer asks us a question, we want to get them into a conversation and hopefully develop a lifetime relationship with the brand."

An integral part of building a lasting relationship with customers revolves around familiarizing them with the brand. Customers are more likely to want to do repeat business with an organization that they feel they know well. This was one reason behind the launch of the video series Behind the Scenes @AmericanAir on the airline's YouTube channel, which has almost 17,000 subscribers. The social media team realized that customers were asking different questions about American Airlines and wanted to provide them with the details. For example, customers wanted to know where their bags go after they check them in or what happens during a weather delay.

The airline recognized the opportunity to engage with customers using video so in response the social media team created a series of short videos featuring experts answering common questions. The videos feature experts in different departments and give a glimpse into how each department works. For example, David Ferrel, a strategy analyst within the airlines' revenue management department, explains why the prices of flights fluctuate so much while Ken Chase, the airline's oenologist, explains the process of choosing the wines during flights. "We want to explain some of the complexities of the business as told by the experts," Pierce says. Because the videos are relatively short, averaging around five minutes, it's easy to share them with the airline's 750,000-plus Facebook fans and more than 600,000 Twitter followers.

The videos were successful and when American Airlines launched its new look early this year, it used video to engage customers, including outlining the process of painting the new logo on the new fleet and interviews with designers Ken Kaufman and Isaac Franco, from KAUFMANFRANCO, the company charged with designing new uniforms. "Social media users want to know the real side of the brand. [Videos] allow us to show the human side of American," Pierce notes. He adds that videos, especially explaining parts of the airline that customers never really understood or even knew existed, helps position American Airlines as a more accessible company.

Beyond video, social media played an integral role in the launch of the airline's visual identity, helping bring the new American Airlines to life and to people's homes. Pierce explains that a broad range of social channels were used throughout the launch, for example sharing the announcement on Twitter and posting photos on Facebook. Another important element was using social media as a listening tool to gain real-time insight into customer feedback. "This gave us an immediate understanding, within minutes, that the reaction was favorable," Pierce notes.

Engaging with future hires

While engaging with customers is important, the airline is also using social media to interact with potential future employees. When the airline announced it was hiring thousands of new flight attendants, interested applicants started asking questions about the requirements of becoming a flight attendant, as well as his or her responsibilities. The social media team recognized the opportunity to use social media and earlier this year organized a Tweet Chat with Lauri Curtis, the airline's vice president for flight services. "We were able to take questions about training, visas, etc, answer them, and inspire interested candidates," Pierce explains.

As Pierce explains, success on social media depends highly on having the right data in hand and being able to make sense of it. "Understand what your customers are saying," he stresses. Secondly, organizations need to be nimble to be successful on social media. "This is one channel that represents the entire business," he says. "You have to hire people who are intuitive, are strong project managers, and live and breathe social."

Join us for a Tweet Up with Jonathan Pierce next Tuesday, September 24, at 1pm EST. Use hashtag #1to1social to join the discussion.

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EXPERT OPINION