When it launched its www.aa.com/women site on April 9, American Airlines became the first airline to offer women travelers their own Web portal. In addition to the usual booking materials and guides, the site offers bulked-up information on safety and security, money-saving tips, and stories sent in by fellow fliers.
Yet upon learning about the site, many commentators had a simple question: Why now? American, after all, carried nearly 50 million female passengers last year; around 48 percent of the airline's customers are women.
The answer, according to Nora Linville, director, American Airlines women's sales and marketing, is a simple one. Only through having an active dialogue with its women customers, in this era of hyper-specialized marketing, can a company provide them with the elevated level of service and consideration they've come to expect.
"Marketing to women is not new in other businesses. Financial institutions have been doing this for some time," Linville notes. Indeed, hotel- and travel-industry programs that target women, such as Wyndham Hotels' "Women on Their Way" program, have gained traction over the past few years. "What we saw was an opportunity to make the customer experience that much more unique for women, and to be the first carrier to publicly commit," she says.
In addition, women audiences continue to gain prominence as a niche online market. According to a Harris Interactive study from late 2006, 35 percent of women who booked travel during the past 12 months did so online. Linville adds that women make up to 80 percent of family travel purchase decisions. "You can't ignore what's going on in the demographics," she continues. "Women are amassing wealth and moving up in business circles and corporate positions. They have more earning power and more spending power." To this end, American established a women's travel advisory board to critique the site regularly during its evolution. Board members suggested changes in both design and functionality, most of which were incorporated before the site's formal unveiling.
On its surface, aa.com/women doesn't look much different from the "regular" aa.com, especially after early user feedback prompted the airline to ditch its initial pink color scheme and restore the full-functional booking path that had originally been scaled back. At the same time, it's divided into three categories designed specifically for its women travelers: women connected through business (with "your time/your money" and "travel smart" links); women connected through lifestyle ("girlfriend getaways," "family fun and safety"); and women connected through each other ("book recommendations," "charities we support").
"We were looking to strike a balance between the various types of users and not sell any of them short," Linville says.
It's all in the presentation
Despite the expanded content, which the airline plans to enhance through chat rooms and other experience-sharing opportunities, the site's main differentiator may be its presentation. Little of what can be found on the site is groundbreaking. The way the material is presented, on the other hand, differs from every other travel-industry site, airline or otherwise.
This was a strategic choice on American's part. "I like to use the analogy of a department store," Linville explains. "In the men's department, you have shirts, shoes, and ties in one place. In the women's department, you may have similar items, but they're organized and packaged differently: by designer, by color, by season. Like that, what we've done is package information in a more contextual way."
As for the future, American Airlines will likely expand its efforts to differentiate service to other customer groups. The company launched www.aa.com/rainbow, a gay community site, last summer and a visit to www.aa.com/hispanic brings up a placeholder site noting "American supports the Hispanic community." The more relevant the airline can be to specific customer groups, Linville says, the stronger its relationships will become.