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The new wave

Billboards are no longer enough to attract well-connected travellers. Social media and the internet have moved the goalposts – and airlines need to be far more savvy, writes Shubhodeep Pal, head of operations and innovation at consulting firm SimpliFlying

If at first it is not apparent, look again: there’s a tectonic shift under way. Airline marketing is undergoing a phase that’s exciting, unpredictable and creative. Debatably, this new and constantly evolving state of airline marketing is unprecedented – in terms of its ingenuity, its previously unseen empathy for the customer and its exceptional brand-building capabilities.


A number of factors have contributed to this renaissance. So, before moving on to what airline marketing really looks like today, it would be useful to consider what exactly is different about it now.


Firstly, the age of advertising is dead. Quite simply, it is no longer reasonable to expect travellers inundated with one-way marketing messages to respond to “because people need to fly”. Such tactics no longer sit well; we’ll see why in a while.


Secondly, effective airline marketing today employs a hybrid model. The pervasiveness of the internet and social media almost necessitates the adoption of marketing tactics that involve both online and offline space. Notably, even Ryanair – the fine fellows who are not known for their customer care – ran an online initiative to offer ticket refunds to their customers through a game called ‘Play and Win’.


Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, airline marketers now have access to powerful tools to run efficient campaigns that could not have been dreamt of even five years ago: think crowd-sourcing, location-based campaigns and the like. This is the time to be creative and to dream big.


RIP, traditional travellers


Easily available access to the internet, coupled with the mind-boggling popularity of social networks and smartphones, has led to the rise of a new socially savvy traveller who is ever-connected on a mobile device. This traveller – both characteristics and behaviour – has important implications for airline marketing strategy.


The travel cycle itself has changed. A three-stage lifecycle – namely planning, booking and travelling – has arguably been replaced by an evolved five-part cycle. In the Connected Traveller Lifecycle model developed by SimpliFlying, based on empirical observation and analysis, it seems that airlines need to look beyond booking. While booking is indeed the driver on which the airline ultimately depends, now it must be reached through the path today’s traveller adopts.


Sharing the secret


Nowadays, travellers conduct extensive research on search engines, travel websites and online travel agencies (OTAs) before they actually make a booking. Now here’s the point: why should airlines let the fate of a passenger’s ticket depend on an external party? What can airlines do to pull potential customers to a decision to buy? Two things: make sure customers dream of flying to an airlines’ destinations before they have even made a conscious decision to travel (the dream stage). Vueling, for instance, asked users to create an Instagram image of a Vueling destination and share it using the hashtag #vuelingairgallery in order to win free flights and have their image featured on the exterior of a special Vueling plane.


In the next plan phase, airlines can make it easy for travellers to finalise their decision and move to the booking phase. Cebu Pacific promised a free flight to their fans on Facebook to the first group of 150 people ready to travel to the same destination.


While booking is still largely handled by traditional means (online booking systems), some airlines have chosen to use social media to spice up the booking process. JetBlue, for example, clears inventory through a dedicated Twitter account @JetBlueCheeps that sells cut-price tickets.

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