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IT Last modified on July 8, 2010

Twitter Time

In today’s highly competitive world, airports are increasingly turning to social networking sites to communicate with passengers, writes Jessica Twentyman.

The beauty, and in some ways the downside of the worldwide web, is that it is a truly global phenomenon that has redefined the way that the human race communicates and does business.

The old days of telephone calls and face-to-face conversations almost seem like a thing of the past now as we do almost everything online, including ‘talking’ to airports on social networking sites.

And its not just the big boys that have embraced the likes of ‘Twitter’ and ‘Facebook’ as Akron-Canton Airport (CAK) in Green, Ohio has clearly demonstrated by becoming a big noise online.

Indeed, compared with its near neighbour, Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, which handles around 11mppa, CAK's a minnow, handling just shy of 1.5 million passengers. But it's CAK that's winning the war to make friends and influence passengers through the use of social networking tools. In January 2010, CAK announced that it had reached 5,000 'friends' on social networking site Facebook while close to 2,000 people follow it on Twitter.

The airport's marketing team regularly upload videos onto YouTube and photographs onto Flickr, and the airport's president and CEO, Rick McQueen, hosts an online chat session on the third Wednesday of every month, where passengers have the chance to ask questions and share their opinions about the services that the airport offers.

In December 2009, the airport created a new page on its website, 'Social CAK' WHERE `id` = that brings all these tools together in a single location.

"There's no doubt in my mind that social media is transforming the way that people interact, both with each other and with brands and services," says Kristie Van Auken, senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer at CAK.

“We started using these new tools early, setting up Facebook and Twitter accounts back in 2007, and since then, we've been constantly experimenting with them to create connections with customers and potential customers. Our goals are to give them a better airport experience and, at the same time, for us to look deeper into that experience and where it could be improved.” The airport's social networking strategy has been so effective, in fact, that Van Auken and her team are frequently asked by marketing professionals at much larger airports to share the secrets of its success. She is happy to oblige, she says, but adds that smart use of social networking is more to do with culture than available resources.

“As a small airport, we're flexible and hungrier and more open to innovation. A lot of the larger airports are more fearful when it comes to new technologies and conservative in their approach to new forms of communication,” Van Auken suggests.

“What I tell them is that, whether they like it or not, somebody somewhere is talking about their airport online – and they need to be a part of that conversation. They can't just close their eyes and hope the issues goes away."

For now, however, the world of social networking remains largely uncharted territory for many airports. During 2009, many took their first tentative steps, and that typically involved setting up a Twitter account, but according to Steven Frischling of Innovation Analysis Group (IAG) – a consulting and research company focusing on the commercial aviation and travel industries – many “don't use the options to their full potential”.

One reason may be that airports have yet to truly understand that potential, possibly because the Twitter concept is really quite simple.

It's basically an online micro-blogging service that allows users to publish short, text-based messages ('tweets') of 140 characters or fewer about what they are doing and what they find interesting to an audience of subscribers (known as 'followers'). In turn, they can receive tweets from users that they choose to follow.
Simple or not, Twitter now hosts a huge online community, estimated to stand at some 44.5 million users worldwide, according to mid-2009 research conducted by Internet measurement firm Comscore. For brands and businesses, access to that community is valuable in two ways – it provides a target audience for sales and marketing messages and it's also a source of customer feedback.

Today's some of the world's most powerful brands, including coffee shop chain Starbucks, PC manufacturer Dell and the BBC, as well as many of the world's major airlines, view Twitter as a low-cost way to conduct valuable one-to-one conversations with the customers whobuy their products or services, and those who might in future.

“Airports need to start thinking the same way,” writes Steven Frischling in a 2009 blog. “Airports must sustain themselves as well as their 'tenants'," he points out. "They must retain passengers for their airlines; bring in shoppers for their stores; feed hungry travellers at their restaurants; and through these businesses, provide sustained revenue for fuel service companies, catering suppliers, ramp-handling providers, and so on."

Used smartly, Twitter can help them achieve these goals. Airports can 'talk' to their followers, by publishing travel alerts, details of new services and news of promotions being run by other businesses within the airport. And they can 'listen' to what Twitter users are saying about the airport online to identify customer issues and opportunities for improvement in airport services. Like any decent conversation, it's a two-way street.

Since it makes sense for businesses on Twitter to widen the net of conversation as widely as possible, recruiting followers is a priority for any airport looking to make an impact on Twitter. And so is deciding how to make 'tweets' as engaging and useful as possible, if they are to stand any chance of maintaining – and even growing – that following.

For help with these issues, Manchester Airport in the UK turned to digital marketing agency KMP Digitata for specialist help. The firm's consultants worked with airport staff to devise and build two Twitter applications.

The first of these aimed to attract new followers to Manchester Airport's Twitter account (@manairport), by offering them discount vouchers in return for becoming followers, and the chance to win prizes for followers who 'retweeted' (that is, forwarded on to all their followers) @manairport's tweets.

The second application is more focused on delivering long-term value to followers. Gez Daring, client services manager at KMP Digitata, explains: “We thought very hard about what information airport customers, not just passengers, but also those dropping off and picking up travellers, most need from an airport. The plan we came up with was for a live flight information service on Twitter.”

It works like this: anyone that follows @manairport on Twitter can send the airport a flight number viathe service's direct message (DM) function. Shortly after, they will be sent a flight status report that uses the same information as that shown on the arrival and departure boards. The user will subsequently receive an update by DM every timethe status of the flight changes, until either the plane has taken off, in the case of departures, or passengers are collecting their baggage, in the case of arrivals.

KMP's goal was to deliver projects that Manchester Airport staff could quickly start to run themselves, without hands-on help from the agency. “We're always at the end of a telephone line, but we felt it was really vital for the in-house team representing the airport on Twitter to develop its own 'voice' and approach," says Daring. “Twitter works best when it allows the customer to have a relationship with the people behind the brand.”

“ Developing a sense of what kinds of tweet work and what kinds don't can be a gradual process,” admits Troy Bell, director of marketing at Richmond International Airport in Richmond, Virginia. Today, he and his team “probably tweet a message six to seven times per day. But as far as a learning curve goes, we watched and listened for weeks before taking the first baby steps.” After good initial feedback from airport users and local 'tweeps' (people on Twitter), he says, they became
“very active users”.

“Watch our Twitterfeed – @Flack4RIK over the course of a few days, and you’ll see some promotion of fare sales, travel advice, [tips on] navigating security, information very specific to the travel experience at Richmond International Airport, or generally useful for air travellers in general, and we’ll happily retweet good content from a variety of source,” he says.

But where Akron-Canton and Richmond are true pioneers is in their use of Twitter to gather customer feedback, according to Frischling of IAG. Teams at both airports consistently search for customer comments regarding their airports and, where appropriate, respond quickly where they find ongoing issues. This sets them apart from the many airports which, so far, only use Twitter as an alerts service for bad weather warnings and marketing messages.

“Feedback from customers has served, at times, as an early warning radar about service issues, suggestions for experience enhancement, and practical communications such as locating lost and found articles or making environmental adjustments like music volume and temperature settings,” says Bell.

“We’ve helped lost bags containing running shoes make it to a triathlete in time for a race and recovered a laptop for a customer who did not notice its absence until landing at JFK.”

Meanwhile CAK’s Kristie van Auken adds: “Our plan is to transform the customer relationship into one for life, rather than settling for an advertising acquaintance.”

In 2010, we can expect to see more airports following in their footsteps, although quite a few will stumble along the way. In addition, it's likely that Twitter's influence will start to spread to airports outside of the US and UK, although they've hung back so far.

At the time of writing, it's been nearly a year since Amsterdam Schiphol issued a tweet using its @schipolairport account, although it's got 697 followers despite its silence. Tokyo's Narita Airport (@NRT) has only ever issued one tweet – a weather report – back in March 2007. And it's quite common for a month or so to pass between tweets by Oslo Airport (@OsloAirport).

Those who have laid the groundwork early on, however, will be searching for increasingly sophisticated approaches, hooking up with other airports and related businesses in the process. An early example of this came in late 2009, when Boston Logan teamed with San Francisco International Airport, low-cost carrier Virgin America and the Four Seasons hotel chain in a Twitter campaign to promote the route.

As a result, every day in the second week of December, followers of @bostanlogan, @SFOgal and @virginamerica were asked a 'Coast2Coast' trivia question on Twitter. Those who responded correctly were entered into a prize draw, for two roundtrip tickets on Virgin America between Boston and San Francisco, plus a two-night stay in a Four Seaons hotel in either city.

The journey, it seems, has only just begun. For some, it will be a bumpy ride. But as Frischling of IAG puts it: “Airports are businesses. They are businesses that sustain other businesses, and are just as responsible as the airlines for creating a positive passenger experience on the ground.”

As such, Frischling believes that airport executives need to be asking the following question – “What is our airport doing to act, react and interact with our passengers for a positive experience?"

Airport World 2010 - Issue 1

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