Marc Ellams, head of passenger communications at Heathrow, talks to Steven Thompson about the gateway’s approach to social media.
What social media channels does Heathrow use?
We’re predominantly on Facebook and Twitter @HeathrowAirport although we do have a presence on Foursquare, which people use to ‘check-in’ to places they visit, and that’s something we’d like to explore more.
We also have a LinkedIn presence, which is minimal, and we have a toe in the water on Pinterest and Instagram, and we’re looking at evolving those channels later in the year.
With Foursquare there is an obvious synergy there for us, with the ‘check-in’ concept. In the future, we hope we can add value to the journey for passengers who ‘check-in’ with us by giving them more relevant information.
How many followers/likes do you have?
We have around 130,000 on Twitter and around 50,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook. The immediacy of Twitter makes this the most popular channel for us. Ideally, we want to get to the point where our online community becomes increasingly self-serving and advice about travel is swapped between virtual friends.
You know you’re winning, and we’re starting to see this, when people in your community are answering queries asked by other people within the community. It becomes this self-serving beast, which really works, because ultimately, social media is a community tool.
As an airport we want to be able to say, ‘this is the Heathrow community space, come and talk in this space’, and hopefully people can get what they want and need out of it, with us helping and sharing where we can.
In terms of industry benchmarking, we look to companies like Lego, for example, who very much have that community feel, and that’s the model we’re working towards. What Lego do really well is they manage to get other people to put content in their space, and when you manage to do that then you’re really winning.
We’re always keeping our eye on market leaders, even though people are also looking towards us as well, which is nice.
Who do you communicate with?
Predominantly, we talk to passengers, although more and more we’d like to be talking to influencers, who shape debates, people out there who are potential passengers. We look at our approach to social media across three fundamental elements: adding value to the journey, engaging with our passengers, and supporting their requirements.
Currently, we work on a query-resolution basis, in the future we would like to work in a funkier, sexier and more ‘real’ way. If a passenger says to us, ‘can I buy baby milk at the airport?’ Rather than just saying ‘yes you can’, we want to send someone to find you in the airport and help you out, and really look to add value.
To this end, we’re already getting far more traction in terms of conversations, so rather than it being transactional – you ask me something, I reply, and that’s it – instead, we are establishing a relationship. So what we’re seeing more and more is people who come back and initiate the conversation when they are next at the airport.
How do you deal with an angry passenger on Twitter?
It’s easy to panic and think, oh my God, it’s out there on social media, but actually, you have to be open and honest, you have to understand the fundamental problem.
You have to look at it from the customer’s point of view – put yourself in the customer’s shoes. What is this customer feeling at this point? They’re in the airport, it might be that their bag’s lost, you have to understand how that feels for them, and if you’re in social media, then you have to engage with them directly because that’s the medium they are in.
You have to show them that you care and empathise, even if you can’t give them an answer immediately, you have to tell them that you’re going to deal with this for them, because we do care!
The risk-reward factor is that, if you get it wrong with social media, it can go viral very quickly, but equally, if you’re backing yourself and you’re confident in what you do, then the opposite is true and you are recognised for your efforts. That’s kind of where we are now at Heathrow, which is encouraging.
Obviously, if you do get something that looks particularly sensitive then it’s a good idea to take it offline and go down the direct messaging route to resolve it, but ultimately believe in yourself and know that if you do give a good experience and handle the situation, then people will talk about it.
You’ve heard the old metric that people will talk 10 times more about a bad experience than a good one? Well, on social media, I think that dynamic has shifted, and it feels like people are far more willing to be positive, because there is that immediacy.
If you’ve had a good experience on social media then you have that same route to say immediately, ‘hey look what just happened’. Social media drives excellence because you have to be on your game.
How many people do you have working on social media?
We have three to four people on it at any one time, but we do have the ability to extend the team if the airport is disrupted.
We’ve made sure we have enough flexibility to support any issues that we might have, so if London experiences severe snow disruption, like we did in 2010, then you need to be able to deal with the demand, because that’s what customers want.
How has social media changed the way an airport communicates with its passengers?
It has made everything more immediate. Today it is all about the here and now, whereas in the past in was more about tomorrow as the traditional ways of communicating – telephone calls, handwritten correspondence and feedback cards around terminals – inevitably delayed the process.
Social media allows us to capture the stuff that people otherwise wouldn’t necessarily tell us about, even if it involves a point of friction on their journey through the airport. It is always good to be aware of potential problems, and from our point of view, this type of information is invaluable.
True, it is a bit of a Pandora’s box, and you have to be ready to deal with an influx of feedback because there’s potential for it to be overwhelming, if you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. But you just have to relax and accept that these issues were always there, we just never got to hear about them before, let alone were able to give our view or respond.
It is also worth remembering that if you weren’t on social media, those conversations would still be happening, you just wouldn’t be involved in them and you wouldn’t be able to shape the debate, help, or give information to inform opinion. One of the things we’re really pleased about is the fact that being in this online space lets you deal with misconceptions.
What are the pitfalls of using social media for an airport?
There really aren’t any, although the fear is that you potentially leave yourself open to negative feedback.
Having said that, it is worth remembering that how you present your brand online is critical to making social media work for you. We’ve a lot of debates about how our brand should be presented on social media, because in my opinion, it needs to change.
After all, social media is the people’s channel and if you come in there in a corporate suit, so to speak, people won’t engage with you. In fact, they are most likely to turn off and won’t talk to you.
You need to translate what you want to say into something compelling. Content is key, ultimately. You have to check it by saying: “Would I want to retweet this? Would I send this to a friend?”
Don’t forget that you want to support your passengers – that should be the fundamental basis of what you’re doing. Tone of voice is important, and getting that right that is a key skill for the staff that you have working on social media.
In what ways can social media help an airport?
It can help an airport massively in terms of understanding your passengers’ view of their experience passing through the airport. It can help you understand what they’re feeling at every point throughout that journey, which helps you then to find ways to improve. It also provides an opportunity to engage, and for us, one of the key things it has done is allowed us to get across some of our personality.
It’s taking that large corporation but interacting in a way that makes people think of a 1950’s corner shop. That’s what a lot of businesses have struggled with. You can start to be more human and have a relationship with your passengers.
We’re getting there. We’ve got a large amount of people who are regular tweeters with us because they feel they’ve got some resonance with us, and I think that’s a great opportunity for airports to tap into.