JetBlue Knows How to Communicate With Customers in Social, and When to Shut Up

Mastering the transparency game

JetBlue Airways landed ahead of schedule in the realm of social media—and in full-blown crisis mode.

It was February 2007, and the low-cost carrier was facing a public relations storm that seemed unlikely to blow over quickly. On Valentine’s Day, freezing rain pummeled the Northeast, grounding most of JetBlue’s planes. Passengers were trapped in their seats on the tarmac at New York’s JFK International Airport for hours, going nowhere and growing increasingly annoyed. In some cases, their delays stretched into days, and more than 1,000 flights were ultimately canceled.

JetBlue’s “Valentine’s Day Crisis” made national headlines, and the brand, which marketed itself as bringing humanity to air travel, was plunged into chaos.

Then, social media was still in its infancy. It wasn’t routinely used by brands to interact with customers or to manage image meltdowns. Yet JetBlue engaged YouTube as part of a major push to contain the situation, posting a heartfelt mea culpa by founder and then-CEO David Neeleman five days after the trouble began. In the three-minute clip, JetBlue apologized for the service failure and explained how it planned to improve.

That early use of a social channel, along with JetBlue’s general openness and willingness to take responsibility, helped it soar above the media circus and resume its steady course as a consumer favorite. Despite weeks of negative news coverage and consumer outcry, the carrier kept its place atop the J.D. Power North America Airline Satisfaction Study for low-cost carriers in ’07, a position it has maintained for seven straight years.

The YouTube play was an epiphany for Marty St. George, who joined JetBlue in 2006 as vp, planning and who since 2009 has served as svp, marketing and commercial. He was amazed by the real-time window social provided into customers’ moods and attitudes (the clip quickly attracted tens of thousands of comments) and by the opportunity for brands to respond immediately.

“Some of this feedback was, ‘I can’t believe you guys let us down like this.’ Some of the feedback was, ‘I still love you and it’s OK,’” he recalls. “As a marketer, my response was, ‘This is like crack because I spent a lot of money and waited a long time to get feedback like this via traditional market research.’ [Now] I’m getting instantaneous feedback. To me, that was the power of it.”

Because JetBlue had already stressed customer service, embracing an all-in social strategy was an organic move. “Social media is sort of beyond a natural for us. … If it didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it because we have this goal of having this human connection with our customers,” St. George says. “What’s so fantastic about social media is, it actually facilitates that one-to-one brand connection that marketers have wanted for so long.”

JetBlue joined Twitter a few months after the storm and now, with more than 1.7 million followers, ranks among the top airlines on the service. St. George also has a considerable Twitter presence of his own, with about 5,500 followers. Dozens of the company’s executives and staff are similarly engaged.

BOOKING SOCIAL ON EVERY FLIGHT

Perhaps because the company’s first brush with social came during a crisis, JetBlue continues to leverage the medium as a serious brand-building tool—though the brand has also learned when silence is the best policy. Experts agree that the carrier’s social savvy has helped keep its image flying high while attracting—and, perhaps more importantly, retaining—a legion of loyal customers.

“JetBlue is a great example of how a company can use social media to build its brand,” says Tim Calkins, professor of marketing at Northwestern University. “JetBlue is so responsive, it really creates a conversation with customers. That makes the brand human and real, and it builds loyalty and [a base of] supporters who love it.”

Since its initial YouTube experiment, St. George, working closely with Morgan Johnston, the airline’s manager of corporate communications and social media strategy, has put together a well-oiled social machine.

“I like what JetBlue does with social, and it’s not just because of a specific campaign, but the overall commitment to digital-social initiatives,” says Bill Green, evp, strategy chief at Noble Mouse, who blogs about industry issues for AdVerve. “Some brands dabble, preferring to try a promotion here and there. That’s fine, but the brands that do the best job with synchronizing their communications have a few things in common, and commitment is one of them. They don’t do it halfway but recognize the value of engaging fans and customers where they live.”

JetBlue’s commitment includes 20 to 25 full- and part-time employees, located mainly at a facility in Salt Lake City and responsible for social and other customer-service tasks. Two or three staffers are always on call, and at least one person constantly monitors social channels in case a rapid response is required.

That may sound like a pure customer-service play rather than brand marketing. But at JetBlue, it’s become impossible to separate the two.

JetBlue is routinely outspent in measured media. The carrier laid out $17 million on advertising in the U.S. in 2012, about half as much as American Airlines, roughly a third as much as United and eight times less than Southwest, per Kantar Media.

The fact that JetBlue’s social outreach is used so aggressively to bolster its brand image helps to level the playing field. In fact, many of JetBlue’s efforts in social play have played out like traditional ad campaigns—or at the very least, guerrilla-marketing theater.

In August 2012, David Baghdassarian, a Florida healthcare attorney and megafan of the New York Jets, tweeted to JetBlue execs that he’d enjoy flying on “JetGreen” to Newark. (JetBlue is the team’s official carrier, and JetGreen an Airbus A320 adorned with the Jets’ green-and-white colors and logo.) Because there was enough time to easily route the plane to Orlando, Baghdassarian got his wish—and JetBlue received priceless publicity in return.

Baghdassarian has no legs, a fact that may have driven some of the coverage—though St. George and Johnston say JetBlue was unaware of it before the Jets-branded plane was rerouted. “While obviously we can’t accommodate such requests for every customer, we approach any request with the mentality, ‘Could we do it for every customer? No. Would we do it for any customer? Of course,’” says Johnston.

In early 2009, JetBlue also enjoyed a spike in media coverage after social interactions led to a change in the airline’s policy regarding passenger fees. The carrier decided to start charging passengers $50 apiece for checking small bicycles, leading to loud complaints on social media by customer Carl Larson. Some companies might have simply refunded Larson’s money (which JetBlue did) and ended the matter there. But the carrier got maximum mileage out of the dustup by dropping the fee for all customers.

“We fixed the policy, and in fact, fixed it before the negative story gained [a] larger audience from customer advocacy sites, turning it into a positive one,” explains Johnston.

Social extends into the paid-content campaigns JetBlue creates with its agency, Mullen. Its most notable effort came in June 2012 with “Get Away With It,” a daily, 15-minute quiz program that invited users to compete for trips.

“Rather than staying within the typical media boundaries, we instead put on our own online game show using Twitter, Ustream and Skype, and then used our paid and social media to build excitement for it,” says Sean Corcoran, Mullen’s svp, director of digital media and social influence. All told, 13,000 consumers signed up, and the Webisodes averaged 10 minutes of viewing time each.

SOCIAL RISKS and REWARDS

The successes are not to say that social media is always a fun ride for JetBlue. Since the brand has demonstrated a willingness to have serious conversations with its customers as opposed to merely posting silly rhymes, riddles and #HappyFriday messages in its social feeds, it sometimes encounters turbulence.

Here’s an example from JetBlue’s Facebook page Aug. 21, concerning a wedding promotion with Hawaiian Airlines. It illustrates the kind of unforeseen pushback and real dialogue that can develop between brands and their customers.

Facebook fan: no gay couples? boo.

michelle densmore: … [M]y partner jen and i were actually chosen to be finalists … it would have been such an amazing experience, but the timing of it was not do-able for us. It was SUCH A tough decision but we decided to withdraw our names!

Facebook fan: they should have chosen another couple then – since the final 3 do not attempt to represent the very wide range of couples that frequent and have mad love for jet blue.

jetblue: … We choose finalists based on their stories, not their orientation. Michelle and Jen have a great story, but when they told us they wouldn’t be able to participate, we looked for another great story from the submissions. (We wish you both all the greatest happiness Michelle and Jen!)

Facebook fan: there are so many stories just starting to be told, for couples around the country who have waited 30 or 40+ years to marry. i still love you jet blue and I’m not handing in my true blue card anytime soon. but i think you could have done much better. who says you couldn’t choose participants with the best stories, who also represent the scope and diversity of your consumer base? the two are not mutually exclusive. i was not at all suggesting you should have picked a couple solely based on orientation. surely you had thousands of submissions where you could have narrowed down the pool based on who best represents the broad consumer base of your brand with the best story to tell.

morgan johnston: … I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this The focus from the group judging submission was really on the stories – as we articulated in the submission process. In all honesty, I’d love to have had a diverse demographic selection for the finalists, but we worked with what was submitted.

Facebook fan: understood. and thank you morgan. nothing but love for jet blue.

Rather than simply keeping quiet and hoping that a potentially volatile situation went away, the airline responded in a straightforward manner. It’s also noteworthy in this dialog that JetBlue clearly had built up enough equity for another fan to rise to its defense—even the vexed consumer goes on to admit she still loves the brand.

“If you’re going to be transparent in social, then that means engaging fans and addressing all issues surrounding your brand—both good and bad,” says Noble Mouse’s Green. “Most times, brands who address a problem head-on, minus the spin, end up diffusing a situation. It’s when they ignore public outcry that they dig themselves a hole.”

Still, knowing when not to respond can be important, too.

In August, JetBlue took heat for introducing a ritzy VIP section with amenities like massage-equipped flatbeds and 15-inch TV screens—while reducing legroom in coach by an inch to 33 inches and installing slimmer seats. Gothamist’s headline, “JetBlue Screws Coach Passengers,” pretty much summed up the media’s take.

On social media, JetBlue chose to keep quiet.

“Room in this new [coach] seating, 33 inches, is more than the leg room you get at 34 inches today because of the way the seat is sculpted,” responds St. George. “It’s one of those things where, it’s so complicated to explain, there’s no way to win that argument in social media.”

Strategically, maintaining silence was preferable to overexplaining, arguing and risking appearing defensive or insincere.

Says St. George: “There are places where you can effectively use the channel for what you want to communicate, and there are times when you’re just making yourself feel better.”