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

Mastering the transparency game

JetBlue's svp, marketing Marty St. George Photo: Christopher Gabello

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.

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