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.”