SAN FRANCISCO — Social networks can be valuable tools to build a business’s brand and keep track of customer needs, according to Porter Gale, vice president of marketing for airline Virgin America.

As illustrated by the meteoric rise of Google+ in recent weeks, "social media obviously is here to stay," Gale said during a presentation at the Real Estate Connect conference in San Francisco last week.

The Virgin America brand is known for its endeavors to make flying more than just a routine experience. From its mood lighting to a safety video that features a bull sitting next to a bullfighter, people like that the airline takes "a different approach," Gale said. That approach has created "lots of social media buzz and engagement," she added.

Virgin America spent about $18 million in sales and marketing in the first quarter of this year. In a marketing department of 20, only two staffers are dedicated to social media, which Gale said is "a growing channel for us."

SAN FRANCISCO — Social networks can be valuable tools to build a business’s brand and keep track of customer needs, according to Porter Gale, vice president of marketing for airline Virgin America.

As illustrated by the meteoric rise of Google+ in recent weeks, "social media obviously is here to stay," Gale said during a presentation at the Real Estate Connect conference in San Francisco last week.

The Virgin America brand is known for its endeavors to make flying more than just a routine experience. From its mood lighting to a safety video that features a bull sitting next to a bullfighter, people like that the airline takes "a different approach," Gale said. That approach has created "lots of social media buzz and engagement," she added.

Virgin America spent about $18 million in sales and marketing in the first quarter of this year. In a marketing department of 20, only two staffers are dedicated to social media, which Gale said is "a growing channel for us."

The company started its endeavors in social media with the hiring of an intern, who she said was enthusiastic about promoting the brand. The company now has nearly 160,000 followers on Facebook and more than 235,000 followers on Twitter.

Through social media analytics services such as PeopleBrowsr and Klout, businesses can keep track of how often their brand or industry is mentioned, sentiment toward that brand or industry, some consumer characteristics, and the major "influencers" in that brand or industry.

In the case of the real estate industry, mentions of the term "real estate" on Twitter have been trending up since the spring of 2009, with activity peaking in the first half of this year, according to PeopleBrowsr. In the past 1,000 days, 8 percent of "real estate" mentions on Twitter have been positive, 1 percent negative, and 91 percent neutral.

Most, 59 percent, of mentions have been made by males. The top 10 communities talking about real estate on Twitter are those having to do with home businesses, branding, investors, Wall Street, social media, bloggers, marketing, trading, networking, and business development.

Klout gives Twitter handles scores based on their influence in the network (the handle’s reach and the associated demand for its content). Virgin America has a Klout score of 69 out of 100. Klout also lists the major influencers of a particular brand by Twitter handle — which means businesses have an opportunity to reach out and engage with those people.

For example, Virgin America identified Twitterers influencing aviation in Toronto when it launched in that market, Gale said.

Some hotels are even incorporating Klout scores in their reservation systems, she added, possibly giving top scorers an edge on service.

More than half of Virgin America’s passengers carry laptops and a third log into the airline’s in-flight WiFi, Gale said. Virgin America also offers a seat-to-seat chat system that allows users to text their fellow passengers.

Planes are "a perfect environment for social media" because people are "stuck in these metal tubes" where they "can talk about the service (and) connect with their families," Gale said.

Listening is key. Virgin America changed the type of beer it serves onboard, for example, because there were so many Tweets and Facebook messages complaining about it. At the behest of its social media audience, the company started offering beer from San Francisco-based 21st Amendment Brewery, a brand with something of a cult following.

While Facebook is a good tool for engaging with fans and announcing promotions such as contests, Twitter is best for keeping track of a brand in real time, Gale said.

This is especially true when it comes to what she calls "service recovery." For instance, one Virgin America passenger posted on Twitter that the staff on his flight had neglected to give him his sandwich.

The company’s social media intern contacted the pilot, who talked to a flight attendant, who got the passenger his sandwich. The passenger then sent out a positive tweet about the experience.

"It’s 10 times easier to keep a person than to bring a new one in," Gale said.

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