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Above downtown Chicago, on the 28th floor of Willis Tower, United Airlines employees stare at double-paneled computer monitors and communicate with the world without speaking.
Members of the social media team at United are sometimes dealing one-on-one with a customer on Facebook or Twitter about a missed flight connection, or blasting out messages to hundreds of thousands about the airline’s newest airfare promotion.
On a recent day, they answered questions from a young woman in New York who describes herself on Twitter as a “gold medalist in sarcasm.” She was worried her flight would be delayed because of weather. They also helped a mother wanting to know if her toddler needed a separate plane ticket.
On Facebook, they answered a question about the rules for flying with pets. On Twitter, they posted a snapshot of an aircraft engine to intrigue aviation geeks.
Chicago-based United Airlines, the world’s largest carrier, is not a leader in using social media, at least yet. It ranks below industry average on many of the newfangled social media metrics, such as interactions, response time and Twitter followers.
Even after several years of prominence for social media, United and companies in many industries are still trying to figure it out — trying to decide just how seriously to take it and what to use it for; fruitlessly trying to calculate a return on investment.
One thing is certain: Corporate America, until recently, could mostly ignore Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn.
Now it does so at its peril.
United, like others, is winging it and learning on the fly.
Experts are starting to link companies’ social media activities with their bottom lines. One report by J.D. Power & Associates found a correlation between overall satisfaction with a company’s social marketing efforts and consumer likelihood to buy something from that company. It also affected the overall perception of the company.
“There are so many companies that are dabbling or leaving it all in the hands of the marketing team and not really paying attention,” said Jacqueline Anderson, director of social media and text analytics at J.D. Power.
That’s a problem when consumers, especially young people, are turning to social media for substantive interaction, such as customer service.
“Companies that aren’t thinking about social media in that way, and are thinking about it as a way to pigeonhole current marketing campaigns into a different channel, are going to lose out and find themselves in a tough spot,” Anderson said. “We’re at the point now where you need to have a social strategy that covers both aspects (service and marketing), because otherwise you’re going to be way behind the curve.”
The auto industry, especially Ford and Toyota, performs well in marketing and service using social media, according to the J.D. Power report. Consumer packaged-goods brands, such as Coca-Cola and Oreo, generally rate highly in such rankings.
Others industries, such as banking, credit cards, telecommunications and utility businesses?
Not so much.
“Fear is holding companies back,” Anderson said. “They are so outside their comfort zone that they’re almost paralyzed in how to do this.”
The airline industry is a mixed bag, performing poorly as an industry but with some brands using social media well, Anderson said. Notable stars are JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and Virgin America. American Airlines is known for responding quickly.
At United headquarters in Chicago, Shanna Quinn is a veteran of social media. She has been doing it 18 months.
On any given day, Quinn, a senior marketing representative, is using software called Radian6 that aggregates customer Twitter and Facebook posts to United.
Through the software, Quinn might send a customer question on Twitter to a United “social support agent” in a nearby cubicle who will engage the customer 140 characters at a time. Many of the support agents are skilled in customer service, but it requires additional training to “think in 140 characters” and communicate in several rapid-fire messages back and forth, Quinn says.
Twitter posts tend to require immediate help from passengers traveling that day, such as rebooking a missed connection, while Facebook posts tend to be less urgent, perhaps a complaint or compliment about flights days earlier.
On a recent day, one of the social support agents, Felicia Mclin, was assigned a tweet from Quinn. A customer was nervous about her flight being canceled later that day because of weather. Mclin gave the passenger United.com links to a report about the day’s flight operations and the Web page to check the status of her flight.
It was a simple concern and a simple answer. But it was a direct “engagement” with a customer who ended up publicly tweeting to United a “thank you” — public relations gold.
United officials know the power of social media.
The airline was burned during the medium’s early days, way back in 2009. That’s when a disgruntled passenger took his complaint to YouTube.
Dave Carroll, a songwriter from Nova Scotia, wrote and sang the humorous protest video “United Breaks Guitars,” [embedded below] after United’s baggage handlers at O’Hare International Airport broke his $3,500 Taylor acoustic guitar and the airline initially wouldn’t pay for it. The YouTube video, produced for $150 with friends as actors, has had more than 13 million views since it was posted July 6, 2009.
Today, United lags other airlines in use of social media. Despite being the world’s largest airline, it ranks last among major U.S. carriers in number of Twitter followers, for example. United has 240,000 followers, which seems like a lot until you see that Southwest has 1.5 million and JetBlue has 1.7 million.
There’s a reason for that, said Mark Krolick, United’s managing director of marketing and product development. When United and Continental Airlines merged operations during the past several years, they essentially had to start over again with social media.
For example, it wasn’t possible to combine United and Continental’s Facebook pages or Twitter handles.
“That definitely slowed us down,” Krolick said.
But United has recently ramped up efforts, beefing up its social media staff starting in November, to about 20 from two, including 12 reservation agents. The staff monitors social media activity around-the-clock every day of the year, though customer service agents are available from 6 a.m. to midnight.
“We will staff it as it needs to be staffed, because we’re seeing nothing but positive benefits from being highly participative in social media,” Krolick said.
The top goal at United, said Krolick, is to be “nimble” with social media, reacting to how people are using it and what newer platforms, like Instagram and Pinterest, they’re migrating to. United will keep an eye on which social media activities drive value for customers and the company, he said. Today, 80 percent of value is coming from servicing customers who are traveling, and 20 percent from disseminating marketing messages — echoing promotions used by United elsewhere, whether in a national television ad or on a billboard in Manhattan, N.Y., Krolick said.
“Like most companies, we first tried to understand the marketing value of social media,” he said. “But over the past year, we have realized a lot of the value in social media comes from being able to better service your customers and having a two-way dialogue versus us only putting marketing material out into the social media channels.”
United CEO Jeff Smisek said social media is important because “that’s how people are communicating today.” It’s even a help to the airline to identify trouble, he said.
“We can sometimes spot issues very quickly that we otherwise wouldn’t even know about,” he said. “We’re a big company and sometimes things will happen that we’re not as aware of as we should be. And social media helps (us) to pick up on that.”
In April, United accumulated Twitter followers at a faster rate than any other major U.S. airline, a trend that has been ongoing during the past six months, according to data by Unmetric, which monitors and analyzes the social media activity of more than 11,000 brands.
That’s partly because United is growing from a smaller base number than competitors.
United’s Unmetric score, a compilation of social media factors, ranked second-to-last among seven major U.S. airlines on Twitter in April.
“We’re still learning and experimenting around what works, what adds value for consumers, what adds value to the company, and we’ll continue to try things,” Krolick said. “We are just now getting to the point where we have enough history in social media that we can set some benchmarks and set some goals. A year ago it was hard to do that, because we were rebuilding our social media platforms.”
Besides, Krolick is interested in more than racking up social media stats.
“I’m interested in the number of followers, the number of ‘likes’ and all those different metrics, but I’m most interested in the quality of the engagement,” he said.
On the 28th floor of Willis Tower, the social media team looks for ways to measure its own performance. For example, its current goal is to respond to social media postings within a half-hour.
“We’re trying to get that down to 15 minutes,” Quinn said.
And actually solving a problem is a key.
That means a customer may have to provide personal information. That’s when the conversation is taken out of the public domain. On Twitter, for example, a customer and a United agent can use direct messaging, or DM, which the public can’t see. Facebook calls it private messages.
It allows service agents to help the customer immediately, rather than direct them to the website or tell them to call customer service. Some tasks, such as changing a reservation, are often quicker through Twitter than calling on the phone, Mclin said.
Sometimes, they help customers at an airport who are tweeting by smartphone instead of standing in a long customer service line. In such cases, not only do customers get quick service, but the social media team can alleviate a bottleneck for United airport agents.
Brett Snyder, a blogger at CrankyFlier.com and operator of a travel concierge service, often uses Twitter to communicate with airlines about problems his travel clients experience.
“We have varying levels of success with the different airlines,” Snyder said. He said he doesn’t have a lot of social media interaction with United but knows “people have had some success in getting responses and help from them lately.”
He has had especially good luck with Delta Air Lines.
“They seem to have leeway to get things done,” he said. “Their response time might not be as fast as American, but they tend to be more helpful.”
While customer service is important, marketing is the other prong of the social media dichotomy. Some brands use different social media channels for marketing and customer service. For example, Delta uses an @Delta account on Twitter for marketing and @DeltaAssist for helping customers.
In United’s case, it uses the same handle for both. For marketing, it often promotes routes, fare sales, upgrades to its planes and positive company news.
Other efforts encourage engagement. They include trivia questions about travel, and monthly Twitter chats with a United official about such topics as airline food or United’s smartphone app. On YouTube, United recently posted video of employees showing off new uniforms.
But social media also has its pitfalls for companies. In real time and with no formal editing of posts, mistakes can happen.
For example, one United travel trivia post on Twitter recently promoted flights to Istanbul referring to it as Turkey’s capital city. The capital of Turkey is Ankara. Followers pounced on the error, and United quickly corrected it.
“We try to minimize mistakes, but we are human,” Quinn said. “It’s occasionally mortifying.”
Indeed, that’s part of the allure of social media. It’s about technology, but it’s also about interacting humans. Mistakes and the ensuing humility can endear a brand to customers.
“They can see it’s not a robot sending out tweets,” Mclin said. “They know there’s an actual person.”
(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune. Distributed by MCT Information Services.