Skift Take

In a sitdown interview with Skift, Michael O'Leary reveals some of the secrets to Ryanair's viral success, and tells us the two subjects that are absolutely off-limits.

Michael O’Leary doesn’t understand TikTok. He isn’t on X, and you definitely won’t find him sharing his vacation snaps on Instagram. Yet the Ryanair CEO is proud to describe himself as “one of the original creators of social media.”

Speaking with Skift, O’Leary describes the online platforms as a “way to reach lots of people at no cost,” but that’s only half the story. The real social media magic comes with the addition of a second ingredient.

“All you have to do is make noise. I’ve been making noise whether it’s charging for toilets, standing-only cabins, or whatever. Social media kind of accentuates that nonsensical rubbish.”

While it’s unsuitable for most brands, there’s no denying that O’Leary’s approach has been hugely effective. 

His stunts have generated social media buzz and coverage at top-tier outlets: From Time Magazine concerned about paying to pee on the plane to ABC News grappling with the concept of vertical seating.

TikTok is ‘Mindless Rubbish’

Courting controversy and the associated free publicity has been a calling card of Ryanair since the early 2000s. However, more recently the airline has fine-tuned its social media strategy.

In what O’Leary describes as a “clever move,” the budget carrier has invested heavily in its social media team to create original content.

“We hired a group of kids under the age of 25 and sent them forth and said ‘Look, write whatever you want on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok.'”

“I don’t understand TikTok, don’t follow it, never gone on it. To me, it is mindless rubbish, but millions of people around the world follow Ryanair’s account. I think we are now by far one of the biggest corporate entities on TikTok.”

How Does Ryanair Compare?

While the airline still has some way to go to catch up with ESPN or Netflix, on TikTok alone, Ryanair has 2.2 million followers. It’s also garnered more than 36 million likes. 

The carrier’s rather abrasive tagline on TikTok, ‘Catch Flights, Not Feelings’ (followed by the obligatory nail polish emoji💅), is distinctive from the airline’s usual customer-friendly slogan of ‘Low Fares, Great Care’.

For context, easyJet – Ryanair’s largest rival – has 262,000 followers on TikTok. Its other main low-cost competitor Wizz Air has just 61,000

@ryanair

Get your own window seat

♬ original sound – Ryanair

Elsewhere online, you’ll find individual accounts (usually manicured by an in-house team) for many global airline CEOs. High-profile examples include Virgin Atlantic’s Shai Weiss who regularly shares insights on Instagram with his 359,000 followers. 

Even more traditional airline leaders have found their social media niche. Delta’s Ed Bastian boasts more than 275,000 followers on LinkedIn, while Scott Kirby, his counterpart at United, has over 185,000.

How Does Ryanair Use X?

On X, Ryanair has adopted a two-pronged approach. Its main handle, which has over 800,000 followers, is where you’ll find memes and scathing put-downs of Irish politicians. The airline has been on the platform, formerly known as Twitter, since 2013.

Passenger queries are directed towards a separate ‘@askryanair’ channel. This spin-off account has less than a tenth of the followers of Ryanair’s main handle. 

This may partly be down to the fact that X is not the customer service asset it once was.

As of last summer, a pinned post to the top of the @askryanair page notifies users that “customer service via direct message is unavailable on this network.” Passengers are redirected towards Facebook Messenger or a separate help page hosted on Ryanair’s website. 

Ryanair’s Youth Appeal

Ryanair’s social media team has been able to turn previously negative commentary into cult crazes.

Inundated by passengers complaining that the 11A ‘window seat’ doesn’t actually have a window, the airline’s social media team spied an opportunity. 

In the space of a few tweets and clips, they were able to turn around the narrative and give the once-derided 11A cult status through the birth of the #11AClub.

Ryanair has even claimed that savvy social media types now go out of their way to pay for the windowless wonder.

It’s not just dodgy seating. O’Leary confirmed that the airline’s social media gurus have almost complete autonomy to do and say what they like.

Ryanair CEO’s Two Social Media Taboos

Asked if the lack of boundaries could ultimately prove counterproductive, the Ryanair CEO was pragmatic: “There’s always a risk in being controversial, that some of it may backfire.” 

Yet, for all of the laissez-faire attitude, O’Leary reveals two restrictions that are enforced on the social media team.

The first is to “stay away from safety,” a subject deemed just too sensitive for an airline that can proudly lay claim to being one of the world’s safest

While safety has been non-negotiable since the airline’s inception, O’Leary says the second rule only emerged in September 2022.

“When the Queen died we jumped in and said ‘Do not slag off the f**king Queen – do not try to come up with something funny about it’. But other than that, they have carte blanche to say and do what they like.”

Read more from Skift’s sitdown interview with Michael O’Leary here.

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Tags: airlines, marketing, Michael O'Leary, ryanair, social media, tiktok

Photo credit: A Ryanair Boeing 737 plane on the tarmac. Lucas Davies / Unsplash

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