Last month, Virgin America teamed up with the online influence measurement company Klout to promote their new routes between San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Toronto. The campaign offered free tickets to select influencers—with no strings attached. I spoke with Virgin America's social media manager Jill Fletcher about managing an airborne viral campaign, how Virgin became the airline of choice for the nerd set, and the customer service challenges presented when everyone on board is connected.
How did the idea of giving influencers free flights for the new Virgin America Toronto leg come about?
We have a network of influencers who are very supportive of our brand. We have a close relationship with Jeff Pulver and Guy Kawasaki and Xeni Jardin who fly constantly and are always tweeting about us.
We saw the influencer program as a way to extend that network. We thought of it as an experiment to see what kind of reach we could get working with people outside of our existing relationships.
In addition to the flights being free, there was no demand for coverage, right?
Exactly. It was a new route and our first international destination so we wanted to spur trial and give people an opportunity to take a flight on Virgin America.
What kind of response did you get?
We got a lot of buzz immediately and a lot of the influencers sent out positive tweets and blog entries.
How many people took you up on the flights?
We had 120 promo codes that were redeemed.
Why did you decide to work with Klout, a company that measures online influence?
They came to us and they have a great reputation for quantifying people's influence by using a series of algorithms to determine the impact people have on their followers. And they had successfully worked with Starbuck's and other brands.
Do you find that influence is difficult to quantify.
This was a test for us, but Virgin is known for trying out new things and experimenting. We want to be that brand that is pushing the envelope.
How does Virgin America think about social media in the big picture?
The way we see it, the social media aspect around the brand is going to happen whether Virgin America has a voice in it or not, and we definitely want to be an active part of the conversation
It really makes sense for us and who we are as an airline. We are the first airline to have fleetwide Wi-Fi. Once we were online in-flight, we actually started seeing real-time customer service on the plane. People were tweeting and it really grew exponentially in a really short time.
What was your reaction to people tweeting from the plane, fear?
It's a great opportunity for us. Whether they're on the plane and having a customer service issue that needs to be addressed, that gives us the chance to address it right then and there. Ninety percent of the time people are having amazing experiences and they're able to tweet out, "wow, I love the mood lighting" or "Joan is a great flight attendant." We saw the connectivity and tech savvy of our guests as a great opportunity to spread word of mouth.
Has the Wi-Fi been successful?
It's been really popular and a robust ancillary revenue stream. We've had promotions and did a partnership with Google in the fall of last year where we offered free Wi-Fi over the holidays. We actually saw our numbers take off when we started charging again in January.
What does Richard Branson think of social media?
He's been getting more and more engaged. He was at the launch of Toronto and is always asking to do interviews from the plane or tweet a new program. He's really focused on it.
What's your sense of how the space is growing?
We're growing at a rapid pace and we have a lot of social media companies coming to us with propositions. Every day we have someone come to us with a new proposal for how we can extend our reach.
How do you indentify the right people to work with?
The fact that we're based in Silicon Valley gives us an advantage because we're constantly surrounded by people in the know and we've had a lot of input from social media leaders since we launched.
As the only airline based here, they've taken us on as their own because we're the techy/nerdy airline and they supported us before anyone else. Before we even started flying we had Kevin Rose and Digg do a show, so a lot of those guys have adopted us.
Who do you think is doing the most thinking in social media?
Jerimiah Owyang is really stressing social CRM and that's something that is really at the forefront for us.
Customer relationship management and having to respond to every complaining person that now has instant access to you must be terrifying.
What's scary is that the need is growing faster than the technology and while social media presents a huge opportunity, it also presents huge technological issues.
Read more about The Influence Project.