My View on Social Media for Airlines

In case you haven’t been paying attention lately to Twitter or Facebook, or if you avoid them all together, there was a pretty massive devaluation on the United Airlines award charts.  Many people didn’t like the change and expressed their feelings about it to United Airlines’ social media team – and rightly so.  I would do the same if I didn’t like a change made by the airline I fly the most. While I do have a slightly different opinion than other people about the change, the social media exchanges very plainly showed that the effectiveness of social media campaigns differ greatly among airlines.  I use the word campaign because that is what it is…it is a tool and method used to engage customers and get them to like you (possibly like you more than they did before).

There are two main variables when it comes to social media campaigns from the consumers perspective: responsiveness and effectiveness.  In this post, I’m going to compare two major airlines, United and American, against those two variables.

Response Time Comparison

Another blogger already did a post comparing the responsiveness of American and United so I’m not going to go deep into it.  However, it is important enough that it must at least be mentioned.   They were willing to let me use one of their charts to illustrate a point, as you see below.

Response Time To Reply via Tweet UA/AA Comparison

As you can see, United has a significantly higher response time.  There is one exception to that, but we can safely exclude it as an outlier.  Not only is the average response time longer for United Airlines, the variance is greater.  American Airlines’ response time averaged just over 10 minutes in this sample set, but there is also very little variance.

You can read more data analysis of the responsiveness at WanderLusty aka @jonk

Effectiveness of Social Media Campaigns

Forgive me for starting this with an analogy.  Think of a social media campaign as a race car, the social media team as the driver, and the racetrack management as, well…, management.  Let’s say the racetrack isn’t your normal track – instead the track is dynamic and there are different routes and options the driver can take.  If the racetrack management constricts the driver to stay in a certain lane, it may not be best for the car.  To quote my friend (@SocialMediaRae), who has taught me nearly everything I know about social media, “trust the experts you hired to do the job”.

American Airlines

American Airlines has a social media campaign that is effective.  The team can engage their followers as they see fit, even on a personal level.  You can even tweet them “good morning” and they’ll say hi back.  Whether they are apologizing for poor service, assisting distressed customers, or thanking followers for compliments given, it truly seems like they have the freedom to run a successful campaign.

Beyond that, they take the time to understand the tweet and know how to respond appropriately.  They are frequently saying a simple “hello” or “good morning” or asking how someone’s meal is.  What looks like meaningless interaction then gets people to engage in conversation with American Air.

United Airlines

On the flip side…United Airlines has room for improvement.  They have gotten better in the last year or so in engaging with their followers.  However, the quality isn’t quite there.  There have been more than a few instances where I have laughed because @United has replied to themselves asking if they need assistance, or retweeting a pretty harsh complaint (I know you have seen it too).

When United announced the big deval, many people were upset and voiced their concerns via twitter.  United is one of those companies that will “sign” the tweet with the initials of the person who tweeted it… sometimes it’s DV, MM, EB or whoever else is responding.   Somewhat surprisingly, United responded to those people and defended the company’s decision.  It was then that I really noticed something is amiss with United’s social media campaign.  All of the replies were not just very similar, if not the same, but also very much canned responses.  I also knew, since the tweets were signed, that they were coming from the same 2 people.  Below is a prime example, also be sure to look at the timestamps of the tweets.
United Delayed Response to Tweet about Devaulation


I wholeheartedly believe that American Airlines is winning (or at least is close to it) the social media game among competitor airlines.  They engage customers in a way that rivals many other large corporations.  On the other hand, it is easy to get annoyed at United’s social media team.  It is always easier to blame the people on the front lines.  Looking at the pattern of the tweets sent by United, I am certain the issues they have are due to management.  I have no doubt the social media team actually knows what they are doing (otherwise they wouldn’t have been hired, right?).  If the goal of United’s social media is to effectively engage customers, management must relinquish their stronghold of control over the team and let them do what they need to do.


4 thoughts on “My View on Social Media for Airlines

  1. Wandering Aramean

    I think you’re missing something with this comparison. Yes, AA does a better job of “chatting” with passengers. That’s great, I suppose, if you’re in to that sort of thing. I’m not. I don’t really care if the Twitter team knows what I drink on board so much as I want them to be able to give me accurate and timely information when things are in flux. Neither AA nor UA are spectacular at this, but they are comparable to each other IME.

    When there was the uproar about AA possibly charging YQ on some Asian partner awards the responses were all canned replies, just like when UA dealt with the chart change this week. In fact, many of them were copy/paste with the same typos in them.

    Yes, AA is more “sociable” in their interactions with passengers. But I don’t know that it really makes them better. Certainly not when it comes to the actual travel policy bits. Just last night I had a most ridiculous interaction with them:

    Not so great, really, even if they did mostly respond quickly.

    1. TheSterlingTraveler Post author

      You have valid points. I, almost intentionally, left this bit out. It’s too much of a can-of-worms to include in the post, and would have made it much longer than it already is.

      I do think there are some people on Twitter that feed into the “look at what I’m drinking/eating”-type of groveling. Would you rather AA just ignore those types of tweets? I’m sure they have some sort of goal/metric that they have to respond to a certain percent of tweets. Also, keep in mind the “look at me”-tweets are coming from EXP’s. AA wouldn’t want them to feel like they’re not listened/paid attention to.

      Everyone is guilty of canned, and even copy/paste, responses. I see United doing it more often, even just for simple asking people if they need assistance.

      I was following along with the interaction the other night with AA. It’s arguable whether or not some questions I have seen asked to UA/AA are more niche questions that they wouldn’t know or can’t know the answer to. I have spoken to supervisors at the AA Reservations desk about the same subject as your interaction. It’s unfortunately a process issue that isn’t easily fixed. Plus, is it the reservations desk’s or people who process the vouchers and ticket the reservation’s responsibility for making sure customer is being charged correctly.

      Twitter is not, and should not, be the sole source of information. I think we, as a whole, expect it to be more than it should be.

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