Southwest, Blowing the Competition Out of the Water (or Sky)

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As a frequent flier, I am a loyal customer of Southwest Airlines. I started flying Southwest for their low fares, but now I stick around because I enjoy their advertising, marketing, and social media strategy.

While Southwest does not have a particular crisis to overcome at the moment, its competition is fierce and with Southwest’s prices and fees rising, they are at risk of losing customers. A typical complaint of a RapidRewards customer is that Southwest values them less than they once did. Not only is Southwest raising prices, but its reward program has fewer perks. While Southwest is still cheaper than its competition, it has to use this opportunity to reach out to their customers to make sure they stay and that more consumers join them.

Currently, the social media and marketing team are very strong. Southwest focuses its energy on many of the same social media outlets as other airlines, but in addition to Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest among others, they also have a blog called Nuts About Southwest, that roughly 30 employees, from pilots to skycaps, contribute to.

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Southwest’s Twitter account has been successful, but it has not grown with the same speed that their Facebook page has. According to Southwest’s social media manager, Christi McNeil, both pages had about a million followers in June of 2011. Now, @SouthwestAir has about 1.5 million followers, while the Southwest Facebook page has over 4 million likes.

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Due to the immense size of their fan page, it will be the primary focus. While their Facebook likes are impressive by themselves, what is even more impressive is the fact that they were the first airline to claim 3 million likes on Facebook back in August of 2011. To put that into perspective, the United Airlines Facebook page barely has over 500,000 likes in October of 2013.

According to Facebook over 38,000 people alone have mentioned Southwest on Facebook in the past month. The most popular age group of Southwest fans is between 25 and 34 years old, and the most popular city to talk about Southwest on Facebook is Houston, Texas.

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On an average day, Southwest posts one to three things on their Facebook page, with a varying amount of likes, comments and shares. One thing Southwest should be commended for is their ability to stay relevant and relate to both pop culture and the time of year. While many of their posts relate to sales tactics and the announcement of low prices, not all of their posts are meant to generate revenue.

An example of their relevance, and references to the time of year and to pop culture came just today. In homage to Christopher Columbus, a flight from Orlando to Columbus this morning used the flight #1492. The post mentioned these facts and put a picture of Columbus on the side of one of their planes.

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This post was clever and a little whimsical, and was not directly promoting the airline itself. Thirteen hours after it had been shared, it had 2,341 likes, was shared 145 times, and had 62 comments.

While this post is relevant because of Columbus Day, you may be asking how it relates to pop culture. One of the most popular comments on the post, with 10 likes, said “What u guys need is a flight #915 every 9/22…” Having not watched the show, I googled what information I had and discovered that date and flight corresponded to “Lost.” Southwest however did not miss a beat and replied to the comment within an hour saying that they would leave that to Oceanic, the fictional airline said to have crashed on the show. Their reply got 17 likes of its own.

While they do not appear to reply to every comment, they do make an effort to reply to some. Interestingly enough, they seem to reply to positive comments more than negative ones. For instance, a few comments underneath the “Lost” comment was a remark about how Columbus should not be celebrated because he was “not a good guy.” That comment got 26 likes, yet no response from Southwest, along with many other comments similar to that that Southwest also appeared to ignore.

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Another example of their attempt to stay relevant came on September 13th, which happened to be National Peanut Day. As an airline that serves their customers free peanuts while in flight, this day was relevant to them, as well as peanut lovers anywhere. To celebrate the day, a video of peanuts playing a game against pretzels was put on the website. To relate the item and the holiday back to the airline, the video was shot on a Southwest airplane tray table. The popular post had over 1,000 likes and almost 100 shares and comments each. However, again, Southwest seemed to not reply to negative comments, most of which had to do with the airline serving something that could potential be fatal to those with peanut allergies.

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A final example of Southwest striving to relate to pop culture came with the season premiere of “Modern Family” on September 25. “Modern Family” is a popular, Emmy winning show, and in honor of their 5th season beginning, Southwest shared a picture of two of the show’s stars on a plane with Southwest flight attendants. This post had 2,623 likes, 39 shares, and 109 comments. Unlike the Columbus Day and National Peanut Day posts, this post did not seem to have much negative backlash. Yet, again however, there was minimal response coming from Southwest.

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Southwest continues to use holidays, seasons, and pop culture to relate to their fans in a way that does not directly promote sales, with contests for Halloween, posts about Hazelnut coffee creamer being back for the fall, and even World Smile Day.

They often use humor to generate feedback on their posts, a method that appears to be working for them. Their Facebook fans, and social media fans in general, seem to be increasing in numbers constantly. While not all of their posts seem to have gone as smoothly as possible, they overall appear to be successful.

Southwest should try to improve their response rate. For a company that receives thousands of comments and replies a day, a response to everyone may not be possible, but at least half of the feedback they receive should be responded to. Customers seem to be complaining about not being valued by the company, and responding to the majority of comments on social media would be a great way to improve those feelings.

Regardless of negative comments and their lack of response, Southwest is doing well, and social media is definitely having an impact. 2012 marked Southwest’s 40th consecutive year of profitability, an impressive feat for a company that has only existed for 43 years. According to Business Week, Southwest’s revenue and profitability has not only continued but steadily increased since 2009. From 2011 to 2012 alone, Southwest managed to increase revenue from $14.9 billion to $16.3 billion, with gross profit increasing from $3.4 billion to $3.7 billion.

When contacted for information regarding their return on investment for social media, Southwest did not respond, however, one can guess that there is a correlation between their increase in revenue, gross profit, and their social media strategy.

Many social media reviews like Social Media Explorerand Social Media Examiner have heralded Southwest as a company that really connects with its consumers over social media, and says that other marketers should take notice of their strategies.

Christi McNeil, the media specialist and spokesperson for Southwest, has said that her main goal is to make the company seem as authentic and transparent as it can be. The social media team strives for consistency, and it seems to be present in all of their social media outlets.

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Southwest uses Facebook particularly to stream live content, feature fare offers and promotions, and relate to their customers. Their current average of one to three posts a day seems to be an ideal number for their business. They receive more than a thousand likes on almost every post, which for an airline seems especially high. They generate comments on posts by sharing pictures and asking questions that are relevant to their customers.

While their specific business goals are unknown, they have increased their profits, year after year, while cultivating their online communities. The Southwest Facebook page is not only a space for posts by the company, but also by consumers and for consumers. They can interact and share information and experiences in a familiar format.  There is high engagement on their content, and user-generated content on every post.

They have had several mishaps with social media in the past, they have worked to remedy those situations, and those mishaps seem to be minimal.

Southwest does have a problem in that their prices are rising closer to those of their competitors, but they are still making higher profits every year, and their interactions with consumers on social media blow the competition, like United, out of the water (or sky). At this rate, Southwest’s growth does not seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

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One thought on “Southwest, Blowing the Competition Out of the Water (or Sky)

  1. Stephanie –

    Great job! As one of only two students who decided to submit their midterm as a blog entry I applaud you. I very much appreciate the media you embedded to help illustrate the story. I gave you a total 215/220 only docking you for not giving me headings on your sections and wanting you to tease out just a bit more about what you’ve learned in the conclusion.

    Very nice job. Keep up the great work!
    Dennis

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