In a battle against Southwest Airlines this year for control of two gates at Dallas Love Field airport, Virgin America launched a social media blitz using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, plus an Internet petition to local government officials. The conflict started when the Department of Justice told American Airlines it had to give up its positions at Love Field before it could acquire US Airways. Southwest already controlled 16 of the airport's 20 gates, and Virgin wanted in.
The airline pleaded its case to the DoJ, which would weigh in as it sorted out the competitive landscape. But the final decision was up to Dallas city leaders and it was tough to fight Southwest, a hometown player. So Virgin took its case to the public.
Virgin's "Free Love Field" campaign asked customers on Facebook and Twitter to make supportive posts and to sign and share an online petition. Virgin emailed its top frequent flyers directly to do the same. The airline also publicized its pledge to donate $20 to a local school group for every ticket it booked out of Love Field on a designated day. And Virgin enlisted its founder, Richard Branson, to put out a YouTube video of the celebrity executive writing a cheeky love letter to the airport. "No one should have a monopoly on your love," he said. "My virile young planes yearn for your runways." In one week, more than 20,000 people signed a petition on Change.org urging Dallas to let Virgin fly at Love Field.
In May, the city gave Virgin what it wanted. The $1.4 billion airline now runs 26 flights in and out of Love Field, with another six to be added next year.
"Social technology allows people to publish their thoughts in a way the audience can't avoid," says Luanne Calvert, CMO at Virgin America. "There's no other way we could have been more effective."
If you think social media means simply amassing "likes" and followers and offering ad hoc customer service, you've already lost. Companies are using advanced social techniques to rehabilitate corporate reputations, uncover ideas for breakthrough products, and figure out what competitors are up to. And as Virgin America knows, aggressive, targeted use of social media can influence high-stakes political and business decisions in your favor.
At particularly adept companies, the whole C-suite sees the value of social media. Patrick Doyle, CEO of Domino's Pizza, doesn't go a day without thinking about social media, which he says is inseparable from his business strategy. Being smart on social networks "doesn't start from, 'Let's have a new advertising campaign and put a social media extension on it,'" he says. "A critical part of our strategy is understanding [online] conversation."
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