I spent yesterday at a really interesting get-together organised by Virgin Atlantic and NESTA. The idea of the day - called VJAM - was to discuss how an airline like Virgin Atlantic could use social media to improve customer experience. For me, there were some really useful insights. I plan to add several different posts detailing them.
VJAM Learning #1: Social Spaces and Brands - friends or foes?
The first thing that really struck me - is that although Virgin Atlantic hasn't tried to create a space on-line for its customers to interact with each other, swap handy tips, arrange to meet up as they are catching the same flight, check seating plans to choose their prefered seat etc - someone already has. The V-flyer community has been going nearly five years and counts 6000 or so members - handling some 200,000 queries a month.
I can't think of other examples - where a bunch of satisfied customers get together to share experiences. There are stacks of dis-satisfied ones doing stuff like this - but not happy ones.
The V-flyer gang - a bunch were there at the VJAM - are huge advocates for the Virgin Atlantic brand and product. Virgin doesn't support the site financially, they even recently pulled their ads on it - deeming (probably quite rightly) that they were preaching to the converted.
What an incredibly strong endorsement for a brand!
I'd question the sense of Virgin going to the expense of creating another social space when one already exists and seems to be thriving. I'd nurture this community and support it, but avoid too much intervention. Its strength is in its almost almost complete lack of corporate involvement. If Virgin's marketing team aren't monitoring the forums and using the community for feedback they are missing a huge opportunity though.
I came across a project recently where another well known travel brand has set up a social space for its customers (and anyone else too). STA Travel uses an agency called 1000 heads to run statravelbuzz. It generated some healthy debate at the WTM travel blog-camp.
The idea is that the site aggregates all discussion about STA online. But there's no attempt to communicate directly with customers.
I question why, if customers are having problems or asking questions, someone from STA doesn't respond and try to solve them, right there on the site. But the decision has been taken not to be seen to be 'interfering'. Lots of links to the main STA site are enough for a customer to click through to there and communicate directly with STA.
In that case why brand it STA at all?
The response we got was 'well STA are paying for it, so we felt we should let people know'.
But for me 'aggregating all the content about STA into one handy place so it's easy to find' could all too easily mean 'having it all there where we can see it, so we can control it if need be'. (Yeah, cynical I know, but I'm an ex-journalist.)
These two examples got me thinking about brands in social spaces. Normally a brand ought (in theory) to be an indicator of trust. A symbol that tells a customer or potential customer that they can be confident that their experience as a customer will be a good one. A good thing then.
But in a social space a brand says something quite different. It says: 'We're in control here. We're the ones giving you permission to be here and interact with people. We're watching'.
So, be it a happy coincidence or not, Virgin Atlantic's decision to allow V-flyer to develop (rather than trying to control it) wth just the most basic of support (telling customers it exists in the inflight mag for example) feels to me like the right way to go.
But I'd argue strongly that there is space for a brand custodian to be available in that space to answer questions and solve problems - and to be seen to be doing it by others in that community. To be useful to the community without seeking to influence it.
So keep the social space un-branded, but have someone there in the community representing it.