NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- While discussing the rewards that Twitter and Facebook have delivered to 4-year-old Virgin America, Porter Gale, the airline's top marketer, took to its Twitter stream to validate her point. "Further proof that Virgin America is incredible, it just sent me a $200 credit because my flight was delayed," one excited traveler had just posted. "There's a perfect example of using Twitter as a guest-service/customer retention tool," Ms. Gale said. "Did we have to send him a $200 credit after seeing his original tweet about being delayed? Probably not, but this person is now going to be more loyal to us."
While JetBlue and Southwest have both blazed trails in the social-media landscape, no airline has embraced technology faster and with as much enthusiasm as Virgin, whose high-tech entertainment units, WiFi and onboard servers made them darlings of the tech set. The airline responds to in-flight tweets, re-books customers who post about missing flights and provides updates on flight schedules via text, email, Facebook and Twitter.
Ms. Gale spoke with Ad Age about the revenue streams social-media outlets are starting to generate, what legacy carriers can learn from its use of social media and whether it will ever become a big TV spender. Ms. Gale will be a speaker at Ad Age's Digital Conference in New York City April 6 and 7.
Ad Age: What are you getting out of Twitter and Facebook?
Ms. Gale: We found social media is an amazing channel for us in terms of engagement with our fans and guests. We are also finding that it is a nice channel for guest service. When we have had to cancel flights due to storms we have been able to connect with people via Twitter and re-accommodate them. It has a revenue component for us that we have been able to track and can actually see when sales are closed if someone has come from Twitter or Facebook. So it's serving a lot of functions for us.
Ad Age: Is it driving a significant amount of revenue for the airline?
Ms. Gale: It is constantly increasing in terms of the revenue that it is bringing in so we are happy about that. In particular, at one point we did a sale with Twitter called the Fly Forward, Give Back sale and they used promoted tweets to help push it. And that was actually our fifth-most successful day ever in terms of ticket sales.
Ad Age: What can other carriers learn from your use of social media?
Ms. Gale: That the conversation is happening whether you are participating or not. Having a two-way dialogue is really important as people are online more and more. It's a great way to drive guest retention and guest connection. Other airlines should recognize that social media is not going away.
Ad Age: Are you planning on launching any new apps?
Ms. Gale: We are currently working on a project that's in the very early stages so we can't say much about it. And we are doing an interactive ad for the iPad magazine that [Virgin America founder] Richard Branson is launching called Project.
Ad Age: Are there any new startups that have you excited and that might become your next partner?
Ms. Gale: We are constantly looking at the new players that enter the social-media space. That's why we worked with Loopt on a location-based check-in program that involved a taco truck. It celebrated the launch of our Mexico service and people were able to get a discount code and two-for-one tacos. If we could find a gaming partner to do something with, that would be a major win for us.
I would love to figure out something with a group-buying program, but with our pricing model it's a bit hard to figure out how to make that work. But it would be an interesting play for us.
Ad Age: How far do you think word-of-mouth and positive buzz can carry you before you have to start investing significantly in TV and print media?
Ms. Gale: The positive halo around our brand is amazing right now. We have increased our Net Promoter score to a number that rivals Apple. Word-of-mouth can carry us a long way, so I don't believe we will be doing TV anytime soon, being that we are still in only local markets. We don't have the footprint where TV makes sense for us. The other reason TV isn't that high on our list is that a large percentage of our sales are done on our website and things we can do that can capture a person while they are on their laptop is that much closer to a sale. So I don't see TV in our future. We, potentially, will use more print as we try to get more business travelers into the brand. Now that we have more cities and will be announcing more in the near future we become a more interesting play for business travelers. But the bulk of our buy will continue to be online, out-of-home, partnership marketing and untraditional efforts.
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