Singapore Airlines is making its belated social-media debut this week, sending tweets for the first time and taking over an unofficial Facebook page that was run for years by an enthusiastic fan who picked up more than 100,000 fans.
The airline, a top carrier in Asia and one of the last airlines of its stature to embrace social media, has a lot of catching up to do. Among regional rivals, Air Asia has more than 1.1 million Facebook fans, while Cathay Pacific has run an ad campaign with a big interactive component recounting personal stories of its staff. (The next phase of Cathay's campaign has been postponed till October due to a sex photo scandal involving two airline employees.)
"We wanted to do it right, to make sure there was a structure in place to allow us to engage our followers and fans on a 24-hour basis as opposed to 9-to-5 Singapore time," said airline spokesman Nicholas Ionides, explaining why it took the airline so long to join social media. "It doesn't mean that we're able to respond to everything within a minute of a post going up, but we'll be listening all the time, using this as a communication and engagement tool."
Weather-related delays in London and New York at the end of last year that could have been managed better with more channels to communicate with passengers sparked the company's decision to finally take the plunge.
London banker Khoa C. Huynh, 25, who developed an interest in the airline after years of taking flights to his family's native Vietnam, started a Singapore Airlines page on Facebook in 2006 to meet others who were curious about the company. Without any promotion, the page attracted nearly 110,000 fans, an indication of the customer goodwill toward the airline.
Mr. Huynh turned his page over to Singapore Airlines so it doesn't have to start its social-media efforts from scratch. The airline announced its arrival on Facebook (facebook.com/singaporeair) on Monday with a message thanking Mr. Huynh and fans for their support, adding, "We're here for the ultra long-haul, so welcome on board and let's make this a great way to fly!" The revamped page suddenly sported pictures of the iconic Singapore girl made famous in the airline's ads years ago, and pictures of cabin interiors.
One fan's post underscores customers' expectations of premium brands: "Welcome to the world of social media. Took a long time for you guys. A shame for an airline which pioneered many things over the years. Happy that you are on FB finally. Good luck."
On Twitter (twitter.com/singaporeair), the airline picked up about 550 followers the first day.
Singapore Airlines consulted with its global ad agency, TBWA, on the "look and feel" of the Facebook and Twitter accounts but they will be handled entirely in-house. Offices in Europe and the U.S. will pitch in when the Singapore office is closed.
And some special social-media promotions are in the works, Mr. Ionides said.
Now Singapore Airlines has to truly engage with customers on social media and drive revenue and loyalty, said Shashank Nigam, CEO of SimpliFlying, a Singapore-based airline brand consultancy.
"I think they have missed out on the fact that over the last three to four years, branding has evolved into a two-way dialogue with customers instead of just projecting what the brand is ," he said. "They're extremely sensitive about their brand, so that is going to be one of their challenges."
Singapore Airlines didn't respond publicly to the questions, comments and complaints posted on the unofficial Facebook page. Some customers, understandably thinking it was an official site, were miffed at being ignored by a company that prides itself on service.
Mr. Huynh said he didn't respond because he felt it would have been inappropriate, as someone who didn't work for the airline. "Unfortunately, that did give the impression that the airline wasn't listening to its customers," he said.
Mr. Huynh, who never received compensation, a free upgrade or even extra peanuts for his work running the Facebook page for five years, will serve as an outside consultant for the airline. (Though the airline did fly him to Singapore to meet with its marketing and public affairs team.)
"[Singapore Airlines] is a bit of an aloof brand, it understands its customers but does it without consulting them too much. To engage with customers in this very informal setting where anything can go wrong or anything could go right is a big culture change for them," he said. "Customers are thinking, 'Am I going to get any interaction out of this?' or will it just say, 'New first class seats to Dubai now available.'"