Low –cost carrier Ryanair is to embrace social media for the first time by taking tentative and controlled steps, on its own website.
The airline is to develop an online travel community looking to engage with travelers beyond simply providing a booking service.
Reported plans will see Ryanair developing its destination section allowing users to post comments recommending local attractions.
It’s a brave move for the airline but is still being made with reservations. The airline has announced that it will not be setting up official comms channels via Facebook or Twitter.
Hosting the new platform at Ryanair.com will, of course, allow it to retain a degree of control.
It’s unwillingness to offer itself over fully to consumers is understandable. While the airline calls itself, ‘the World’s Favourite Airline’, its relationship with consumers and the media has always been a rocky one, with its many fans matched by as many detractors.
There’s even a blog I Hate Ryanair, sub-headed “What a bunch of filthy thieving b******s!”, which has been in operation since October 2008 with a related Twitter feed, it
“Many people have been badly treated by Ryanair and shafted for hidden fees etc. We have too. This is why we decided to set up this website as means of expressing our general disgust,” say the founders.
But it’s important that Ryanair and other travel companies grasp the opportunities presented by social media. And here’s why.
The recently published Social Travel Report, by leading independent media agency Total Media, reveals how the travel industry is being transformed by social media, with large numbers of consumers choosing to book accommodation, flights and activities direct online based on the advice of fellow holidaymakers
Holiday reviews written by strangers on independent websites such as TripAdvisor, search results on Google and word-of-mouth advice from family and colleagues, it claims, are now more influential than brochures, advertising, media reviews and advice from travel agents when it comes to consumers booking holidays.
A quarter of British travellers said that online reviews by strangers help determine their travel plans compared to 14% for online advertisements, 13% for TV travel programmes, 11% for travel magazines, newspaper supplements and 9% for TV advertising and direct mail. Only recommendations by friends (28%) and family (24%) ranked on a par with online reviews.
The tendency to trust independent reviews by fellow travellers is reflected in the numbers of holiday makers writing internet reviews. Total Media’s study found that more than 30% of Britons over the age of 16 had written a holiday review online, rising to almost 40% for over 25’s.
But it is older consumers who are driving the social media travel revolution. Almost 50% of travellers over 45 are using websites to recommend or warn fellow travellers by posting a review of their travel experiences online.
Surprisingly, the age group least likely to use the internet to exchange views on holiday destinations we’re the “digital natives”, 16 to 24 year olds, which means that middle age Britons, are shaping our views of the best hotels and holiday destinations at home and abroad.
The study found that almost 70% of consumers use the internet to book their holidays, compared to 23% by phone and just 8% in-store within travel agents.
Consumers aged 35-44 were found to be most likely (74%) to book online. Price (80%) was cited as the main reason for using the internet along with information (53%) and convenience (50%).
“The travel industry has embraced e-commerce as a way of making the booking process far more cost effective, it must now embrace social media to ensure its communicating with consumers effectively, because when it comes to travel advice, British consumers would rather rely on each other than recommendations from the industry,” explained Nick Oram, Director at Total Media.
“Because the internet makes it far easier for consumers to pick and choose different elements of a holiday and book their flights and accommodation direct, the opinions of amateur online travel critics can have a huge influence on the popularity of destinations and performance of travel brands.
He added, “Social media is therefore a huge threat to those businesses that ignore it, but also a massive opportunity especially for smaller hotels or brands that use it wisely.”
It’s a clear warning to travel brands in general, but low-cost airlines need to pay even more attention after the latest Kaizo Advocacy Index Bi-annual study (September 2009) showed hidden costs and poor customer service are affecting the reputation of budget airlines
Delayed flights and lost luggage are having a severe impact on the airline industry in general, but it was the budget carriers that were found to be most at fault.
The online reputation index claimed Ryanair was the worst performing UK operator with a score of (-62%). Virgin Atlantic was the only airline to come out with a positive score (33%), followed by BMI (-12%), British Airways (-21%) and EasyJet (-23%).
“Being able to board a flight on time and not worry about lost luggage or unforeseen costs is important for travellers. When things go wrong, the Internet provides an easy platform for people to vent their frustrations as feelings and opinions can be published instantly, said Managing Director of Kaizo, Rhodri Harries.
“For the industry to cope better, brands need to monitor closely and react quickly to far-reaching negative comments online.”
He continued, “This study recognises the significance of online search and social networks as a method for consumer decision making. The Internet places a wealth of information at people’s fingertips and consumers are consistently seeking views and opinions online in order to make an informed choice.
“Those brands that openly engage with customers online will find themselves promoted more often than those that hide behind streams of corporate news.
According to Director of digital strategies at Ruder Finn UK, Ged Carroll Ryanair is right to take the approach it has.
“The brand would be continually slammed on more public platforms, this community allows them to exert more editorial control. Depending how the site is designed Ryanair could also get an SEO (search engine optimisation) boost from having highly relevant fresh content being created for free by the airline’s fans,” he told UTalkMarketing.
But another expert urged caution. PR Consultant at Wildfire, Danny Whatmough, said that the success of the airline’s social media operations rested on being able to provide great content; providing something valuable that encourages people to keep returning to the site.
“If Ryanair don’t manage to achieve this, then it will become a vacuous space that is only inhabited by those that are unable to get satisfactory customer service and resort to entering into a slagging match with the company on its own territory,” he continued.
“Companies that embrace social media have to make sure they are ready, as businesses, to open themselves up and be more transparent. Ryanair’s macho image, personified by Michael O’Leary, doesn’t seem from the outside at least, to be ideally suited to this medium.
“And if you can’t engage with your customers in a transparent, open and civil way it can all go very wrong, as Nestle recently found out.”
Ryanair is hoping the new content will be an additional means to build incremental revenues. But the introduction and development of a platform needs to sit comfortably.
“Social Media means many things to many people. However, any brand engaging in any form of social media must ensure their social media strategy is aligned with their overall business objectives,” explained Mark Walton-Hayfield, Senior Enterprise Architect from the outsourcing team at Capgemini UK.
“Failure to do so will result in confusion about the message the company is portraying on such channels
He added, “It is likely that businesses offering low cost products and services with low margins – like Ryanair – will have a very different approach to social media compared with those offering premium products and services.”
”If your strategy has determined that using social media will result in business benefit, success will be seen by those that are prepared to do things differently, both listen and engage with their customers and define and measure successful social media outcomes.”
Of course, that strategy involves the conversation being contained (and consequently controlled) on the airline’s home site. But when social media lies in the hands of consumers can that dialogue really be controlled? Or even called dialogue in the true sense of social media?
“It will be difficult for Ryanair to fully embrace social media without embracing twitter or Facebook because to most people these two entities are social media,” said Dale Lovell, Managing Director at Search News Media, an SEO Content and Social Media company.
“It’s kind of like a company embracing online but deliberately making their website inaccessible or undetectable from Google.
He concluded, “Ringing-fencing the website and simply trying to keep all users on Ryanair.com will be unlikely to succeed and, as with all social media, Ryanair will have to be prepared for negative comment – policing it will deter users: social media is all about dialogue and the interaction of brands and consumers not a one way ‘we are great’ conversation where brands do not take negative criticism.
“If Ryanair embrace social media it could be a good opportunity for them to outline their case, listen to grievances and possibly update their reputation.”