Southwest Airlines and Case-Mate on Leveraging Social Media to Gather Customer Feedback

Steve Latham

Voice of the Customer (VOC) is something your company needs to be listening to. If you aren’t listening for customer feedback online and your VOC is falling on deaf ears, your company will be in for a rude awakening.

Navigating the social Web is one of the most powerful ways for your brand to act as a listening board.

At this year’s 2009 Customer Feedback Week conference, Steve Latham, founder of marketing agency Spur Interactive, gathered the créme de la créme of social media brand strategy to talk about best practices in leveraging social media to capture customer feedback.

The panel included Paula Berg, Manager of Emerging Media for Southwest Airlines and Andrew Knight, Director of e-Commerce for Case-Mate who spilled their brand strategies and social media secrets. After the panel Latham interviewed these two savvy brand ambassadors.

Latham: How did your company come to embrace social media?

Berg: We had just wrapped up the fourth season of Airline! (SWA’s reality TV show) and we were thinking about new ways to engage our customers and provide a transparent view of our company. The blog NutsAboutSouthwest evolved from this idea. At the time it was pretty new and pretty risky.

Knight: I saw how social media platforms could be used as brand-building platforms and customer engagement tool. One day I proposed to our CEO that we create and manage a blog as well as accounts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. I was fortunate in that I had a CEO who understood that social media was going to be very important.

Latham: How are you using social media to engage your customers?

Knight: In my previous role at a cosmetic company, we used YouTube to showcase our products. We were fortunate to have a relationship with Michelle Phan who built a following of women who wanted to learn how to apply makeup. Each time she released a video on YouTube, we saw a spike in traffic to our site. At Case-Mate, we have an active blog and accounts on Twitter and Facebook. We use the blog to profile customers, employees and products. When we feature customers and employees, they tend to share it with their networks which creates more visibility and traffic for us. We used Twitter and Facebook to promote the content on our blog and engage our customers.

Berg: We focus on our blog, Twitter and Facebook. Our blog tends to skew to older males whereas our Facebook page skews towards younger females. Twitter is all over the board. We have one person responsible for all Twitter updates and a team of 30 who contribute to our blog. Since the blog evolved as a continuation of our reality tv show, our primary goal is to showcase the people and culture of Southwest. We use each platform as a channel for engaging our customers and building our brand (vs. just selling plane tickets).

Latham: How do you handle negative comments?

Knight: We allow negative comments on our blog, as long as they don’t contain inappropriate language. I explained to our CEO early on that if we don’t allow the negative comments, our blog won’t have credibility. And if you disallow feedback from someone who is already upset, you risk them taking even more drastic action. If they are going to say something negative, I’d rather they do it on our site where we can participate in the discussion. If I see a negative tweet about our brand, I follow the person and ask them to DM me to discuss. I then try to move the conversation to e-mail—there’s only so much you can write in 140 characters.

Berg: We allow negative comments unless they use profanity or are about a specific person. We agree you have to be transparent and authentic. We also seek to address any negative comments directly and let the customer know we are listening and that we care.

Knight: You are both very lucky that your C-level execs understand the importance of giving up control of your brand. Unfortunately this isn’t the case in all companies. In some companies, the person who allowed a negative comment to be posted on the site may lose their job over it. It’s still a big problem for a lot of brands.

Berg: You definitely need an exec to champion the cause at the C-level.

Latham: How do you measure results and justify the ROI?

Berg: We measure traffic and other stats, but this isn’t a very important part of our program. Every day we see the value in conversations with our customers. We can’t calculate how many tickets were sold but we do know that word of mouth is critical and social media is a very important tool for building brand loyalty.

Knight: Our also understands that the medium is very important, and that cost of not being there outweighs the cost of the time and energy invested. We use free tools including, Google Analytics and Google Alerts.

Latham: Again you are both fortunate that your management team doesn’t require you to directly attribute results to justify the investment. (sidenote: in such cases, we seek to measure impact by translating online activity to intent and measure the value of intent—see Social Media Business Case for details).

Regarding monitoring tools, we’ve done a lot of research in this arena. There are free tools such as Collecta and Addictomatic that aggregate social media mentions across sites. On the paid side, Nielsen Buzz Metrics and Radian 6 are great tools. SM2 from Techrigy allows you to report on up to 1,000 results for free, making it a great option for mid-size companies who want to monitor mentions of their brand.

Latham: How do you address legal issues?

Berg: We take a pretty relaxed approach and our legal department is not involved. We have general guidelines but we don’t worry too much about legal risks.

Knight: Since I manage our posts and tweets, I don’t have to worry about someone saying something that could get us in trouble. You have to use good judgment.

Latham: How do you see social media as a customer service platform?

Berg: We use social media to solicit feedback, respond to complaints, disperse rumors and announce news. It’s the fastest way to get the word out when something happens. We do virtual focus groups and we find that it’s great for search rankings.

Knight: I think Twitter will become third method (along with phone and email) to contact customer support. We’ve seen companies like Comcast and Best Buy use Twitter for customer support. Over time we think this will become the norm.

First published on the Spur Interactive Blog.