More Blood on the Social Media Marketing Floor: Virgin America needs to learn better

David Amerland
David Amerland owner/founder,

Posted on November 29th 2011

In Rome nothing got crowds more excited, forgiving and ready to love their flawed emperor than a good bloodletting at the Colosseum. In our times, credit crunch crises, low sales, difficult customers, greedy bankers, a tight Christmas and inept governments are ready to be forgotten with a good spectacle of a global brand getting slaughtered in the social media arena.

On cue step the most unlikely candidate and proof that no one is ever immune: Virgin America. The US airline division of the iconic Virgin brand, VA, like every other part of the Virgin empire, has made a name for itself by offering just the right mix of hip and cheeky (one of their taglines is: “We’re shaping up our back end”),  and, in the process, managed to catch the imagination of the press and make itself standout from its competitors.

Given the fact that Virgin is an old-hand at social media marketing (which incidentally for Virgin did not start with Facebook and Google Plus) and adept at turning the attention of the Press into publicity worth millions, it should have a social media team that’s there as an example to be emulated by other, less social media-savvy companies.

So, when Virgin America switched reservation systems a few teething problems were to be expected. What was totally unexpected however was the way in which it handled the predictable social media storm that blew up.

For a start customers couldn't access the VA website, emails did not seem to be working (or at least no one was responding to them) and even traditional telephone lines seemed to be ineffective when it came to communicating with the company, with some customers being put on hold for up to four hours. Mark Islam of Los Angeles tweeted: "@VirginAmerica's system upgrade is a disaster. Have lost HOURS on hold at 877FLYVIRGIN. Their email's down too. A 21st century company?" There were hundreds of others who used Twitter to vent their frustration while others still went to Virgin America’s Facebook page to complain on its wall.

Predictable reactions, up to this point, and you’d expect Virgin to go into its well-practised, damage-control mode. After all, this is the company which invented social media marketing before there was social media marketing to invent. Once, company group president Richard Branson, famously dressed as a pirate and walked on a British Airways flight in the 80s, at Heathrow airport, London, to draw media attention to BA’s anti-competitive practices.

With that kind of pedigree, you’d expect that the last thing Virgin would do is take a leaf out of the Blackberry social media playbook. For a start, Virgin America flight crew were given the wrong information about when to turn up for work, causing flight delays. Those who were in a position to respond to the public were not always aware that things were not working, that cancellations could not be made, that customers had been charged more than once for the same flight or that there was no way to check reservations online. Nor was there any explanation why emails sent via the VA website were vanishing in the ether.

To make matters worse the company’s PR department, seemingly forgetting every social media lesson Virgin has learnt to date and unaware of Brian Solis’ message that there really there is such a thing as The End of Business as Usual, went into 20th century communication mode. A VP of corporate communications at Virgin America claimed that customers and staff were happy with the change and they were experiencing minimal problems with the "smooth transition," and a company spokesman denied that there were any problems with the booking system, just as Twitter was beginning to glow red hot with VA customer complaints.

In the present economic climate airlines are struggling to stay afloat and although everyone accepts that mistakes can happen, booking systems can become problematic and even internal communications can go a little out of synch, when we get a series of incidents which spell out loud and clear that the company and its brand matter more than customers and their needs, the end for a brand may not be too long coming, irrespective of company size, history, tradition, or brand appeal.

David Amerland

David Amerland


David Amerland is the author of seven best-selling books including "Google Semantic Search: Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Techniques That Gets Your Company More Traffic, Increases Brand Impact and Amplifies Your Online Presence" and "Google+ Hangouts for Business: How to use Google+ Hangouts to Improve Brand Impact, Build Business and Communicate in Real-Time."

He helps multi-national clients and start-ups to organize their SEO and Social Media strategies. He is a business journalist, author and international speaker. He blogs about social media and search engine optimization, writes for a number of prominent websites including Forbes, and advises a handful of corporations on their social media crisis management techniques.

His books on SEO and Social Media demystify the complexity of the subjects they cover for readers around the world providing an accessible blueprint to better understand and take advantage of the opportunities offered by the connected economy. Follow him on @DavidAmerland. or find him on G+

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