There is usually only one situation when travelling by air that warrants travellers banding together in a community. Unfortunately, it is usually when they unite in dissent and outrage about the way they are being treated by airlines. Apart from the "community" of frequent flyers, the airline industry has typically done a terrible job of fostering social interaction between passengers, which is why often this interaction is happening on communities like FlyerTalk.com. This and other sites like it are dedicated to travellers sharing tips with one another on how to manipulate the system, travel smarter for cheaper, achieve preferred status in frequent flyer programs faster, or simply talk about the airline industry from a traveller's point of view. Again, the community is talking around airlines and not with them.
KLM has a different vision, launched through several social networks - including ones targeted at entrepreneurs and business travellers in China and Africa, as well as a robust social network all about golfing where travellers can enter their destinations and scores, use miles to purchase golf related merchandise, and even book golf get togethers with other travellers that happen to be in the same location. That an airline would launch a social network is interesting in itself. The way that KLM has done these (and presumably will do others as well) offers some interesting lessons to other struggling airlines on how to better connect with customers by using social networks:
- Offer what business customers are interested in. If you are going to see mom and dad for a week, you probably won't be interested in social networking with other golfers or business folks. The beauty of focusing on business interests here is that it is not only more useful, but obviously more profitable for KLM as business travel is where the higher margin tickets are sold. For that reason, every airline is trying to stand out for business travellers. But when everyone offer 180 degree flat beds and the same video capabilities - you need to go further. You need to offer something that no one else has, but that business travellers would be interested in.
- Capitalize on existing trends (and the underlying meaning). The "trend" of social networks points to the underlying need for people to connect with other like minded individuals. Every successful social network has some element that allows it's users to do that. Similarly, KLM has built a structure for the regional sites where travellers can connect with one another based on the (mostly) chance occurence of sharing a flight - or doing business in the same market. The result is that flying with KLM may mean more than a number of frequent flyer points or the simply getting from point A to point B. Being part of the club is a part of your identity - and the incentive is not a reward (as with frequent flyer points). The incentive is building your own personal network, finding a new golf buddy and perhaps even doing a new deal or two.
- Understand what brings travellers together. Passion for a subject, whether it's work or golf is the primary reason, but there is another interesting insight KLM is using to it's advantage here. For many business travellers (particularly those travelling internationally), there is a familiar moment of recognition and bonding when you find someone else in a strange place who is from where you are from. It explains the rise of strong expat communities in cities around the world, and the immediate bond with a "seatmate" who comes from the same city, and leaves on the same flight as you to the same destination. Focusing a social network on helping people to forge that bond is a smart idea.
There is more KLM could be doing - such as integrating these networks more closely into their booking and seat selection process, or offering travellers the chance to bring their networks and invitations into popular business contact sites like LinkedIn. Regardless, the networks represent a wonderful new step in how airlines foster relationships with their customers and go beyond simply innovating the interior of their business cabins every six months with something new in order to stand out.
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