Fall '11 Breakthrough

October 16-19, 2011 | Las Vegas, Nevada

The secret to Virgin America's happy customers


Virgin America knows that a great marketing campaign won't succeed without a fantastic product behind it. Read on to find out how it is dominating digital in the air and on the ground.

Porter Gale, former vice president of Virgin America, knows that digital translates into profits. Now she's trying to figure out if it can save a man's life.

In an article for AdAge, Gale spelled out the story of Amit Gupta. Gupta is 32 years old, a member of the San Francisco tech community, and has been diagnosed with leukemia. His only chance of survival is through a bone marrow transplant, and as someone of South Asian descent, his chances of a positive match are one in 1,000. Gale's article, which has received more than 14 million page views since it went live on Oct.12, called out to readers that could be a possible match, asking them to get their cheeks swabbed at a Stanford event for Gupta. So far, only 700 people have gotten tested.

"There is a big difference between tweeting and taking action," Gale said. "We need to figure out how to close that gap."


(photo source: http://www.amitguptaneedsyou.com/)

For her opening keynote at iMedia's Breakthrough Summit in Henderson, Nev., Gale emphasized the power digital had in Virgin America's success, and took attendees through the never-before-shared making of the company that transformed the traditionally stressful, stale peanuts hassle of air travel into an experience so pleasant that one consumer said it was akin to "flying in an iPod." Over pictures of airplanes in various stages of construction, Gale said that Virgin was built on the premise that the airline category was broken, and that the Virgin America mission was simply to create an airline that people loved.

Challenging the norms
From the start, Virgin was different. The passion of its team members led to small innovations that made a world of difference to consumers. It was the first airline to do full fleet, in-flight WiFi, an amenity that is just now becoming widely accepted by the industry.  Of course, pushing the envelope has its own inherent challenges.

"One of the main things that happened in those first four years," Gale said, "was that everyone we approached said, 'It's never been done that way.' Our response was, 'Just because it hasn't happened doesn't mean it can't be done.'"

Baking technology into the brand
Virgin America currently spends 70 percent of its marketing budget on digital, a number that Gale insists will continue to increase over time. Evidence of the company's commitment to digital is visible in everything from the "#nerdbird" hashtags on the airplanes, to its long-standing relationships with Google and Twitter. Social media is extremely important to Virgin America, as a great tool for engagement, service recovery, and promotion.

"We had a first class guest who wrote an angry tweet, in flight, about never getting a sandwich he ordered," Gale said. "When we saw it, we immediately sent a message to the crew, saying 'The man in 3C needs his sandwich.' The result? A customer for life."

Virgin America also uses Facebook and Twitter to keep travelers up-to-date on flight delays and sales. Though it has seen a steady growth of ROI in the last three years, social is still primarily an engagement tool for the company.

"The most important revenue channels for us are still email and online advertising," Gale said. "But social media is growing."

The first mover advantage
By now, it should be clear that Virgin America is not afraid to take risks and try out projects that may not have a huge ROI payoff. One recent example of this was its location-based promotion of the new routes to Mexico, in conjunction with mobile company Loopt. By visiting a taco truck, mobile users in Los Angeles and San Francisco got a two-for-one ticket to Mexico as well as a two-for-one deal on tacos. The promotion not only led to a full-page article in USA Today, but resulted in the fifth largest sales day of Virgin America's history.

(photo source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/loopt/)

What's next
In addition to improving its WiFi capabilities on board, Virgin America is also trying to integrate its loyalty program into the plane using tagging.

"We want to know what our customers like, so we can service them better," Gale said. "With our new onboard system, if you're watching an action film on one flight, the next time you're flying and you plug in your loyalty number, you'll get a message from us saying, 'We know you love action films. Enjoy a complimentary margarita and check out some of our new action movies.'"

The new system will also have 75 percent less wiring, which will translate into more competitive pricing and less wait time for passengers.

One of the system changes that highlights not only how digitally current the company is but also how focused it is on customer happiness is the ability to plug your iPad or iPhone into the seatback screen and download a movie that you weren't able to finish on the plane. This will make consumers happy, strengthen the brand relationship, and bring the brand off the plane and into the home.

"As marketers and media agencies, the more you can get involved in technology development, the more successful you'll be," Gale said. "A technology-driven business is just going to do better in a digital world."

Lucia Davis is associate editor at iMedia Connection.

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