On Message: UK airports ‘get’ Twitter – now for the resource challenge

On Message: PR Week editor Danny Rogers on marketing and branding

Manchester, Gatwick and Heathrow airports are proving that Twitter can be a great customer service tool. But does it scale?

Twitter is all about lively conversation. And when you’re thinking of all those with whom you would like to converse, a regional airport is unlikely to come high on your list.

Indeed the opposite was the case last winter, when Paul Chambers, 26, famously tweeted that he would blow Robin Hood airport ‘sky high’ if the snow problems weren’t overcome (only to be arrested and charged with ‘menacing electronic communication’).

But today, in the case of Manchester Airport, more than 10,000 people are now Twitter devotees.

Until recently I didn’t even realise that airports were on Twitter. I certainly wouldn’t have thought of following them, but an increasing number of people do. On closer inspection, it does make sense: millions of people have (at least fleeting) relationships with airports and there is often quite a bit of information to impart.

As it happens Manchester – @Manairport – is one of the best-followed airports on Twitter. It has only five thousand fewer followers than Heathrow, despite being about a quarter of the size, and recently won a global award for its social media prowess.

This is because Manchester was the first European airport to set up a Twitter feed and did so 12 months ago. This meant it was able to effectively communicate with customers via this medium during the ash cloud crisis in the spring.

We should remember that many in the travel industry believe that the ash cloud was the most acute, and damaging crisis to air travel, since 9/11. Certainly many airlines and airports struggled to communicate with customers, who were increasingly confused and frustrated.

Gatwick Airport was so impressed with Manchester’s efforts that, in May, it decided to transform its own Twitter feed from a marketing tool to an informational channel – to help answer customer queries in realtime, as Manchester does.

Several weeks ago, Gatwick even tried putting messages on check-in screens encouraging people in the airport to give feedback via Twitter while in the terminals. And one now senses that Twitter is fast becoming the information channel of choice for British airports.

This may be no bad thing. Have you ever tried to call an airport, desperate for information on a flight or a crisis situation? With ever-fewer human resources, the telephone systems regularly go into meltdown.

So could Twitter be the answer? Manchester can now provide live updates on flights if you send it a direct Twitter message quoting your flight number. And it is very impressive how the staff at Manchester chat with customers in real time.

The challenge, however, is resourcing this new channel. British airports are rightly recognising that Twitter strategy and implementation should be shared between marketing, comms and customers service operations. But even then almost all find it difficult to converse via Twitter outside office hours.

At 5.30pm last Friday Heathrow’s Twitter team cheerfully tweeted: ‘That’s all from us this week folks. Have a great weekend’, which wasn’t much use to the hundreds of thousands of passengers who travelled through it on Saturday and Sunday.

To be fair these are still early days. British airports are leading the world in terms of social media usage. Gatwick is promising 24-hour Twitter service by the end of the autumn. But if this is to prove an invaluable comms channel for both operators and customers, two things need to happen.

First, new software is required to effectively handle the growing amount of customer interaction. Tools such as Hootsuite are useful, but more complex systems will be required if enquiries start moving into the tens of thousands per day.

Second, social media responsibility needs to move beyond the IT department and even beyond the marketing departments, to a point where customer service truly ‘owns’ Twitter.

This is not to say that comms departments move away from social media. Far from it. They need to stay completely on top of the issues that emerge and help set the strategy, but the actual interaction becomes a resource-heavy business.

Ultimately, in this sense social media become a senior management responsibility, but one well worth the time and effort.

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