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In a giant green typeface, the placard sitting on the JetBlue ticket counter at Logan International Airport welcomed "AYCJers." Beyond that, the placard offered few hints other than "30 days. Unlimited fun" and a Web address that pointed to Facebook: facebook.com/aycj.
"Unlimited fun?" My curiosity was piqued. On business travel for four weeks running now, my fun tank has been running on empty. Might JetBlue have the antidote? I couldn't tell. The acronym "AYCJ" was practically a riddle. I took my seat near the gate, whipped out my notebook, jumped on Logan's free WiFi, keyed-in the cryptic URL and....nothing.
Well, almost nothing. In the top left hand corner was a big blue icon that said "All You Can Jet." OK, riddle partially solved. But if JetBlue was trying to promote something to its customers, it sure wasn't jumping off the page at me saying "CLICK HERE FOR FUN." Instead, I saw yet another familiarly formatted FaceBook Wall; this one full of entries from what appeared to be people who have nothing better to do but jet like Paris Hilton from one party to another as though money and the real world were of no concern.
Although there was no clear call to action, I used a FaceBook feature to "Like" the page (can't there be an "Unlike" button for those of us who change their minds? Editor's Note: InformationWeek reader Niels used the comments section below to point out that the unlike link is in the lower left hand side) which in turn enabled me to make my own post to the AYCJ wall. While I still didn't get the whole "AYJC" thing, I posted anyway: "Waiting for Flt. B6 1013 to JFK (in terminal C @ Boston Logan). Bunch of people heading to India are getting on this flight. Lucky them!"
Before I could poke around FaceBook any further, it was time to pack up and board my flight. As I took my seat on the plane, I thought about how JetBlue really screwed this social networking promotion up. I still had no idea what AYCJ was about. Fortunately, the couple sitting next to me did. It was then that I learned that JetBlue was running a program whereby customers could fly as many times as they wanted to from Sept 7 to Oct 6 for the low price of $499. Had I clicked the "Info" tab on the Facebook page, I would have found some of the details. But those other tabs are just the equivalent of fine print. No one reads them. Well, at least I don't.
The bottom line: if JetBlue was trying to promote this program to fliers like me in hopes of attracting more business (Virgin America is currently my favorite airline), it wasn't doing a very good job. Especially if it required other JetBlue customers to explain the program to me.
A social network marketing failure? Apparently not.
Referring to my experience, JetBlue corporate communications manager and social network lightning rod Morgan Johnston chided me "That was partially by design."
Johnston went on to tell me how, through the use of nothing but social networks like Twitter (where @JetBlue has nearly 1.6 million followers), it was only a matter of days before the Forest Hills, NY-based airline sold-out all of the passes it originally allotted to the AYCJ program. "The promotion started on Aug 17 and sold out in 2.5 days," he said.
As it turns out, the AYCJ placard, the FaceBook page as well as some other aggregation points (an AYCJ Group on Flickr and the #AYCJ hashtag on Twitter) are all part of a social networking backbone that JetBlue established for AYCJ customers so they could connect to one another. In other words, that backbone really wasn't for passers-by like me.
"When we ran this promotion last year," said Johnston, "[the AYCJers] formed their own community. They were excited about engaging each other and didn't necessarily want to hang out on JetBlue's official Facebook page or Twitter account." This year, Johnston and others at JetBlue took the lead on setting all of that up in order to better enable AYCJ passholders -- many of whom are solo fliers -- an easy way to find each other and share their experiences.
While AYCJ passholder adoption of the AYCJ Facebook-Twitter-Flickr backbone is one measure of success, the more important benchmark is probably the way that JetBlue -- in an act of traditional media disintermediation -- turned solely to social media to not only sell the program out in 2.5 days, but to improve on the previous year's number of passholders by 15%. According to Johnston, while the airline has several million TruBlue members (that's JetBlue's frequent flier club) and their email addresses, this year's promotion involved no email (trust me: this is a direct marketer's dream come true).
As for Johnston, he was careful not to take full credit for the strategy. "That," he said, "involved a team of people across JetBlue's revenue management and marketing groups." But Johnston clearly played an important role. He was the first in the company to spot the growing importance of Twitter. Said Johnston, "Back in 2007, I went to management and showed them how we could see what customers were saying about JetBlue in real time and asked if I could respond." Johnston got the green light and now, social networking has become so important to JetBlue's outreach that the company is forming a social media support team that will be run out of its Salt Lake City, UT-based reservation center.
As for adding other social networks into the mix, Johnston says they're considering other tools but haven't made any decisions yet. Johnston personally engages some of the geolocation networks like FourSquare and FaceBook Places but says the airline is still studying the potential impact of such networks on customer privacy.
David Berlind is the chief content officer of TechWeb and editor-in-chief of TechWeb.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you also can find him on Twitter and other social networks (see the list below).