Hong Kong Airlines’ Dennis Owen, On Finding the ROI in Social Media

by | Mar 8, 2019 | Airlines

Written by Marisa Garcia – Flightchic.com

In some of the more creative elements of business—like advertising, marketing, design—it can be difficult to crunch the numbers and prove a return on investment. That difficulty doesn’t mean that these endeavors aren’t worth pursuing. Often, they are at the very heart of profitability because they drive consumer sentiment and perception of the brand, and they foster customer retention. As a relatively new platform, social media can be particularly difficult to value on the books. As Dennis Owen, General Manager Branding and Social Media at Hong Kong Airlines, explains, social media can be a powerful tool in defense of the brand.       

“I would say, generally speaking, in many companies the ROI is not appreciated at the very top,” Owen says. “I don’t think a lot of people at traditional companies are on social media much, and you really can’t see it unless you are in it. I always tell my staff that there is a difference between being on social media and being in social media. You can’t really understand it unless you are actually in it. If you ask someone about social media, they will say, ‘I’m on Facebook,’ or another channel, but that doesn’t mean that they are actually doing anything with it or learning from it or seeing the ROI from it. It’s only when you’re really in it that you start to see different kinds of ROI.”

Top ROIs are reputation management and customer retention.

“Customer service is a really excellent example,” Owen says. “When someone is complaining about your airline, for example. They may not be complaining to you, but they are complaining about you. If you can reach out to that person and turn them around, to me that’s instant ROI.”

Often, complaints on Social Media will not be directed at the company, but the company can engage with the person complaining, and address their concerns. That responsiveness can turn things around not just with the individual but with anyone following the exchange. 

“If you do that, time after time, that starts to build up and it starts to build a positive brand experience when they hear it from other people,” Owen says.

Owen shares an example of a YouTube video review that expressed negative sentiment because the traveller had encountered problems with their in-flight entertainment equipment. Using a social listening tool, Owen became aware of the problem and ensured that Hong Kong Airlines responded from its YouTube channel.

“Not only was he was surprised, but he reacted, ‘You are actually a good airline and I would fly with you again,’” Owen says. “The thing is that you can’t stop that negativity—it’s out there forever—but people can see the type of company that we are because of how we respond to things. I think that more than makes up for a shortfall, like a video screen that’s not working.”

Owen believes that social media listening tools—like HootSuite and Talkwalker—are critical. 

“To me, if you don’t have a social media listening tool, it’s like reading with eyepatches on. It’s a nonstarter for me. It’s the first thing that has to happen,” he says. “I use the social listening tool every day, numerous times throughout the day. I can see what people are saying about the brand, if there are issues that need to be address right away that you can get the team on that. It’s the first thing that you do, if you take charge of social media. It’s about brand promotion and also about brand protection.”

Asked when outsourcing of social media is appropriate, Owen says that the answer lies in the organization’s limitations and goals. 

“I think it depends on the airline, there are different models,” he says. “I don’t think it works that well to have this outsourced. I’m not saying you can’t have help from an agency, but there’s no way that they are going to know what the answers are to issues that pop up right away. It just adds more time to getting a response back to customers. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having an agency that monitors for you. That can improve your awareness, if you don’t have the capability in-house. But, in terms of responding to customer service issues involving flights, delays or baggage, an agency can’t really help with that very well.”

Other forms of automation—programmed messaging from social media bots and AI-powered content creation—may speed up messaging, but they cannot deliver a truly personalized response that may earn brand-building ‘viral’ engagement.

An example is Hong Kong Airline’s management of the business fares error last year, which was a reputation boost and earned advertising in positive media coverage.      

“That was a good opportunity to engage with our customer,” Owen says. “I do train my team and show them examples of how to be personal. We tried to personalize the message, tried to do things that were based on what the person said and who they were. For example, one person said this would be great for their honeymoon, so we responded with a Cinderella and the Prince GIF.

It doesn’t take that long to personalize the message. That’s where you have to be careful about automation, because you lose your brand personality. What I do with my staff on social media, is to tell them to have a personality. Hong Kong airlines is a young brand—it’s ok to be funny and it’s ok to be cheeky.”

Artificial Intelligence may not be ready to think across all of these human factors and respond spontaneously.

“I think it will get better over time, but I don’t think artificial intelligence is going to allow you to do something like that—our ‘fare mistake’ response,” Owen says. “That was a human being looking at what a person is going to be interested in and responding. I don’t think artificial intelligence is going to do that any time soon. I never say never, but I think that’s the difference. Yes, it can produce content but is it personalized enough? Everything is so much about personalization right now, and that human aspect is still important. The thing that people are forgetting about social media is that it’s about community and engagement. You have to have that human touch in the very crowded social media world. I don’t think artificial intelligence can do that.”

There have been a number of examples on social media of brands building strong personalities that develop a unique fan base—even in markets where the product may not be available. That name recognition is priceless. Some examples include MoonPie, Wendy’s, Chipotle. They succeed because their messages are spontaneous, funny and relatable, and often quirky rather than promotional. For example, Wendy’s earned praise for having strong opinions on characters in the Marvel universe.

People build personal and sometimes emotional bonds with these brands on social media. For example, during the Oscars, the SunnyD account tweeted a cryptic message, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ That generated a buzz around whether the person managing the account expressed a genuine feeling of frustration, or whether this was an elaborate marketing stunt—whichever it was, there was an outpouring of support. People empathized and tried to cheer up SunnyD—an orange drink—and they also related to the message.

The #AirportTwitter hashtag, originally launched by YVR and joined by a host of airports, has created a similar sense of relatable, community humor that engages the public and raises the profile of these destinations.

The secret to success for these accounts is, as Owen says, that they are in social media, not just on social media. They are familiar with current trending topics, sentiment and memes and can figure out how to act on them in a timely fashion and in a relatable way.

Memes are, by definition, messages that shape social norms and communicate meaning beyond the original text or image. They are profound (even if sometimes silly) and have a significant impact on culture.

Because social media is about culture, Owen says, it’s particularly important to focus messaging around the culture of the individual channel.

“Sometimes it bothers me when brands put out content in all platforms that it is alike,” he says. “I always tell my staff to think about the audience that is on the channel. It’s not the same audience. It’s ok to use a similar piece of content, but, for example, if you are talking about something on LinkedIn, talk about it in the way that a business traveller would want to relate to it. On Instagram, it’s more of a leisure type audience. It’s about understanding the channel, the audience that is there, and the mindset when they are on that channel, then tailor the content to that.”

The relevance of channels may change over time, as well as their utility, but Owen sees Instagram as a rising star in travel.

“I think it depends on the region, but I would still say Facebook is extremely important because you have the ability to target messaging and big ads,” he says. “Having said that, I think the fastest growing channel for us right now is Instagram. It’s such a great place for travel because it is so visual. That’s definitely an important channel for us.”

Hong Kong Airlines has also dedicated a team in China responsible for managing Chinese social media platforms—Weibo and WeChat—which have their own communications dynamic. While the two teams share brand strategies, the Chinese team specializes in these high-volume, time-critical interactions.  

“In China, in particular, you have to be very responsive because the interaction is much larger. If something negative happens, it can go viral much faster,” Owen says.

Hong Kong Airlines manages its social media channels with a relatively small team, with three people in Hong Kong and two in China. The brand does not maintain a 24/7 presence yet, and that still works for its market—but by monitoring sentiment they can ‘hop-in’ when messaging would be critical, as was the case with the mistake fare last year.  

So what is the future of social media for brands?

“I think social media is evolving. A lot of people are still focused on social media marketing and brand promotion, and that’s great to do that. But what I’m really interested in is analytics, because the tools are getting much better,” Owen says. “I’m working on social listening tools and around reports on specific topics. For example, I want the tool that will allow me to have reports, and artificial intelligence to help tweak this, so that I can identify what the sentiment is around our website, or in-flight cuisine, or baggage or delays. Specifically, looking at very targeted areas and getting a sense of what people are saying, so that I can pass that on to the department that handles that particular service. That way, they can get better at what they do, and act on the voice of the customer in their particular areas. We’re at the early stages of this, but I think this is one of the key directions that social media should take to prove ROI.”