On Friday, March 9 I spoke on a panel at the Texas Public Relations Association 2007 Annual Meeting with Paula Berg of Southwest Airlines. Paula presented a fantastic case study on the Southwest Airlines corporate blog, replete with the kind of statistics and anecdotal information that is of value to communications professionals. As I see about an email a week looking for corporate blog case studies, I thought I’d share Paula’s story (with her permission, of course).
The Southwest Airlines blog was conceived a year ago and presented to the Airline’s executives as "just another communications tool" and one that could be handled by the existing staff at no additional operational cost. According to Paula there was little resistance, and three months after the idea was pitched the blog was live.
The blog has approximately 30 contributing posters. Comments are allowed but they are first screened before they reach the site. Despite this layer of filtering the blog has a loyal following. So loyal in fact that Southwest feels obligated to post every day, even if the post is simply to explain that there will not be a post on that day.
The blog’s audience was slow to build, but nine months after launch the site has more than 200 posts and 4,000 public comments and is viewed within Southwest as a success.
While the site is moderated, the vast majority of comments are posted, including negative posts. Posts containing vulgar language, overt religious or political messages, and those that attack specific individuals are rejected. In addition, individual customer service complaints are not posted but they are answered directly.
With those posts culled the resulting dialog is more about the airline’s business practices, service, and culture. The blog has a discussion board feel to it and may be seen as a hybrid.
What lessons can be learned Southwest’s experience?
- Maintaining the site is a labor of love. It is staffed by two communicators who are backed up by two alternates. Paula checks it "once an hour every hour" that she is awake, and estimates it adds two full hours to her average workday. So don’t underestimate staffing requirements and secure the resources needed to sustain the blog.
- Approximately one-third of all posts are the airline’s employees. This activity is encouraged and helps to communicate the inclusiveness and transparency of the Southwest culture.
- The community will respond to negative and inaccurate comments on Southwest’s behalf. This experience seems to prove true something we have been counseling for years, that online communities are self-policing.
- The blog has become an extremely cost-effective research tool -- a "virtual focus group." Customer input has been of value to Southwest around the issue of assigned seats and the related trial they are conducting in San Diego. Boarding and seating ideas harvested customer comments have been added to the trials, and customer feedback the blog is influencing their decision-making.
- One additional byproduct -- journalists are using the blog to generate story ideas. They are also calling the airline’s communications team requesting to interview employee bloggers and posters.
Is this experience relevant to all organizations? Southwest’s blogging experience rings true to their culture, which is informal and open. Not every organization is ready for such an experiment. How many corporations would allow an employee post to begin with the words "As a blonde, I have had my share of embarrassing moments"
My counsel to organization’s debating launching a blog remains consistent. Don’t start by blogging,. Instead get familiar with the space. Know who is blogging about your organization and topics about which your organization wants to have a public voice. Who has the dominant voices in the space? What are there biases? What kind of people comment on their posts? Cite them? How will your point of view add to the dialog that already exists? You have to understand the space you are entering before you take your first step.
And what should that first step be? Start a blog on your Intranet and get used to wearing the clothes before you go out in them. You can even start with a limited community of participants, such as a blog limited to the communications team. This will help you find a voice that is comfortable and identify the members of the team that have the interest to keep up the activity. When it comes time to go outside, start by getting involved a bit in dialog that already exists by commenting on other sites. When you know the landscape better and you have the confidence that you can commit the time and energy to support a blog, then and only then should you start an official organizational blog.