How Qantas can become a digital leader


Qantas has had a lot of press recently, and for all the wrong reasons. When the Treasurer signalled that the Government sees Qantas as so entwined into the Australian economy that it has become “too big to fail” the airline’s mounting debt problems became an issue for the Australian taxpayer. The question many people are now starting to ask is; what will happen if the airline does get a bail out? Could it ever regain its market leading position?

As I write this article I’m sitting in a Qantas lounge waiting for my plane to commence boarding and with the benefit of this pleasant environment here is what occurs to me.

Qantas has an amazing asset in its brand. It is one that everyone in its home country and many people around the world identify as uniquely Australian. It is both grand and powerful. But it feels like it is part of the 20th, not the 21st century.

A good example of this is the way that Qantas have handled social media over the last few years.
As many brands have discovered social media can be a minefield. Qantas learned this when it set up its Twitter and Facebook accounts with a customer service focus. One can only assume they had seen case studies from around the world that demonstrated the ability of brands to monitor social media for mentions of their name then jump in and address customer issues and complaints. For Qantas things went wrong fairly quickly. The negative interactions got all the attention and people who complained got sorted out quickly. Indeed this happened to me. I was on a delayed flight, complained on Twitter and several minutes later got an upgrade.

Qantas had created a perverse incentive. The loudest complainers got the most attention, incentivising ever higher level of complaints. Fast forward today and look at the Qantas “Follow Us” page . You can now see they are using even more social media channels – but in a much more controlled and broadcast focussed way.

Notwithstanding this progress the way that Qantas has dealt with emerging technologies and how its customers interact with its brand across all digital touch points makes it appear out of touch and slow to respond. The company has an extensive digital network of websites, apps and online promotions but they all feel like disconnected projects, detached from the needs of the customer. As a digital observer, commentator and strategist, it looks to me like Qantas has taken outdated customer engagement thinking and applied it to its online presence.

Qantas is not alone in this approach. Many businesses are now having to deal with the fact that being “customer-centric” in the highly connected, always on, social media driven world means something quite different than it did before everyone had a smart phone in their pocket.
But most of those businesses don’t have the powerful brand that Qantas does.

That differentiator gives Qantas an exciting opportunity. With a robust digital strategy that focuses on the entire customer experience it has the ability to not only match what some other airlines are doing but to leapfrog them and develop a world leading approach to customer engagement.

In particular Qantas has an asset that it could be using to change the way that consumers interact with them online – their frequent fliers loyalty programme.

When Qantas experimented with social media and it went wrong the company reverted to a command and control model. Instead it should have stepped back and asked itself, “if we have been so effective at incentivising behaviours we don’t want , what could it mean for us if we started incentivising the behaviours we do want”.

You could imagine a world where Qantas invites you to connect your social media accounts to your Frequent Flyer membership. Once you do Qantas then starts to reward you for positive interactions online. Engage with an online campaign and earn couple of air-points. Download the new Qantas app and get a few more air-points. Actively promote their pages or offers and get even more air-points. Become an influential referrer and get some status credits. You could even imagine a time where someone, who doesn’t necessary fly that often but is graded as ‘highly influential’ because of their impact on the purchasing decisions of other customers, gets the First Class treatment when they finally do decide to fly with Qantas.

There is complexity to rolling out a programme like this – but it can be done. My company, Working Three, is doing just that for a number of brands. We call it Customer Royalty and it focuses on the idea that consumer advocacy is not random and chaotic – it can be managed and developed as programme.

The rapid adoption of online communications platforms and online tools has presented a range of challenges for large brands. But it is also opening up a world of possibilities and allowing old business models to be rethought.

While managing advocacy and customer engagement is not the fix- all solution to Qantas’ woes the airline is one of those few brands with the ability to do the unthinkable. It can redirect a proportion of it’s massive marketing budget to focus on incentivising and interacting with its customers – and leave its competitors scrambling to catch up.

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