Can United Airlines Find Success with Social Media?

United Airlines, which is owned by United Continental Holdings, Inc. (NYSE:UAL), is one of many companies hoping to successfully integrate social media in order to increase profits. Like many other large companies, they are learning the ways of social media via trial by fire.

While many companies could choose to ignore the impact of social media on their bottom lines until very recently, it is becoming increasingly imperative that companies integrate sites such as Twitter, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), and YouTube, which is owned by Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), to their standard methods of marketing in order to be successful. Gregory Karp of the Chicago Tribune explains. Jacqueline Anderson , director of social media and text analytics at J.D. Power, explains, ”We’re at the point now where you need to have a social strategy that covers both aspects (service and marketing), because otherwise you’re going to be way behind the curve.”

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The airline industry, as a whole, performs poorly on the social media front despite the successes of some companies such as JetBlue Airways (NASDAQ:JBLU) and Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV). Despite being the largest airline, United ranks last among major U.S. carriers when it comes to Twitter followers, coming in at 240,000 followers compared to the 1.5 million and 1.7 million followers of Southwest and JetBlue, respectively. That’s a lot of ground to make up for not recognizing the importance of social media early, especially with public relations disasters such as “Guitar-gate,” which may have resulted in the loss of $180 million according to Economist.

As a result, United has spearheaded an aggressive campaign to catch up with the success of its competitors on the social media front. Increasing their social media staff from two to twenty, including twelve reservation agents, the increased staff is tasked with monitoring media activity around the clock. While the two-way communication of social media is incredibly important to consumers, United CEO Jeff Smisek also sees the importance of that same communication on their end. ”We can sometimes spot issues very quickly that we otherwise wouldn’t even know about,” he said. “We’re a big company and sometimes things will happen that we’re not as aware of as we should be. And social media helps (us) to pick up on that,” he told the Chicago Tribune.

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For the past six months, United has accumulated more Twitter users than any other major U.S. airline, according to data by Unmetric. While some of that growth is due to their comparatively smaller base number than their competitors, it seems to be a very positive sign for a company that seemed too far behind not so long ago. On United’s Twitter handle, which they use for both marketing and customer support, they include trivia questions and monthly discussions with United officials on a variety of topics. On YouTube, they recently revealed their new employee uniforms.

As the importance of social media on big business continues to evolve, United seems to show that a newfound focus on changing their marketing to include social media can still yield success. While it’s no longer an option to ignore social media when it comes to a successful business, it’s not too late to start.

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