Last November's "free sale" through its Facebook fan page broke two daily records and saved the airline millions of ringgit in advertising spend. Regional head of commercial Kathleen Tan tells Yeoh Siew Hoon about AirAsia's social media strategy.
Kathleen Tan, AirAsia's regional head of commercial, herself did not know how massive social media would become when she started dipping her toes into the space last April.
"We started with one staff and it's been like a tsunami," she said. "Our aim last year was to build a fan base of 50,000 and now we have 215,000. I think we could hit 500,000 easily this year."
Its team of one grew to five (three in Malaysia, one in Thailand and one in Indonesia) and soon it will add one each in Hong Kong and London. "You need full-time staff, it's 24/7."
Its Facebook fan page has now become a communication and marketing channel in which it posts information such as schedule changes, makes announcements, gathers customer feedback, launches new destinations through contests and other viral means and sells seats.
Basically, what it has created is its own media platform and community. It does not advertise however. "To us, Facebook is free, it's how you utilize it. They key is to have relevant content and it shouldn't be too hard sell," said Tan.
An example: Last November, when it launched what it calls its annual "major schedule extension campaign" in which it typically spends up to RM2 million in full print advertisements in newspapers, it decided to use its Facebook fan page as a test case.
Over three to four days, it rolled out teasers everyday, with some saying, the best things in life are free and asked fans to log in on November 11 at midnight.
"When the sale opened, the system crashed," said Tan, who said the airline broke Navitaire's records on two days. On day one, it sold 404,000 seats and on day 2, it sold 489,000 seats.
There was another bonus. Usually, when it ran print campaigns for this sale, it would create havoc at its call centres, preventing staff from servicing other potential sales. "With this viral campaign, only people in the know knew about it. And we could tell people to be patient if the call centre was jammed or if the site was slow.
"The next day, our team also asked our fans to tell us who were the first people to get the seats and we had a lively exchange on the page."
It still took out print ads in countries where its Facebook fan page's penetration wasn't as deep such as China, East Malaysia and Vietnam where it spent between RM200,000 and RM300,000 on offline media.
"That savings goes directly to the bottom line," said Tan, "and I can also use the money to hire more people in digital media. The beauty of digital is with analytics, I can check where the sales are coming from, something you can't do with offline media."
Of its more than 200,000 fans on Facebook, 47% are from Malaysia, 25% from Indonesia, 7% from Thailand, 3% from Hong Kong and 1% from UK. There are slightly more females, 51%, than males and the 18-35 age group accounts for 45% of fans.
Social media also serves as a good customer feedback channel. "We have 250 staff in our call centres," said Tan, "we can't keep adding more. This gives us a channel to listen to customers and respond. You have to be careful though, otherwise it could end up as a complaint centre."
Making social media work takes commitment from management and a desire to understand the channel. "You need a top down culture - all of us in management blog or tweet. Tony (Fernandes') blog is one of the most-followed CEO blogs. We have 25,000 Twitter followers," said Tan.
"When we started our interactive division, I called in the staff and asked them to educate me. I told them that if they wanted my support, they'd better teach me everything about it.
"It's all about people - you have to hire the right people who understand that world and get them to do it. Sometimes my staff tell me the language I use is wrong, that it's too formal.
"I am learning something everyday about social media. There's a lot of talk about it and there are lots of experts who tell you they can help you but I believe you really have to get involved in it yourself."
What social media has done is help AirAsia "build a community of "people who love AirAsia and people who love to travel", said Tan.