A historic example of proactive use of social media marketing & communication: KLM

I had just checked in for my flight to Helsinki when a colleague of mine called me.

“Can you fly?”  he asked me.

“Yes, of course, why not?” I asked, somewhat surprised at the question.

 “Well, I am stuck in Glasgow!” he replied, “The ash cloud has reached the northern part of the UK and will reach the rest of Europe soon!”

I’m not easily worried and, despite the air of panic emanating from the other end of the line, I did not foresee any reason to reconsider my travel plans. The same air of panic expressed by my colleague was certainly not in evidence at Schiphol airport. There had been no news of a delay… or had I missed it? We were on our way to meet a client in Finland for a 4-hour workshop. Our plan was to stay overnight and fly back the next day. Any delay would have implications for this tightly scheduled visit.


volcanic ash cloudEyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, in April 2010.

We all know the story about how the huge ash cloud generated by this eruption brought air transport across Europe to a standstill, leaving thousands stranded. Well, I was one of those ‘thousands’. Our plan was to fly to Helsinki early in the morning, meet with our Finnish colleagues and make the final preparations for the joint workshop that had been scheduled for the following day. We’d stay for one night, have the workshop at the head office of our client and fly back the next day. Our workshop was with the world market leader in industrial building cranes and harbor cranes. The client was looking to select and implement a new CRM system and had asked our organization to make a proposal based on the cloud-based solution salesforce.com. I was in charge of the sales and solution process and was joined by three colleagues: the project manager, our CRM expert and our Salesforce specialist.

cloud hostages at the airport

Despite being forewarned by my colleague in the UK, I boarded my flight to Helsinki and, inevitably, became one of the many ‘ash cloud hostages’. Grounded for a week, I immersed myself in the hostage role, letting my beard grow and sending ‘proof of life’ pictures back to my family.

I also took the opportunity to get to know Helsinki – its harbors, peninsula and almost every nook and cranny – by going on daily runs. It’s a personal habit of mine to pack my running gear on any business trip – no matter how short the trip and tight the schedule. Over the years, this has helped me keep my head clear and fresh despite the inevitable tiredness that comes with travel, and it’s also given me the opportunity to get to know great cities such as Dublin, Munich and San Francisco in ways that otherwise would have been impossible on such short trips. I highly recommend this to anybody who regularly travels on business.

During our time as ‘hostages’, we were kept up to date of developments by our company’s travel agent. However, this being the digital age, we soon found that we were able to find out more about what was going on by bypassing our designated purveyor of second-hand information, and scouring the Internet and TV, where it was possible to hear ‘straight from the source’ and in real time what was happening. Now this may seem natural today, but considering this was 2010, our preferences for where we sourced our information from – and indeed our ability to access such information – were different to what they are today.

cancelled flightsOf particular interest to us at the time was news of KLM’s attempts to get air traffic moving again by sending passenger-less test flights into the air to demonstrate the safety of flying. Not only was the company trying to re-occupy European air space, but it also took to the social media ‘air space’, using Facebook and Twitter to keep stranded travellers like myself informed of the latest developments. During my experience of working with huge international companies, I’ve observed what I term the ‘social media epiphany’ moment – the point where a company finally understands the role that social media can play in helping it reach its customers, and embraces it wholeheartedly. For KLM, this was that moment and, since the ash cloud crisis of 2010, the airline has made social media a central part of the way it communicates with its passengers.

At a time of great debate and media frenzy about the rights and wrongs of flying during this crisis, it was comforting and reassuring for us to know that KLM was out there making efforts to get us back home, and keeping us informed of the developments relevant to us. I don’t know how many stranded passengers at the time can say that they felt they were in good hands with their airline. We certainly did.

KLM Surprise

Almost eighteen months after my life as a hostage came to an end, I was in San Francisco for Dreamforce, salesforce.com’s annual cloud computing event. As part of the keynote speech, I was among the more than 40,000 people treated to a showing of the company’s latest case study, ‘KLM surprise’. Having witnessed this airline take its first steps into the world of social media, I was delighted to see just how much they had embraced it in such a short space of time.

The video focused on what the airline calls the ‘KLM surprise’, whereby representatives of the airline actively ‘listen’ to the social media activity of their passengers in the hours leading up to selected flights. When a passenger tweets his or her flight number and destination, the airline checks the passenger’s social media profile so as to find out more about that person’s interests, and also what he or she looks like. They then select a small, but personal, gift based on the passenger’s social media profile, before tracking them down (typically at the boarding gate) to surprise them with the gift.

KLM Surprise

As you can see from the video, the response of the passengers is one of genuine surprise and happiness. Just imagine the positive sentiment and ripple effect of a (relatively) modest act like this. Well, as the video shows, KLM have done the research. Consider the numbers…

  • 28 ‘KLM Surprises’
  • 1,000,000+ impressions
  • Spread over 88 countries

… and that’s just Twitter (so not including over 40,000 view on YouTube). Now imagine the relatively small outlay required to create such a reverberation of positive sentiment. I was able to identify two gifts – a €15 download voucher and a Nike+ sports strap. Now, even if all the gifts cost as much as the latter (around €50), that’s an awful lot of positive sentiment for less then €1,500. Just consider the positive impact on the ‘surprised’ passenger and those around him or her as they receive the present. Consider how many talking points and ‘word of mouth’ opportunities were generated as a result.

European airlines on twitter

The ‘KLM Surprise’ isn’t just ‘flash in the pan’ marketing either. The chart above shows just how much more responsive KLM is to passenger tweets than its European rivals. Consider the importance of rapid response and provision of concise, accurate information within the context of a tightly scheduled business trip or a family holiday.

So what does all of this mean? This isn’t just about using the latest and coolest new technology for the sake of it – everything here is underpinned but by a desire to serve the customer better. KLM is showing us, and other airlines, what is possible when you combine this desire to serve the customer better with proactive use of social media. At a time when air travel is constantly subject to new levies, and in-flight services are scaled down to cut costs, it’s easy for the passenger to feel neglected, perhaps even unfairly targeted. Against this backdrop, isn’t it refreshing to see an airline put customer experience back near the top of its agenda?

I have to say, being rescued by KLM from a seemingly abandoned Helsinki airport at a time when other airlines were not yet flying planted a seed of affinity within my conscience. Today, though, as I see the airline continue to place customer experience at the heart of its business, I must say that that seed of affinity has blossomed to the point where I could quite happily consider myself a true brand advocate of KLM. I’m sure the same is true of many other people ‘rescued’ from Helsinki in 2010 and of the recipients of a ‘KLM surprise’ or a timely tweet telling them their flight is delayed and they have an extra hour to shop in duty free.

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Why companies need to adopt a Social Culture…

…and how to make that happen.

The traditional organizational structure

Every large organization has its legacy. Decades and sometimes even centuries ago, the organization was formed by an entrepreneur with a dream. The organization grew larger and larger. Times and cultures changed, as did the social context, the technology and people interacting and belonging to that organization. With so many different variables, at times, it seems the only constant is growth.

Legacies can be good and bad. Some companies manage to continue to live up to their dream and, as we learned from Jim Collins best-selling book ‘Good to Great’, they stick to their core principle, the ‘hedge hock principle’. Very seldom do we see companies creating a culture of business agility. This is understandable, after all, core principles take time and investment to engrain in the organization, and they are often very dear to company founders and executives. Unfortunately, though, the structures of most modern organizations and the way employees within those structures are managed are today being exposed as painfully out of date. Most enterprise organizations I know still use the old-fashioned carrot-and-stick method: financial KPIs and yearly appraisals. The organizational structure has followed the product and process focus. The enterprise structure often is a very traditional one, in a simplified version most organizations look like this: manufacturing, marketing, sales, service, as well as staff functions like financials and human resources. In many of these organizations, these departments operate as silos, with cross-departmental collaboration only taking place when demanded by the top levels of the business. This, understandably, makes the task of aligning several departments in the name of achieving company goals extremely difficult. It also makes it difficult for the vast majority of individuals to see what value their work brings to the company as a whole.

Today’s need: focus on the customer

Most organizations today understand that they need to be focused on understanding the customer and satisfying his or her needs. Globalization, the rising importance of on-line and social media and the general trend towards fiercer competition have all contributed to this.

Within most organizations today, the traditional approach to manufacturing, marketing, and sales operations date back to the industrial age.  Among others, C.K. Prahalad has taught us in his famous book, the ‘The Future of Competition’ that these models are no longer fit for purpose. Instead, we need to co-create with our customers and create unique personalized experiences.

Most organizations I work with are aware of the need to be on the same page throughout the entire organization when it comes to customer contact. They are developing ‘customer centricity awareness programs’ – internal programs with inspiring names like ‘Our Client First’. These initiatives often include printing placemats for the company canteen and creating campaign-specific posters and screensavers. While this helps to build awareness and buzz, such initiatives are rarely accompanied by a re-think in how company KPIs are structured. So while the campaign proclaims a revolutionary new way of thinking and a call to change the ‘status quo’, the means by which these behaviors are measured remain stuck in the past, with little consideration for anything but the financial triggers. Such KPIs do not motivate the vast majority of employees, nor do they promote a change in behavior or increase the likelihood of cross-departmental collaboration. And yet many organizations persist with such measures because they represent an easy and convenient way of distributing share holders’ value KPI’s down through the business.

What motivates professionals?

All employees are professionals. Scientific research has shown that professionals have an intrinsic motivation, an internal drive to perform well. Daniel Pink put forward his research on the topic in the book ‘Drive’. Pink’s research found that carrot-and-stick style financial KPIs are counterproductive and tend to frustrate professionals far more than they motivate them. What he found was that Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose are the key principles that motivate professionals.

For those interested in learning more about this, I would definitely recommend this RSA animated representation of Daniel Pink’s thinking.

Creating a social culture, using social (media) technology

I’ve seen excellent examples of how technology can make these things happen. The term is Social HR, modern social media based HR tools. A great example of this is Rypple. Facebook uses it, as does LinkedIn, and a great (3 minute) video has been created showing how Spotify uses the tool to motivate employees and align them with company targets. Rypple was acquired by Salesforce.com and is now known as Work.com. It enables companies to define effective targets (the purpose of Daniel Pink’s  book, ‘Drive’) and monitor their progress far more frequently and openly than traditional appraisal processes allow. The Facebook-like environment enables employees – both managers and colleagues – to provide their feedback on individuals in way that is intuitive and consistent with their best experiences of using social media tools.

The open, ‘social’ nature of this exercise means that the feedback they provide transcends internal organizational structures and enables feedback and appraisals to be captured against company targets. Importantly, this can all happen without being hindered by internal boundaries, departmental KPI’s or sub-optimal departmental targets.  This enables high-performing employees to shine and, importantly, it provides them with the motivation – in the form of peer recognition – to perform to the best of their abilities. In the same way, this ‘openness’ ensures that underperformers are not able to hide behind the formalities of old-fashioned KPIs. Importantly, this puts employees on the same page – not just in terms of appraisals and feedback, but also when collaborating towards a company-wide goal, such as putting the ‘customer first’.


  • There is a need for customer focus and collaboration across organizational boundaries;
  • Social media and cloud technology (the internet) have been responsible for empowering the customer. The same technology can be used by enterprise organizations to transform their organizations and facilitate a ‘social cultural change’;
  • Current KPI’s are outdated and counterproductive. Those companies that recognize this and act accordingly will reap the benefits in terms of employee satisfaction and productivity;
  • Read Daniel Pink’s book ‘Drive’ and start a pilot with this new paradigm, supported by a modern enabling Social HR solution.
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