Porter Gale Explains How the Airline Determines Which Digital Players to Work With

For Virgin America, jet-setting means integrating the newest technologies for a tech-savvy and digitally aware clientele. For Porter Gale, VP-marketing, this is what lets the airline bring fun back into flying.

“I’m so fortunate, I get pitched all the time,” Ms. Gale said. She admitted that a lot of time these are turned down, but “quite often when we say yes, it’s because we see something uniquely tech-driven, that’s relevant to our guests.” Usually she reads the pitch, determines audience reach, confirms that it’s low cost, and then has a meeting to test the chemistry of the two companies. In particular, Virgin America likes local partners “in our own backyard,” said Ms. Gale, “because it’s easier to maintain long-term relationships” this way.

Porter Gale
Porter Gale by Rob Tannenbaum

Whether it’s more established new-media brands such as Facebook or Twitter, up-and-comers like Groupon and Loopt, or the recently emerged such as Squabbler, Ms. Gale said she believes a partnership is worth considering if it will be relevant to target audience and can tie in to a broader PR story.

Squabbler, which pits users against each other debating two sides of an argument via uploaded 30-second online videos, today launched a Virgin America Squabble Challenge. To contend for a chance to win a free flight, users vote for the video they believe most deserves a spot on Red, the touchscreen in-flight entertainment system. The voter with the best comment wins.

Last September, when launching new routes to Mexico hot spots Cancun and Cabo, Virgin America partnered with check-in service Loopt to offer two-for-one tickets when people checked in at airports in San Francisco and Los Angeles or at one of many taco trucks.

These partnerships “are a reach play,” Ms. Gale explained, “because we can extend campaigns without a lot of budget.” Virgin America remains an entrepreneurial, lean, flat organization, wherein departments are not siloed but constantly talk to each other. The social-media arm — essentially two full-time people internally monitoring Facebook and Twitter each — resides within the communications and marketing hub.

New initiatives are warmly pursued if they are innovative, as when a former intern developed a relationship with MC Hammer via Twitter and was then encouraged to develop YouTube promotional videos with the former pop star as a result. Innovation remains a key value that sits across the product, partnerships and programs offered by the airline.

There’s real value in innovation in social media, as engagement with Virgin’s customer base taps into real revenue potential, according to a Razorfish report conducted for the company. The company uses Metrotags to follow click-to-sale, and to determine which online channels lead to sales. Numbers are checked on a monthly basis. Thanks to research from Razorfish, Ms. Gale found that people who are engaged spend more money on the airline. “Top guests, who check in and get points regularly — these are [our] higher-spending customers. [We're] most successful with them.”

Ms. Gale pointed to the “captive audience” of travelers: 53% carry laptops, and 33% of guests log into WiFi. The engagement, therefore, can begin during airtime and is not relegated just to pre- or post-travel conversations. Seat-to-seat chat lets guests connect in-flight, for example.

Promotions are another element Ms. Gale contends with; she said Virgin sees new media not just converging with traditional, but actually surpassing it. Virgin America spends 70% of the budget on digital, but the spend is shifting consistently more toward digital and emerging efforts. “There’s an advantage to being early,” she admitted.

The third leg of new media is a service-recovery element, whereby service staff can cater to client needs immediately. Ms. Gale mentioned one case when a passenger was passed over for a meal; upon seeing his tweet, Virgin’s new-media team communicated with the pilot, who was able to direct food to this guest then and there.

First published in the Special Report: Digital Conference for the Advertising Age Digital Conference 2011, on April 7. For the original version, please click here.

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