Case Study: Southwest Airlines’ Time Limits on LBS

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Platforms like Foursquare and Facebook haven’t had any trouble attracting attention from national brands, but what’s the secret to attracting interest from these brands in lesser-known start-ups? According to Southwest Airlines emerging media specialist Christi McNeill, it all comes down to persistence, innovation, and a little bit of hand-holding. Over the past few years, Southwest has partnered with Loopt, Foodspotting, Facebook Places, and Gowalla to reward customers for checking-in on their mobile phones. Her advice to hyperlocal companies? Help the brands you want to work with understand how they could benefit from using your platforms, stay in touch even if those brands aren’t willing to run promotions right away, and seek feedback on any new features you’re planning to roll out in the future.

I know that Southwest has done a lot with location-based promotions in the past. Can you bring me up to date on what’s going on now?
Sure. We have experimented with several different types of location-based services. For us, we see an immediate advantage in having our customers check-in at airports and being able to serve them with different deals, offers, and cool information. We’ve been testing several different platforms, [including] Gowalla, Facebook Places, and Loopt. We also use Foodspotting. There’s various different ways that we can go about using location-based services.

What’s the connection between a food app, like Foodspotting, and an airline?
Foodspotting is a mash up of foodie photography and reviews, as well as location-based check-ins. All of these different things have been great opportunities for us to target different markets. Any time you’re traveling, you’re looking for the best places to eat, drink, and meet people. What we’ve done with Foodspotting is to have our own employees, on our social media team, out there spotting food and sharing. We have very strict guidelines around what kind of food we share because it’s affiliated with the Southwest brand. If we are saying, “This is the food that you should eat while you’re traveling to Dallas,” then we want the brand to be able to stand behind that. We all have access to the Foodspotting account on our team, and we like to seek out those ‘off the beaten path’ restaurants and little dive bars when we’re traveling. Our guidelines kind of go without saying — if you’re spotting food, and if you’re sharing that online, make sure it is a really, really awesome meal. We don’t just food-spot any random meal that we have. It has to be above and beyond. [Since we started using Foodspotting], we’ve done foodie tweet-ups and foodie events in certain cities, because, as I said, when you travel, the sorts of things you are excited about are the destination, the food, and the music. We try to pull in all those different elements to our offerings. It’s been a small start for us on Foodspotting, but definitely one that we’re excited about growing and evolving over the next year as well.

[Gowalla] helped us understand how, as a brand, we could use their platform. They held our hands along the way, and they’ve been in touch ever since. That’s been one thing that has really drawn us in.

With some of the other LBS platforms you’ve used, what were the rewards you offered to customers for checking in?
One of the really cool things that we did was actually a charitable offer that we gave to our customers. It was through Facebook Places. Basically, when you checked-in at any of the Southwest airports, you could ‘check-in for charity’. When you checked-in, we would donate $1 in travel to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. We did that last holiday season and it was a major learning opportunity for us as a company. We learned what check-in behaviors are around travel and how we can tailor that for the future. Since then, we’ve done the Loopt Rewards Wagon, which we did at South by Southwest [in 2011]. Basically, Loopt would send out a message to win Southwest tickets if you were in the general vicinity of where the Rewards Wagon was. We had people actually running to the Rewards Wagon to win Southwest tickets. That was kind of a cool, real-life experience.

When you talk about learning opportunities, what have you learned about using LBS for marketing since you first started?
I think the major learning opportunity for us was the fact that when people are traveling, they check-in to the airport name itself. So you are going to check-in to Dallas Love Field, you’re not going to check-in to Southwest Airlines at Dallas Love Field. When you get back to the nitty-gritty of who is performing the check-in offer, depending on the platform you use, that could be a barrier of entry. Looking at the Loopt Rewards [Wagon] deal, that was such a small, segment audience of ours — but at the same time, a very influential, very in-touch audience of ours — so that one got quite a bit of buzz because the people who were winning those prizes were the people who wanted to check-in and wanted to talk about winning those prizes.

What is the value in check-ins? Does it mainly have to do with the online buzz they create?
I think it depends on the offer. We don’t have any sort of long-standing check-in deals. Most of the ones we’re doing with location-based services are very time-specific. They are for a certain promotion or a certain weekend. For us, it’s generating that buzz around whatever it is we’re trying to promote. Another good example was at the Sundance Film Festival last year. We used Gowalla for this one, and anybody who checked-in to any of our markets that serve Salt Lake City non-stop was entered into a drawing to win round-trip tickets [and tickets] to a film screening at the Sundance Film Festival. That was a great opportunity for us to partner with Gowalla and just do some experimenting with how that platform worked. For that, specifically, we were looking at who was talking about the event, who was [taking] Southwest to the Sundance Film Festival, and how we could make that partnership more prominent on our online channel.

What we’re looking at is the engagement in the platform and the talk value that’s coming out of that.

How do you decide which platform you’re going to use? Or, how could new platforms attract interest from a company like Southwest?
I think for us — and Foodspotting has been one that’s been great about this — just maintaining our relationships over time. Gowalla was the same way. We met them at South by Southwest and we developed a relationship with them. They helped us understand how, as a brand, we could use their platform. They held our hands along the way, and they’ve been in touch ever since. That’s been one thing that has really drawn us in. When we can work with a start up or a new platform that’s developing from the ground up, a lot of times, we can help them design their models for how a brand can work with them. [That] has been awesome and it’s really opened up a lot of doors for us. We spend a lot of our time monitoring conversations online and answering customer questions and things of that nature. But then a lot of our time, too, is spent talking to startups and researching what is new out there. At Southwest, we’re given a lot of freedom to explore those different channels. It’s actually an expectation that we have from our leadership to stay cutting-edge and ahead of the game when it comes to different online technologies.

How about in terms of the numbers of check-ins or users. Is information like that important to you?
It’s not hugely important to us, honestly. Like I said, it goes back to those individual promotions that we’re doing. Obviously, what we’re doing at South by Southwest is going to be a much smaller amount of check-ins compared to what we’re doing nationwide for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It is going to vary from promotion to promotion. I think what we’re looking at is the engagement in the platform and the talk value that’s coming out of that.

How do customers know they’re supposed to check-in for your limited-time promotions?
Typically if we’re doing a major giveaway or, like the ‘check-in for charity’ deal that we offered last year, we do traditional media outreach to get the word out on traditional media channels: we do a press release, we do media interviews; the traditional PR push. And then, we have a pretty vast audience online [through] Facebook and Twitter. Those are the people who have the behaviors to want to check-in and those are the people who are interested in the promotions. For the ‘check-in for charity’ [promotion], we actually had signage at our airports that said: “Check-in here to donate $1 to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.” That physical signage helped, as well. I think getting our employees on board and [helping] our employees understand how the ‘check-in for charity’ worked [was useful] too.

How have you been able to get your employees on board with all these different promotions?
That’s a huge challenge for a lot of companies. How do you get your employees to buy in and understand how the promotion works? That’s why we have been so limited on what kinds of nationwide location-based offer that we have out there. The last thing you want is for somebody to check-in and go ask your employee about it and [the employee to] not be able to explain it. For the ‘check-in for charity’ [promotion], we actually sent out memos, and we did lunch-and-learns where we really tried to explain to the leadership at each airport why this was important and how they could make sure it went off without a hitch. I think for the most part, everyone understood and everybody bought into it. At Southwest, we have a great culture around understanding social media and understanding communication, so this was another little piece of that for them.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.