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November 12, 2007

Using Your Blog To Keep Fires on Your Own Site

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Entry to be subtitled: "Southwest Airlines: Treating Customers Like Cattle, One Priority Group at A Time"

One of the key takeaways from last week’s BlogWorld Expo was how blogs give site owners a unique opportunity to keep fires on their own site, preventing them from spreading through the blogosphere where they become infinitely more difficult to put out. This has always been blogging’s key strength – its ability to bring, keep and focus the conversation on your own site where you can control it. Knowing that, it always puzzles me when seemingly blog savvy companies fail to utilize their blogs correctly. We’ll use Southwest as a glaring example.

Thanks to the hectic conference schedule Bruce and Susan have laid out for me, I’m a pretty heavy flyer. If there’s an event to liveblog, there’s a good chance Lisa is going to be there. As much as I fly, heading to Vegas last week was my first time flying Southwest Airlines. Ever. It was a great opportunity for them to win me over and encourage me to do all my West Coast flying using their airlines. But that didn’t happen.

Between the time I flew to Vegas and the time I flew back home, Southwest changed their boarding policy, taking it from Marginally Confusing to Human Bingo.

In case you’re not familiar with the airline, before last Friday Southwest was working under an open boarding policy. This confused me to no end at first, but after a nice boy in a Red Sox cap explained that I really could sit wherever I wanted, things worked out nicely. However, it doesn’t work that way anymore.

Under the new boarding policy, unsuspecting Southwest passengers will see both a letter and a number on their boarding pass. This is not a seat assignment, as that would actually make sense. Instead, this letter/number combination enters you into Southwest’s warped social experiment where passengers are treated like cattle and expected to talk to strangers. [Note to self: Fly anything but Southwest. I'm opposed to any time I have to talk to strangers --Susan] Seriously, can you imagine my horror when I finally got the airport and had to talk to people? It was horrible.

When your boarding group (either A, B or C) is called, passengers must find their place between a series of metallic columns intended to divide passengers up into groups of five. Once you find your corresponding column, you get to make friends with your neighbors and ask them what their number is in order to get yourself into proper order. Once everyone is lined up and your group is called, you get to board the plane. The find-your-number-game is done separately for all three groups.

The new system, as far as I can tell, is designed to do two things. It rewards people who check in early, as the earlier you check in, the lower your letter and number combination will be, and it encourages passengers to pay a higher fee to purchase the "Business Select" fair which automatically puts them into boarding group A.

Whatever it’s designed to, what the new Southwest boarding procedure really does is add undue stress on its passengers and makes them feel even more like sheep.

Let’s face it, flying today is chaotic enough. I mean, I have to bribe someone into driving me to the airport, I have to deal with the mess that is check in, I have to take off my shoes and take my laptop out of the case* in order to go through security, and then I have to elbow my way through a mob of people to get to the gate. When I do finally get to the gate, I want to be done. I don’t want to have to play human bingo, I don’t want to have to smoosh myself between some imaginary line and I definitely don’t want to have to talk to other passengers to determine what number they are. All I want is a damn seat on the plane.

And you know what? I’m easy. I don’t even care where I sit. I’m small. I don’t mind a middle seat, but when I get to the gate, I want to know that I have that middle seat. I don’t want to have to think about where I might get stuck, I don’t want to have to walk down the aisle looking people over and trying to decide if I should cut my losses and sit there or try to find some more attractive seating options. The choices are time consuming. They’re not going to help Southwest cut down loading time at the gate.

Southwest is like the site owner that gives their visitors so many choices and varying conversion paths that they basically paralyze them. They don’t know what to do, which route goes where or if they’re doing it right. As a flyer, once I get to my gate all I want to do is find a corner to anti-socially sit in and breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the hard part is over. I want a clearly laid out conversion path. I don’t want to have to interact with all your different pages before I get to checkout.

Southwest has made two major mistakes with the launch of their new boarding system, two mistakes that as an Internet marketer you can’t afford to make.

Their first misstep was introducing this in the first place. Southwest’s biggest consumer complaint was their decision to implement open seating. Paula Berg admitted during last week’s Corporate & CEO Blogging that consumers don’t like the idea of open seating. They like the assigned seating approach. So why did they ignored customers and go this route? Who knows. Probably money.

The second mistake by Southwest is that there’s no designated post on the new boarding procedures. There’s a post asking BlogWorld attendees about their overall experience with Southwest (before the change occurred) and there’s a longwinded Getting Down to Business post that talks about some recent changes but never discusses the boarding procedure. They do provide an interactive Boarding School, but even that doesn’t allow customers to engage in conversation or start a dialogue.

That’s a pretty big missteps and Southwest should know better, especially given that they sent two of their bloggers to BlogWorld.

What should Southwest have done? There should have been a blog post on Friday explaining the new boarding procedure, addressing concerns and explaining the new set up. It should have answered any questions passengers would have and allowed them to comment and tell the folks of Southwest what they thought about the change.

The post should have had a keyword-rich title so that when customers now go searching the Web for information on the new process, that blog post comes up first. Having it there would help educate passengers, but it would also encourage them to respond with praise/criticism on the Southwest blog instead of taking it somewhere else. Having it there would have allowed Southwest to better control the conversation and stopped fires from breaking out all over the Web. And it would have saved me the time it took to write this blog post.

If you’re going to have a company blog, know how to use it. Use it as a communication channel between you and your biggest fans and your biggest detractors. People are always going to be talking about you. You may as well let them do it in your house so that you can supervise.

*In my anxiousness (and deliriousness) to get back to Southern California Friday night, I forgot to take my laptop out of the case before putting it through the scary X-ray machine. I’ll tell you this, hell hath no fury like a disgruntled airport screener. No amount of apologizing seemed to suffice. I thought the woman was going to punch me in the face.

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7 responses to “Using Your Blog To Keep Fires on Your Own Site”

  1. TheMadHat writes:

    Excellent analogy Lisa. I read an article somewhere about the boarding process Southwest uses that was broken down mathematically based on some sort of matrix.

    But I still hate it and this sounds doubly worse. I guess I’ll experience it first hand next month for pubcon.

    Next Step: Electric Cattle Prods

  2. Shama Hyder writes:

    Sorry about your experience Lisa!
    Southwest does allows you to “check-in” online 24 hours prior if that helps any for next time!

  3. Vingold writes:

    One gal’s cattle call is another man’s guaranteed window seat.

    I like the new boarding method of Southwest and if I can I won’t fly any other airline.

  4. Mark writes:

    Right on, Lisa. Excellent post. The crux of your article is this, to me: it’s difficult enough to just get to the dang plane these days. Southwest is now penalizing the bulk of its fans to “reward” those that pay more for added service. So much for democratization of flying, as they used to claim.

  5. Michael Dorausch writes:

    I was as happy as a California cow with Southwest’s previous methods. I’ve got two Southwest flights between now and Pubcon so we’ll see how that goes.

    See ya’ll in Vegas!

  6. Lisa writes:

    @Vingold –I will happily give you my window seat if you promise me I won’t have to stand in height order or learn the intimate details of the person I’m standing next to. This is why I buy my tickets in advance. So that I can pick my seat. Unfortunately, I can’t always help what time I arrive at the airport, especially during conferences.
    @TheMadHat and Michael: See you in Vegas. ;)

  7. Shaun Dakin writes:

    Hi,

    Several parents are very unhappy about the fact that SW also eliminated pre-boarding for families with small children (under 4).

    While I don’t expect special treatment, the only way I was going to fly SW with a toddler and open seating, was the ability to get on and stow my baby gear.

    Cheers,

    Shaun Dakin
    http://www.StopSouthwestPreboard.com



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