I’ve taken the title from the opening line in a recent post from Jeremiah Owyang, as his comments on advocacy marketing inspired me to write this. Usually when tough economic times hit, the marketing department is the first one to feel the knife. In the last year many marketing people have been asked to do more with less, but the really innovative companies have turned this to their advantage through clever use of social media. I was only just made aware of the Walmart elevenmoms program, but taking a quick look at it, this appears to be exactly the sort of advocacy marketing that shows a real understanding of getting the most out of social media.

The less savvy companies were the ones that cut marketing budgets, using the excuse of the new power of social media to justify it, but then did not put a fraction of the old resources behind actually supporting even the smallest social initiatives. So where do airlines fit into this, and what can be learnt?

Advocacy marketing has huge potential for an airline wondering how to engage with social media initiatives. Here is just one tangible example. How much money do you spend on trying to communicate the benefits of your long haul business class cabin versus the competition. I work in the industry, and travel frequently, but even I have difficulty keeping up to date with all the pros and cons of the various options available. For the business class traveller going long haul once a quarter, I can’t imagine how they could possibly make an informed decision if buying on anything other than purely price or schedule – don’t tell me a business traveller has the time or inclination to visit each website to read up on the product and compare attributes before contacting his TMC. Putting together a widely read advocacy group of business travellers across various industries who would write about what they did (and didn’t) like whenever they travelled on your airline would almost certainly be more cost effective than other forms of marketing. It may involve a donation to a chosen charity rather than a direct payment to the business traveller, but be totally upfront about it so as not to get stung like Royal Caribbean.

That example was just something off the top of my head without doing any analysis, but the point is that airlines spend a lot of money on trying to differentiate their product, and it would seem that if ever there was an industry living up to John Wanamaker’s quote below, the airline industry could be it.

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.

For a great contrarian quote on airline social media I have to use Frank Seedorff, head of e-commerce at Condor in Aviation Week.

“It’s hype…We don’t have the money to pay the folks… Only when a social media system breaks the 250,000 regular viewers level does it start to become interesting,” he says, noting that search engines such as Yahoo and Google are driving traffic to Condor’s web site, not social media.

As Condor is a German LCC, what he is saying probably makes a lot of sense. If he is selling primarily on price, advocacy marketing would be much less effective than buying search engine keywords such as “cheap flights to Frankfurt.” But for full service carriers trying to influence buyers at the front of the plane, the dynamics are completely different. That article that I referred to above in AvWeek is a really good read if you can get past the ludicrous opening paragraph that is totally opposed to my anti Twitter as customer service position.

A passenger on a flight notices his reading lamp is broken, so, using his mobile device, he complains on Twitter. Within minutes, the airline’s ground staff has dispatched a flight attendant to fix the problem and has alerted maintenance at the destination airport. Corporate communications has passed the Tweet onto the customer service department, which contacts the passenger to apologize for the inconvenience.

Forget the customer service angle and focus on advocacy marketing. Advocacy marketing offers enormous possibilities for companies in many industries, but just cutting traditional ad spend budgets and hoping it will happen automatically is to live in a fantasy land.