As the senior vice president of e-commerce at KLM Airlines, Martijn van der Zee was there when social media came of age during the 2010 ash cloud crisis. It was the moment the industry's old model of marketing communications broke down and was replaced by a new paradigm that connected the dots between airlines and consumers. Martijn offers us an exclusive glimpse into KLM's digital strategy, and how it plans to become a "fully social business."

December 2012

It started with the ash cloud. In April 2010, a volcanic eruption in Iceland grounded 75 percent of Europe's airline capacity, forcing the cancellation of 100,000 flights. It cost an estimated $1.7bn and was, according to Martijn van der Zee, the best opportunity his industry had ever gotten.

How, exactly, does he explain that one?

For van der Zee, SVP of e-commerce at Franco-Dutch airline KLM, this was the moment that digital revealed itself as the secret weapon in the fight for customer loyalty. "The ash cloud put us literally in a position with no other choice but to communicate through social media," he recalls. "Our airport offices, our call centers, even our website, were completely overrun. But because so many people were stranded with their smartphones, they all had access to social media and they all started asking us for help. Our first reaction was, 'Who's going to do this?' Then we realized: 'Oh, it's all of us.'"

This trial-by-ash-cloud proved to van der Zee that social media should be treated not just as another marketing channel, but as a fundamentally disruptive paradigm. "[Before,] people were trying to plot it into one of the traditional silos - marketing, sales, IT, communications--because this is how organizations are built. But we eventually realized that the question isn't, 'Where should we put this activity?' but, 'What does it mean for the customer and for the organization?'"

The companies who "get" social media, says van der Zee, aren't the ones plotting new marketing goals or campaign strategies, "They're acting on the transparency and the power that customers have today. We're seeing not just the small addition of a new platform, but a genuinely new direction for what we used to call 'marketing.'"


Even so, it took van der Zee and his team a little while to turn KLM around. After the ash cloud, things returned to normal--the silos reappeared and the conversation went back to who was going to do what. Finally, after a customer complaint went unanswered, CEO Peter Hartman got involved. "He said to us, 'Why can't we go back to the ash cloud situation? We all worked together then to really help people rather than just talking about it.'"

Hartman gave van der Zee one week to come up with a social media strategy. The result was a single slide that showed digital connecting the dots across the whole of KLM's business, joining up pre-sales, in-flight, and after-service to create a totally new process for connecting with passengers. "If we can invest in customer service while connecting it to sales, marketing, and costs, we can elevate our brand to a completely new level," says van der Zee.

To understand what digital marketing can do for the airline industry, consider what the landscape was like before. "The airline market is very competitive," says van der Zee, "but at the same time it is not a very high-margin business so it's not easy to get attention. Paid media, like a TV commercial or traditional marketing channel, is an investment we can't afford." But with earned media, like social, "It's much easier to reach out and make your brand known.

"The interesting thing," he continues, "is that where there's heavy competition in the more traditional channels, people are really open to pull marketing. As long as it's authentic, creative, and a bit disruptive, people are really willing to share our message."

But there's a caveat: Get the fundamentals right before you worry about video views or viral hits. "You have to be sure that your brand reputation, communication, and servicing are outstanding. Otherwise people will say, 'You're a very creative company, but I lost my luggage yesterday. Put your money in the basics.'"

As long as it’s authentic, creative, and a bit disruptive, people are really willing to share our message.


KLM's greatest social success to date is undoubtedly Meet & Seat, an idea that sprang from a co-creation session with customers. Beautifully simple, it takes the previously banal system of seat allocation and sprinkles it with some social media magic, allowing passengers to choose potential seatmates based on their Facebook or LinkedIn profiles.

It took four months to put the project together--with only relatively minor technical and privacy hurdles to overcome--and cost KLM somewhere in the region of €100,000 ($130,000). "The internal buy-in was relatively easy," admits van der Zee. "Through a combination of trying something new and keeping the costs down, we made sure the financial people didn't get on our back."

Meet & Seat was so experimental it wasn't actually intended as a campaign--it didn't even have a clear metric for success. But the response was immediate and overwhelming: "We literally had CNN, ABC, Fox News, the BBC, and Korean and Chinese TV channels in our office," says van der Zee, still clearly taken aback by the reaction. "It triggered something around the world, almost emotional messages from our customers. I think it's because they could tell we were really trying to change something rather than pretending to try and change something."

KLM's principal learning from Meet & Seat was that old-fashioned processes were just waiting for a digital overhaul. In future, the strategy is to develop "a fully social business," utilizing digital not just in pre-flight, but also in the airport, and even onboard.

YouTube will play a crucial role, says van der Zee. "Some people say that social is just Facebook and Twitter, but to us it's much more. YouTube is a good example because people really think differently about content because of it. For us, it's much more interesting to make a video of a real experience that can be shared by millions than to ask an agency to make a commercial and air it on TV at peak times. It gives so much more value to our brand."

For example? Coming soon to a flight near you: live stand-up, recorded and shared over YouTube, and perhaps, in the future, even broadcast live via a Google+ Hangout.

Indeed, van der Zee likes to focus on digital in its broadest sense, beyond the narrow definitions of platforms and devices. "Today, the effect of digital is felt not only in what you might call 'digital channels,' but on society as a whole," he argues. And as society changes, so must marketers change with it. "If you hang on too much to your old ways of working there might come a day when your whole customer base is gone because they changed and you didn't," he warns. "People think that social media is maturing, but I would say, 'Think again,' because this revolution is not over yet."