In the past 12 months Ryanair’s 330 aircraft have flown over 79 million people to more than 180 different destinations. That’s a big business. It’s somewhat surprising then to discover that the Chief Executive, Michael O’Leary found time in his diary this year, to go onto Twitter and answer questions from the company’s customers. This was all the more surprising when you realise that on Twitter, Ryanair only has a little over 15,500 followers (equivalent to 0.02% of its customers).
Why on earth would the boss spend time “engaging” with such a tiny proportion of customers? This is our take….
EasyJet has over 134,000 followers and British Airways has 345,000 people following its Twitter outpourings. This makes Ryanair’s somewhat paltry in comparison. Of course, all of these businesses have diddly-squat followers compared with Twitter itself, which has over 25 million followers or Starbucks with four million on just one of it’s many accounts.
Ryanair is a minnow on Twitter. Yet single-handedly, Michael O’Leary managed to use the site to generate more publicity for his business than he could have done without it. Much has been debated about what he said. He was trying to be witty but was frankly rude at times, saying things that would make any PR manager squirm. Yet, there are thousands of column inches in newspapers across the world all talking about his one-hour stint on Twitter doing a “Q&A with the boss”. Indeed, searching for news about this incident finds 144,000 different articles indexed on Google News.
He entered into a number of exchanges with questioners. One asked: “Is there any truth in the rumour that you plan to charge passengers for each inhalation they make after take off?”. O’Leary replied: “Hi Beth, great idea. Have a team workin’ on it as we breathe!” In another conversation, the Chief Executive was asked what he thought Ryanair’s biggest achievement and biggest failures were. He responded: “Biggest achievement, bringing low fares to Europe and still lowering ‘em. Biggest failure, hiring me!” When a Ryanair employee Tweeted: “So my boss is on Twitter right now”, O’Leary immediately responded with: “Get back to work you slacker, or you’re fired”. O’Leary may be politically incorrect but he knows how to generate publicity by remaining true to his loudmouth stereotype.
Of course, he is not the first boss to take to the Twittersphere. Just days before, the Customer Service Director of British Gas braved the Twitterati in a bid to answer people’s questions about the recent hike in energy prices. Compared with what happened to Ryanair, you could be forgiven for not realising that British Gas had even done the exercise. All they received was a tirade of abuse about the price rises including one person asking how the British Gas bosses slept at night with “Cameron’s foot on your head and the stench of dead pensioners in your nostrils?”
Like Ryanair, British Gas has a comparatively tiny Twitter following at almost 25,000, a small percentage of its 16 million domestic customers. Talking to just a few of them on Twitter is just sending out a small whisper, rather than proper communication. No doubt though, the PR folks at British Gas thought that the newspapers would cover the Twitter Q&A and talk about that, instead of the price rises which were announced on the same day. Ultimately though, the Twitter Q&A was seen as a cynical move.
Where British Gas failed, Ryanair succeeded. Mostly there was difference in the amount of humour. British Gas was very business-like, whereas Michael O’Leary was joking, making inappropriate remarks and generating what can only be described as “online banter”.
One of the issues with Twitter is that because it is short-form communication, people use it for quick-fire humour a great deal. They don’t expect it to be formal and business-like in just 140 characters. Recently, the mobile phone operator O2 achieved significantly positive Twitter responses following its humorous Tweeting during a system outage which removed mobile phone access for millions of its customers for several hours. Humour worked for them on Twitter.
But why are all these businesses taking to Twitter so readily when so few of their customers use it? Clearly, there is the PR benefit. But there is another reason – research. Getting information about how your customers feel is expensive and takes time. With Twitter you can get it instantly and it only takes an hour of a director’s time, which is ultimately cheaper than a market research agency.
Furthermore, business owners often know that what the newspapers say about social media is not always completely true. They may say that a company’s Twitter activity was negative and cynical, but the company can look at share prices and sales figures. The day after Ryanair’s Twitter chat for instance, the company’s shares went steadily up. Remember that was the day when it had it’s maximum media coverage, all fuelled by the banter and humour. Whilst the media commentators were attacking Michael O’Leary’s “publicity stunt” his accountants were busy counting the additional company value.
So, sometimes Twitter is not what it seems. Organisations may not be using it for “customer service” at all, but may be driving wider media coverage and publicity. They could even just be conducting customer and market research quickly and cost-effectively. Or they may be focusing on making money and ignoring the negative publicity on the basis “all publicity is good publicity”.
Ultimately, though, the companies that do the best are those that see Twitter as integral to the other aspects of their business – integrating Twitter activity within PR, or within Market Research, for instance. They do not see social media activity as an add-on but they integrate it with their entire business activity. I suspect for all his tomfoolery on Twitter last week, that’s precisely what Michael O’Leary has done.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with nearly 30 years’ experience. Graham Jones is Media First’s Social Media trainer. Graham is a psychologist who specialises in the way people use the Internet, in particular helping businesses understand social media and how it impacts on their customer relationships and marketing.