Every day, big brands walk through the content marketing minefield that is social media. From tweets accidentally sent from corporate accounts rather than personal ones, to just outright obtuseness in social network updates, a few brands have had to do some major apologizing over the last few years.
But not every marketing mistake is as blatant as mistaking Aurora’s Twitter trending for fashion instead of a tragedy. Sometimes, big brands are actually trying to execute content marketing strategies using social networks, and just completely miss the mark. That’s what JetBlue Airlines did recently.
On August 27, JetBlue Airlines Chairman Joel Peterson posted an article titled, “A Common Sense Solution to Slow Airplane Boarding.” The title caught my eye because on the long list of annoying things about air travel, the inefficient boarding process is right up there with parents who don’t control their kids and passengers who recline their seats into your lap.
Anyway, it’s been a pet peeve of mine for years that first we stand in line to get on the jetway, then we stand in line inside the jetway, then we stand in line in the airplane aisle. Something that could—and should—only take a few minutes can sometimes stretch into nearly half an hour, if not longer.
Peterson begins with:
“Boarding airplanes has slowed down in recent years, and lately there’s been a lot of chatter about whether airlines can find ingenious, creative, and algorithmic ways to speed up this anxiety-producing process.
The problem is, none of them really work.
Boarding every other window seat first, then middle, then aisle; or the back of the plane first; or from the front and rear at the same time. These solutions are lipstick on a pig. But lipstick doesn’t make a pig fly.”
Immediately, I take issue. First, the boarding process has been inefficient for more than just the past few years. I’ve been flying for a long time, since well before airlines started charging for the first checked bag, and airplane boarding has never been a quick and efficient endeavor. It’s always been a Charlie Foxtrot.
And I’ve long thought that boarding a plane from back to front, one row at a time, would be both the most logical and efficient way to go about it. Think about it—why do you end up standing in the aisle of the plane before you can even make it to your seat? Because someone in a lower-numbered row than you boarded before you did, and they’re trying to get their carryon items stowed, take their jackets and sweaters off, pull out their laptops and tablets, or find their kids’ toys and games to keep them occupied during the flight.
But as much as I’d just like to debate aircraft boarding algorithms, this isn’t really the problem with the article. You see, rather than exploring the possible solutions he’s laid out, Peterson immediately dismisses them to hone in on what he feels is the one and only cause of slow plane boarding—checked baggage fees.
Now, for a moment, I can see his point. If people didn’t have to pay to check that first bag, they’d bring fewer and smaller carryons with them, thereby taking less time to get seated. I get it.
But here’s where Peterson’s piece is derailed, because instead of focusing on what is supposed to be the topic of the piece—slow airplane boarding—Peterson goes into baggage fees being “bad profits,” and how much money JetBlue is leaving on the table (his buzz words, not mine) by not charging that first-checked-bag fee the way nearly every other airline does.
And there we are, the real purpose of Peterson’s article—to tell you how wonderful JetBlue is because they’re not gouging you just for bringing a change of clothing with you when you travel. This piece is no longer a thoughtful essay on how to resolve a problem and improve air travel.
It’s an ad for JetBlue.
Which also means it’s no longer content marketing.
At its core, content marketing isn’t about talking up your brand or mentioning your products and services. It’s about providing something of value to current and potential customers, and creating a sense of good will toward your brand. It’s about conversion, yes, absolutely, but subtle conversion. You gain those customers because you gave them something without really asking for anything in return, which is more often the exception than the rule when it comes to big brands.
The thing is, he could have mentioned how JetBlue doesn’t charge for the first checked bag like the other airlines do. But there’s a better way to go about it, and a more subtle way to write it than switching topics midstream.
Now, let me clear up a few things. First, I highly doubt that Joel Peterson wrote this article himself. He’s the Chairman of an airline company. He shouldn’t have time to write articles to be posted on LinkedIn, and if he does, JetBlue’s shareholders should be concerned. But even if he did, someone in the marketing department should be reviewing material before it’s posted to ensure it’s not going to come off poorly.
Also, I don’t know whether this article was an effort of JetBlue’s internal marketing team, or if the airline has outsourced their content marketing to an agency. And finally, this is just one piece of what I’m sure is a very large marketing campaign, whether it’s being executed in-house or not, so maybe it’s not really fair to call JetBlue’s entire content marketing strategy into question based on one article.
That would be true except for two things: who the author is, and where it was placed.
Whether this was a one-off Peterson wrote while waiting to board a flight somewhere, or it’s a small piece of JetBlue’s content marketing puzzle, anything that is going to have a company’s chairman’s name on it must be above reproach. It should be high-quality content that sticks to the topic at hand and doesn’t pull a bait-and-switch on the reader. I got sucked in thinking maybe one airline was finally going to actually do something to improve at least one part of traveling by air. Instead, I got suckered into reading about why JetBlue is marginally better than other airlines.
Only, that’s not really what I got either, because the only reason given for JetBlue being better was that they don’t charge their passengers for the first checked bag. But remember, the topic stated right there in the title is slow airplane boarding. If Peterson had really wanted to convince people that JetBlue has solved that problem by not charging the baggage fee, there should have been data illustrating how much faster JetBlue’s boarding times are than other airlines’. Now that would have given me pause, and maybe a reason to become a JetBlue customer.
Regarding where the article was placed, as a brand, you can say whatever you want about your own company, products, and services on your own blog. Go to town. Talk about how awesome you are, if you want to. You control the conversation and the anchor text, so have at it. But this article was placed on LinkedIn, in front of millions of pairs of eyes not necessarily expecting to see an ad for JetBlue, or any other company, right smack in the middle of the home page newsfeed.
Before you say it, yes, an argument could be made that this was actually a great strategy because just look at that engagement! Last time I checked, the article had more than 150,000 views, just over 1,000 likes, and nearly 900 comments. Impressive, sure—but tangible? How many of those viewers, likers, and commenters are going to be JetBlue customers now? How many already were?
A startup or other small company can trade in views, likes, and comments for a while. In the beginning, you’re trying to build awareness of your brand, and get people to know you, so it’s fantastic when an article is published on a big site and gets a lot of attention. It’s pretty euphoric, really.
JetBlue, and any big brand, is way beyond that. Neither an assessment of their return on investment or their content marketing initiative reporting should be relying on engagement. Getting 900 comments doesn’t put any money in the company coffers. Did JetBlue see any kind of increase in ticket purchases after this article was published? I’d love to know.
So what could JetBlue have done better, and how can you avoid this kind of content marketing misstep?
Offer Valuable Information
If you had a nickel for every time you’ve heard this one, right? Yeah, if only I had one for every time I’ve said it. But this paramount bit of advice seems to be falling on many brands’ deaf ears. If that JetBlue piece had been written to offer true value, it would have explored other potential solutions to the boarding problem instead of dismissing every possible solution but the one thing JetBlue is doing differently.
Stop Trying to Sell All the Time
I know, it’s counterintuitive, but it works. The minute you stop trying to cram your brand, your policies, your oh-so-better features down people’s throats, you gain consumers’ respect, which is the beginning of loyalty. Save the selling for your actual ads and your own site. When you venture out into the rest of the Internet, be the guy who brought the beer to the party and didn’t hand out a single business card. Everyone wants to hang out with that guy.
Don’t Underestimate Your Audience
With every passing year, Internet users and consumers—which are quickly becoming one group with no distinction—become savvier and more able to see through what some brands still seem to think are brilliant marketing tactics. The biggest mistake you can make with your content marketing isn’t being blatant. It’s thinking your audience won’t notice you’re being blatant.
The penalty for that is two-pronged. Readers lose respect for you because you’re trying to pass off an ad as something of value to them, and they’re insulted because you thought they wouldn’t realize what you were up to. Pissing people off right out of the gate is no way to earn new customers.
And that’s what content marketing—or really, any kind of marketing—is about. It’s not about how many likes or shares or tweets you get. Those things are great, yes. Content marketing without at least a small ratio of conversion is a waste of time. But you have to earn it. Consumers don’t hand over their money as easily these days, and you definitely won’t see a dime if you’ve ruined the relationship before it even starts.
And as for Joel Peterson and JetBlue, well, maybe they’ll do better next time. If not, I know a few people who may be able to help them out.