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When JetBlue wanted to celebrate its 10th anniversary, it decided to sell a limited number of tickets for $10. That's a tall order, so for help with the difficult task of convincing consumers to buy $10 airline tickets, it turned to TBG, a London-based digital agency that specializes in Facebook marketing.

The result: JetBlue saw a "massive" response from TBG's Facebook ad buy, revealing the secret of social media success.

That secret: giving away stuff for free or at a significant discount is a great way to 'engage' consumers on social networks.

I apologize in advance for the sarcasm here, but it increasingly seems that a growing number of marketers have decided that the fastest way to achieve 'social media success' is to:

  1. Give away or significantly discount product.
  2. Promote the free or significantly discounted product on sites like Facebook or Twitter.
  3. Publicize the warm consumer response while acting surprised that consumers were interested in said product.

If this social media marketing 'strategy' seems absurd to you, that's because it is. Unfortunately, it seems to be a growing trend amongst marketers.

Just the other day, I wrote about several of the marketers that were early adopters of Twitter's new ad platform, Promoted Tweets. Like JetBlue and TBG, they promoted dubious successes. Virgin Airlines, for instance, touted that it was able to sell 500 airline tickets at a 50% discount. Something, of course, that it almost certainly could have done using just about any advertising platform. It also touted the 'media value' of being associated with the Promoted Tweets launch, something that also seems to be in vogue for marketers looking to justify their social media campaigns.

The big problem with the giveaway-discount model is, of course, that it's not sustainable. Obviously, JetBlue isn't going to maintain a profitable business selling airline tickets for $10, yet according to TBG CEO Simon Mansell, his agency's "main goal is to develop Facebook into an effective sales channel for JetBlue." Needless to say, running a once-in-a-JetBlue-moon $10 ticketing promotion is hardly the foundation for building an effective sales channel on Facebook.

This is not to say that giveaway-discount promotions don't have a place in a marketer's toolkit. They absolutely do. But use that is excessive or not strategic can defeat the purpose. At the very worst, such use can devalue a company's products or services. And because giveaway-discount promotions are one of the most effective ways to reward your best existing customers, using them haphazardly with non-customers can be problematic. After all, if promotions for non-customers are often the best you can muster up, it makes it harder to run attractive promotions that target existing customers. For this reason, companies should think carefully about who they're rewarding with promotions, and why. In many cases, I think they'd find their promotions target the wrong people.

In short, instead of attempting to build scalable, sustainable and creative social media marketing campaigns that are strategic in nature, it appears that many marketers are far more comfortable going the giveaway-discount route and proclaiming success because (gasp) they were able to move product for free or at a hefty discount. That, in my opinion, is unfortunate. Despite the fact that social media ROI is still often a tricky subject, social media has the potential to do more than this. Marketers can, and should, set the bar higher than giving away the farm.

Photo credit: Amanda Govaert via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 13 May, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2381 more posts from this author

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Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Good points Pato. I guess there are also brand and reach factors to think about, rather than purely sales, but I agree that vast consumer incentives do not 'prove' that social media is The Daddy, only that the offer was mindblowingly attractive. It's the price, not the channel.

As you say, the bar should be raised, for those that want long term success. And that, for me, is about real and ongoing customer engagement, and about earned media, rather than buying ads on SM sites or creating a discount store via Facebook.

So if we flip it around the question has to be: which brands are using social media to grow sales without resorting to margin-destroying discounts?

about 6 years ago

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Luke

Agree with much of what you say, but I'd like to see at bit more on your ideas of best practice beyond the rather vague "attempting to build scalable, sustainable and creative social media marketing campaigns".

What specifically does this involve?

If there is any 'secret' to social media marketing I would say it is the massive amount of time and genuine interest you need to invest in it to bring success.

Unfortunately for many brands and their agencies, they have neither time nor interest and therefore have to aim for quick wins.

about 6 years ago

Barry Dewar

Barry Dewar, Digital Communications Consultant at Freelance

I'm not sure I agree Patricio. It sounds to me like JetBlue had decided on the discounted tickets as a marketing plan BEFORE they decided on the promotional channels.

Yes, it's a given that discounted product is easy to shift but you still have to publicise it's existence. Choosing Facebook to do that is a simple choice they made. You wouldn't be criticising them if they'd focussed on newspaper ands and got them sold.

What Facebook will have allowed them is to target specific demographics, maybe letting them get their product in front of a segment which they expect to be able to progress onto full price options. It really depends how much startegic planning they did. It's also cheap and piggy backing it with some good traditional media coverage because they used the fancy new social media landscape is an added bonus.

It all sounds like sensibe business to me.

about 6 years ago

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Alia Formoy

Barry - I agree with Patricio. What you've got is a plan with marketing channels, but without a strategy. If the objective of this campaign was to engage with existing users, then the tactic and channels were wrong. Social networks are more for brand awareness through word of mouth (or word of click nowadays), or engagement as a way of cementing an existing relationship with a brand. Big giveaways on social networks are more of a short term boost in acquisition with no real strategical thought behind whether the customers recruited are the target audience, and are likely to return lifetime value with a return on investment.

about 6 years ago

Barry Dewar

Barry Dewar, Digital Communications Consultant at Freelance

You're making a couple of assumptions there Alia:

"If the objective of this campaign was to engage with existing users, then the tactic and channels were wrong."

Patricio observed that giveaways are best suited to exisiting customers. No-one said that was JetBlue's aim.

"Big giveaways on social networks are more of a short term boost in acquisition with no real strategical thought"

With no information about their strategic thought then this is baseless. I put a great deal of strategic thought into social media campaigns. There is an audience there who are as valid as any other.

No-one is saying that social media channels are a replacement for traditional media but they do deserve some respect I think.

about 6 years ago

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Alia Formoy, CRM Manager at Dairy Crest

Fair enough Barry, but I'm not saying that social media campaigns are baseless at all. On the contrary, I've had experience of targeted Facebook engagement adverts working really well. I just think messages and tactics used on social media channels need to be tailored to that medium rather than it being just another channel to be used in the same way as another other more traditional channels.

about 6 years ago

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Mike McGrail

Interesting stuff this. Promos such as the Jetblue effort definately have their place, but building a full SM strategy around them would be foolhardy. Stunts like this can be a great opportunity to take a new product/brand/service to market and initally engage the Social space, however the problem is sustaining the engagement from there in. A cheap flight is a bid dangling carrot for many, but will they come back? These activites should be deployed as part of an overall strategy and tie in with the seasonality of the business in question.

about 6 years ago

Barry Dewar

Barry Dewar, Digital Communications Consultant at Freelance

By cheap I meant that Facebook ads are comparably cheap to traditional media but I appreciate that's a can of worms in itself.

I agree, rewarding the general public ahead of exisitng customers is poor marketing. It's not uncommon though, I'm thinking of telecoms companies like Virgin for example. One point though, once they'd made the decision to let eveyone have the discount, it would have been an even dumber move not to alert their database directly as well.

I guess the point I was trying to make is that just because they made the offer through social media channels doesn't reflect on the channels.

Also, nothing goes viral on it's own.

about 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Barry,

"I guess the point I was trying to make is that just because they made the offer through social media channels doesn't reflect on the channels."

You're right. The problem isn't with the channel. It's the fact that with this particular channel (social media), marketers are opting to set the bar low and declaring victory when they haven't really done much of anything.

about 6 years ago

Jeff Molander

Jeff Molander, CEO at Molander & Associates Inc.

Luke -- beyond the time commitment I think you're pushing for what I'm suggesting in my recent blogs here at eConsultancy (sometimes I feel like I'm alone).  That is, the secret is that there is no secret: What's always worked works in social media. Marketing hasn't changed.  Consumer behavior hasn't changed (outside of demand lessening).  The ENVIRONMENT has changed.  There's no digital revolution after all!

Barry -- this leads us to your comment.  JetBlue decided "why not?"  Social media is a logical extension. Beyond that there is no real rationalization.  Indeed, no strategic thought.

Chris -- there are plenty of instances of brands accomplishing something meaningful w/o sacrificing margin.  We just don't hear about them much.  One that did squeek out (before Facebook killed it -- yeah, that's how successful it was) was Burger King. 

BK drove buyers into their restaurants and tracked ROI to the penny using Facebook.

BK's Whopper Sacrifice campaign offered customers the chance to do something they already wanted to do but had no incentive to do it. In this case, and others, that's the real key to social media success. "It" being clean up their Facebook experience by un-friending “friends” who weren't... and who were very busy cluttering up their Facebook page.

I'm sure each of you reading have a few of those on your page.

BK motivated customers by throwing in a free burger for customers who did what they already wanted to do. That part is key.  Sure it was a discount but bear with me. 

By using a coupon BK tracked redemption, up-sell conversion – actual profit of the Facebook campaign. I say again, actual profit.

Action item: What can YOU do to help your customers do what they already want to do... but have little incentive to do? You can surely come up with an incentive but how can you be USEFUL to customers' everyday lives? What tool can you give them that aligns your goals with an ACTION customers appreciate?

Social networks are more for brand awareness

Aaaargh!  Sure if you want to be like every other mediocre marketer out there.  Set the bar higher.  Meanwhile the rest of us ARE creating demand -- and capturing it in the form of sales and leads. 

Patricio -- rock on.  I hear echos of Rebecca Lieb with her report on marketers who believe that social media costs don't exist (time investment is free) and the recent report that eM+C/eROI came out with proclaiming "branding" and "traffic" to be 2009's biggest digital marketing successes.

Is anyone embarrassed yet?

But there ARE success stories out there where margin isn't being dinged in return for short term bumps in revenue or (cringe) "awareness"... where social media is having meaningful, measurable impact.

If we could just stop celebrating the quantitative "branding" wins (wow, look at all those followers) and get on with working toward qualitative wins we'd be earning more respect in the Csuite.

And I know that's what Patricio is calling for... Bravo!

about 6 years ago

Jonathan Moody

Jonathan Moody, Freelance at Language4Communications

And meanwhile back in the land of creativity and imagination, Air New Zealand gives this very visual response to media criticism of it's proposed alliance with Virgin Blue:

http://www.dearlistener.co.nz/

about 6 years ago

Miles Carter

Miles Carter, SEO / Web Developer at Zeland

Very interesting article, though I'm not so sure there isn't a value in a regular promotion of heavily discounted tickets with airlines. Jonathan Moody mentions Air New Zealand, and their Grab a Seat scheme has been very popular, even spawning third party websites based on keeping people up to date on the offers. Things like that can keep people returning to a website once a week or more often - I don't know if it would translate as well to Facebook but I really think there is merit in this kind of promotion.

about 6 years ago

Adrian Goodsell

Adrian Goodsell, Head of Social Media at Zone Ltd

Jeff, you make some seriously good points above.

Highlighting BK is a good example of a successful past promotion on Facebook and you had the good sense to note that 'Facebook killed it'. I thought this might be worth a little more exploration...

If anyone is familiar with the current Facebook Promotions Guidelines they will be aware that many of the 'creative successes' promotions-wise that we've seen in the recent past on FB have almost certainly been rendered unrepeatable today (at least without Facebook's express consent). I'm thinking BK, Ikea, etc...

There are some interesting points to be made here:

1) You need to be seen as a good media client for Facebook if you want to effectively use the channel to create and run successful promotions - not a cheap option at all. Therefore Facebook must be seen as part of a much wider strategy - not a place where you might go to score a quick win.

2) The 'channel' also happens to be a very powerful business with its own strategic aims. It is my view that increasingly FB will want to tightly control how businesses interact with its platform, seeking to align their clients' goals with their own wider strategic goals. Does BK's Whopper Sacrifice (ie. reduce your network) campaign sit easily with this? Discuss.

It may be time for us all to start seriously thinking about Facebook as a partner rather than an opportune 'channel'.

3) We've been talking about promotions here and they are now tightly regulated, which inevitably squeezes creative potential. However, there's another opportunity on Facebook; to actually become a trusted, valued part of your customers' everyday online community. What, then, is the real opportunity with Facebook, and social media as a whole for that matter?

Day-to-day relationships won't necessarily grab headlines in the industry weeklies but think how powerful the real opportunity is for businesses.

about 6 years ago

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Neha Wasnik

As an online marketing training provider I have learnt that success comes with great educational support and leaders to guide you constantly 

about 6 years ago

Jeff Molander

Jeff Molander, CEO at Molander & Associates Inc.

Adrean... Precisely. Brilliantly stated.  Facebook killed Whopper Sacrifice because it was a historically successful, amazingly impactful, out-of-control (viral) marketing program (created qualitative value for customers AND BK) for Burger King that concurrently destroyed the quantiative value that is at the core of how Facebook is valued by the market (quantitative page views).

When people did what they wanted to do -- unfriend -- it created value of one kind for BK and them.  It created rapid distruction for Facebook.

I find it hard to believe that Facebook didn't learn and that their direct response marketing person didn't jump for joy.  In fact I believe that notion is nearly impossible.

Your number 3 is the needed next step, yes. But that also requires FB to change internally. Many say that's the problem.

But what we have here is a lesson in value-creation.  A social media best practice that I slated to write up at my blog a month ago... just haven't gotten around to it.  Maybe today is the day!  Thanks for the prompt.

about 6 years ago

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Perry Evans

Your perspective seems to imply that the use of discount promotions via social media is the easy and unsophisticated model.  While I agree this can be the reality, I'd also add that when you intersect spcial media with real time campaign management, you see a more interesting picture. 

Real-time promotions - coupled with social media distribution - create a new approach to fundamental demand-supply matching that can become a very strategic element of the business marketing equation.  A deep discount that is applied when supply exceeds demand is not only smart marketing, it creates marginal profits that expand the picture beyond "marketing spend". 

I think it's smarter to stop thinking about "giving away the farm" and start thinking about bringing customers into the store when your can get the best marginal return on your costs. Marketers sometimes need to think more like business people.

[I admitedly come at the space from a small business marketing angle, where lead gen outweighs brand marketing, and brands are build through customer consumption of products/services in personal ways].

about 6 years ago

Jeff Molander

Jeff Molander, CEO at Molander & Associates Inc.

I think I understand you, Perry. If so, your suggestion relies on there being enough margin to begin with. But your entire point re: margin-minded marketers is appreciated fully.

about 6 years ago

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Briana

I can see everyone's valid points in the argument, but here's what I think:

  • JetBlue went to where their audience was. More people are using social media, so why not take advantage of it?
  • It was a win/win situation. Step 1 is getting the customers' attention ($10 tickets), and step 2 is keeping the customers' attention, which is not always guaranteed, especially after a contest.
I admit, the system has been abused a few times, and can't necessarily validate itself as a "strategy" more so than a tactic. Companies like JetBlue need to know that, sure, giveaways are a great temporary move to boost your numbers, but you shouldn't rely on it. On the other hand, this is a great way for small businesses and start ups to get attention. Bigger household name companies may already have a considerable amount of fans. It just all depends on who uses it and how frequently they use it. It's definitely not something to rule out, but they should accompany that with personable personalities and engaging content.

about 6 years ago

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Kingsley Tagbo

This is a pretty old school tactic that's been around as long as fireworks stands have, "Buy 1 Get 5 Free".  It's a good strategy to use in new channels.  In these social media channels it's a lot easier to have users take part in your free promotion or give away, as they're only a few clicks away.  It's hard to call any marketer crazy these days, when the world itself is even crazier.  If social media is changing the way news works, then it can certainly change the way marketing works along with the Internet, business to business interaction, and so much more. 

about 6 years ago

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Reed Prescott

Farmer goes into a hardware store and buys hammers. Over the next several weeks he returns often and continutes to buy hammers but now is up to a gross each purchase. Hardware store owner asks

"What are you doing with those hammers?"

"I am selling them for $8 each"

"But they cost you $10?"

"I know but it sure beats farming"

Anyone can do this. Shouldn't the goal be sustainable prosperity with a sense of community support?

about 6 years ago

Jeff Molander

Jeff Molander, CEO at Molander & Associates Inc.

Unfortunately, prosperity and capitalism have been corrupted (my country stands prime culprit) to the extent that we have completely lost track of what is and is not valuable -- in terms of how we apply ourselves here on planet Earth and general happiness. Tomorrow is all that matters. Beyond that there is nothing. Sad. Refreshing point, Reed. Especially on a Monday! Many thanks. Oh, and somewhere in here there's either a subsidized industrial/military production or agriculture joke (the hammer). But I'm not laughing.

about 6 years ago

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email marketing

Anything that gets a name or brand publicized is good.  I took jet blue in its early stages and loved it.  Since moving to Israel, along with my parents, I have no use for it anymore.  I forgot its name until now.

I know I am responding with some simple theology here guys, but viral marketing is to keep a name, brand, idea or product and growing. Even though this was unsustainable, no one can give prices like that away, especially in a bad economy, it still hit its mark.

If their customer service onboard is still great, people will not forget the flight nor their name.

about 6 years ago

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email marketing

Anything that gets a name or brand publicized is good.  I took jet blue in its early stages and loved it.  Since moving to Israel, along with my parents, I have no use for it anymore.  I forgot its name until now.

I know I am responding with some simple theology here guys, but viral marketing keeps a name, brand, idea or product alive and growing. Even though this was unsustainable, no one can give prices like that away, especially in a bad economy, it still hit its mark.

If their customer service onboard is still great, people will not forget the flight nor their name.

about 6 years ago

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Thomas Retetrbush

Great article. I would like to ad, that I have had almost as much if not more success with Mixx, Gather.com, Amplify.com and Posterous than with Facebook in getting backlinks to my site. But the best site for backlinks is Twitter. Particularly if you have multiple accounts and tweet your URL frequently. And even a caveman knows that backlinks increase search engine rankings, which increases site visits.

about 6 years ago

Andrew Steel

Andrew Steel, Business Development Manager at Objective Associates Limited

Based in the UK, I can't really comment from personal experience of JetBlue's service quality, flight punctuality, leg room, luggage fee's etc, but in my experience of cheap flight providers (which, from looking at their site they undoubtedly are), they often score pretty low for all of the above.

But if you pay only $10 to fly with them, then you provide them an opportunity to convince you otherwise of the common stereotypes associated with cheap flights - this can be a pretty powerful thing and lead to some good repeat custom. A good experience on a $10 dollar flight would certainly ease my concerns about paying full price for a future flight.

No, you can't make a business out of continually running discounted price campaigns, but as far as I'm aware, nobody from JetBlue said they were trying to?!

Market share matters more than ever in the airline industry (watch what happens with British Airways over the next 6 months for a prime example) and while it would be nice if we could all run marketing campaigns to acquire it without discounting product (note - there hasn't been a single suggestion as to how this would be done for JetBlue in place of the campaign they went with), I think the need for speed of action swayed them towards a pretty common method and without knowing more background on the strategy, if any, behind it, it's impossible to truly discredit it as so many of the comments here seem to attempt to do.

Jeff, you mention the BK campaign measuring actual ROI by tracking up-sells etc - how do we know statistics such as this aren't being measured by JetBlue on this campaign also?

Ultimately, people don't actually buy based on price above all else, but they need to be reminded of why they should buy on a fairly regular basis and getting them on planes is as good a way as any to do so.

about 6 years ago

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Fiona Bosticky

Ok, so on a stand alone basis, you can criticise what JetBlue did in this campaign. But I'm not really sure it devalues their product/ service. What if this campaign was a part of their larger strategy, and after all, aren't they a cheap budget airline? I do agree though, that this can barely be called a "social media success". This campaign through any channel - newspaper, tv, etc... probably would've been a success, but I don't think it shows the "power" of social media. Great food for marketing thought.

about 6 years ago

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Zermic the Frog

Social Media Marketing is gaining popularity more and more recently. I believe this is because business owners are more knowledgeable of the overwhelming benefits this marketing medium offers when it comes to driving traffic to your site. In contrast to the traditional way of marketing where it’s one way communication from seller to prospects telling them about the benefits of using their products, social media marketing is about connecting with people, having conversations, establishing your credibility in your market, building your community online and eventually converting those connections into clients and customers. Hence, increasing your visibility online is one of the many benefits to a social media marketing plan.

about 6 years ago

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Canadian Pharmacies Online

Great subject to talk about, we agree, as we were just talking about what things can happen in the medicine pharmacy industry. Also we will submit your article to our social network and our twitter, thanks and please post our comment, as we will put a link as well to dig your article. Thanks Will

about 6 years ago

Walter Adamson

Walter Adamson, CEO at NewLeaseG2M

Since JetBlue has the 4th greatest "social currency" of all US brands I think that they know what they are doing - I wrote "Social leveraging an ordinary product into strong customer engagement" at http://www.walteradamson.com/2010/06/social-leveraging-ordinary-product-customer-engagement.html The message is to let the little bits add up, sweat the details, make sure it all integrates, including the social media strategy, and then let WOM do it's job. Walter Adamson @g2m http://xeesm.com/walter

about 6 years ago

John Courtney

John Courtney, CEO and Executive Chairman at Pay on Results SEO, Content Marketing, Social Media, Digital PR, PPC & CRO from Strategy Digital

Nothing wrong in my book with the giveaway/discount route as a way of catching attention through a new marketing channel

about 6 years ago

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Paul Silver

Are we missing the bigger point here? 

I am not convinced that using the Facebook API (which TBG does via its licensed technology) for heavily optimised ad campaigns should be described as a 'social media' campaign. It is no different to ads being placed via a 3rd party network on Myspace for instance. I appreciate you can pull in FB data such as demographics, interests etc but for me, this is still DR based advertising on a social media site. It is not what I would call 'Social Media' - we need to start making this distinction.

about 6 years ago

Walter Adamson

Walter Adamson, CEO at NewLeaseG2M

@paul, yes I agree with you.

about 6 years ago

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