Claire Higgins headshotClaire Higgins is Head of Marketing at, Virgin Atlantic’s social travel website. Last year, we interviewed her for our Impact of Digital Beyond Sales and Marketing report, produced in partnership with Blue Latitude.

Here, she goes into more detail about Virgin Atlantic’s strategies for social media, and digital more broadly, in 2011. 

Can you tell us a bit about, why it was launched and its role within the wider context of Virgin Atlantic?

Virgin Atlantic dreamt up back in October 2005 when we were looking at how we could create a more engaging brand experience for our customers. The site launched in open beta in June 2009 as a platform designed to engage and inspire travellers, and showcase destinations through personal insights, stunning photography and quality, curated editorial. vtravelled is designed to encourage new adventures as well as make it easy to create, plan and share travels.

In 2010 we launched our blog, which celebrates Virgin Atlantic culture by offering a peak under the bonnet and showcasing our frequent flyers, as well as our fantastic and well travelled staff and crew.  

The site enables us to celebrate the unique and passionate travel culture at Virgin Atlantic. It gives us a chance to talk to our best customers more frequently, especially when translantic travel is not an everyday purchase and also offer them new online products and services. We want to host inspiring online dialogue and introduce like-minded travelers to a new travel conversation.

vtravelled is at the heart of our social plans and, as we enter the next stage of development of the site, our plans over the next year allow us to raise the bar and take advantage of the developments within the social landscape.

What is the next phase of development for the site?

This month we will enter our second phase of development, so we are incredibly excited here at Virgin Atlantic HQ. You can expect to see improved user experience, new functionality and, most importantly, we will also be moving the site out of beta and developing our relationship with our frequent flyers.

We will be developing our community platform and reviewing how we can extend our loyalty programme in new and interesting ways by adding a social dimension to our flying club.

I can’t share all the plans with you at the moment, but please watch this space, as we have some really exciting developments over the next six to nine months. 

Does Virgin Atlantic have a defined social media strategy? How do you ensure this permeates the entire organisation?

Socialability is in the DNA of Virgin and at Virgin Atlantic; we are committed to investing in social. We have recently just recruited a Social Relations team who are committed to delivering proactive customer service to our customers, in the places they hang out online.

We have developed a three-pillar social strategy, which is centred on serving, socialising and soft-selling. Firstly, customer service is incredibly important and we use social platforms as an opportunity to put passengers’ minds at ease. Secondly, we know our customers want to have a two-way dialogue with us, so we have embraced it and enjoy socialising with them … from engaging them in inspiring content on vtravelled to competitions on Facebook. Finally, while soft-selling is an opportunity, our relationships with our customers come first. 

We have a cross-functional social spaces forum, which meet once a month, from all areas of the organisation, including Marketing, IT and PR. We find the opportunity to meet and discuss learnings and challenges, central to evolving how we develop our social strategy. This means we take the responsibility across the organisation to understand how social is affecting all sides of the business.

Apart from customer service and marketing, is social media having an impact on other areas of the business? 

We have support for social and the impact it can make to our business, from the highest level. vtravelled reports directly to and was championed by our CEO, for example. We know that it can be an effective channel from helping our recruitment efforts to aiding our trade sales strategy.

However, we are still growing and learning about the ways we can use social within the business and are aware that there will need to be some cultural shifts to embrace all of the opportunities social can bring. We are, though, testing and learning. For example, our sales team have recently worked with, the largest and most active network of medical professionals in the UK. We have worked with them to highlight the benefits of flying with Virgin and offered an exclusive 20% discount on flexible fares to all members of the network. 

What do you think are the major challenges when running social media-related campaigns and activities?

For many advertisers ROI and the integration of social into their existing resource, budget and activities, remain some of the biggest challenges. 

We also believe that you need to create and curate the right content to engage with your customers socially. We recognise that we can use a site like vtravelled to bring alive Virgin Atlantic culture and character online.

Importantly though, we have developed KPIs (key performance indicators), which we continue to refine as we learn more about how we interact socially. As brands, we need to test, refine and learn from social. Customers will talk about our brand regardless and it is our opportunity to embrace this and engage customers in a completely new way.

Broadly speaking, how is digital changing the way Virgin Atlantic functions as an organisation?

We see that our digital presence can really add value to our customers’ experience of the brand and is becoming a vital added product or service, in a competitive marketplace. It can provide a 360-degree experience with our customers, from easing travel delays via SMS or updates on Twitter or Facebook. 

Digital also allows us to be proactive and nimble. For example, mobile check-in saves time and money for the company, as well as offering time-poor customers the ability to manage their travel plans with you on the go. We can also provide you with the best tips on destinations, to experience somewhere like New York, Virgin style, via a free destination guide, days before you fly with us. 

How do you measure the success of digital activity? 

It really depends on the department. For example for e-commerce, it could be revenue and conversion rates. For our advertising and marketing teams, we may look at traffic or Net Promoter Score. For our social teams, we will review our three-pillar social strategy and everything from traffic stats to sentiment and engagement metrics.

Importantly we will take learnings from every activity by listening to customer reaction and refine what we are doing to bring more efficient ROI and also ensure that we are always targeting the right kind of customers.

How do you join up offline channels with what you are doing online?

Our starting point for everything we do, is viewing our brand through our customers’ eyes. 

They expect to have a choice in whether they engage with us in an offline or online channel. It is the delivery of this choice which is the key to delivering a truly multichannel offering.

We are continuing to invest in our product and service to deliver this brand promise. From the launch of our new A330s next year, which have full connectivity on-board, to building our digital offering, through to the rebuild of

Like every business, getting this to be seamless from one channel to another is still work in progress, but consistency and delivering on our values, is core to our business throughout 2011.