During the recent volcanic ash crisis which grounded flights around Europe, Icelandair used Twitter to send frequent updates to its customers about flight cancellations and alternative arrangements. 

I’ve been talking to Icelandair’s eMarketing manager Kjartan Sverrisson about how the airline used Twitter, and the lessons learned from the crisis… 

Could you tell me a little about Icelandair, how big an airline are you? 

About 1.200 people work for Icelandair, roughly 900 are crew and crew related, while the rest is support staff such as marketing, finance, ground staff and so on.

We use Iceland as a hub for passengers crossing the Atlantic and by having our aircrafts on a 24 hour rotation where they make one or two trips to Europe and one to USA or Canada every 24 hour.  

We can offer very competitive fares and keep all of our aircrafts up in the air, generating revenue as opposed on the ground waiting, where they would be generating cost. 

How did you use Twitter to communicate with customers during the volcano ash crisis? 

At first it started out as a bulletin board where we posted notices that our website had been updated with the latest information on flight numbers and departure times. We turned our route-network inside out and moved our main hub to Glasgow in order to keep the network running, so using all means available to us to get information out there was essential. 

This however changed as time went by and we saw that we needed to get information on individual flights to people and our passengers started to notice we were on-line and answering questions.  

In response to this customer demand, we then started to break our web updates down to many short tweets which all contained a short message, a bit.ly link and the #ashtag. 

Why do you think Twitter is more effective than Facebook for this kind of situation? 

Twitter is more dynamic and forgiving when it comes to frequent updates. When flooding Facebook users with too many updates they are likely to hide your feed, while Twitter users are used to frequent updates, and in fact rely on getting frequent updates from the people they follow. 

Did you use any Twitter clients? 

Yes, CoTweet (recently acquired by ExactTarget). Having a clear overview of all tweets and whether they had been replied to or needed a response is useful normally, but it was priceless during this crisis. Also, being able to assign a tweet to a colleague helps when managing a busy Twitter account. 

What other methods did you use to communicate with customers during the crisis? How did you use the website for instance? 

Our website has been updated almost 100 times over the past few weeks with the latest information as the eruption developed, we also used our PR connections to get the press involved. 

What have you learned about handling future events like this? 

One of our biggest fears before diving into social media was that we would be creating an outlet for negativity and “trollish” behavior. It turned out that most users simply want to communicate in an open and polite manner and expect to be replied to in an equally open and polite manner. 

We’ve used Facebook for two large marketing campaigns with great results and managed to drive a record number of visitors to our websites in our last destination campaign.  This was our first genuine effort to use Twitter for an important project and we are very impressed with the results so far. 

How do you approach multichannel marketing? Are you integrating offline and online campaigns? How has this worked for you? 

Our in-house mantra is “offline supports online”. Our unofficial goal is to drive more sales through the internet, so all of our marketing material contains some kind of indicator that more information can be found online.  

Our last two big campaigns have been driven online, using offline media to bring people from the breakfast table to their computers. 

With the inclusion of social media, I’d say we now use all channels available to us. Search engines, sponsored searched, contextual advertising, direct marketing campaigns, traditional display banners, content marketing and so on.  

We think a healthy mix-up of all channels will bring our brand to a larger audience and thus increase brand awareness among our future passengers.