Ryanair is a unique brand. It managed to become one of Europe’s most-successful airlines despite a reputation for poor service that occasionally bordered on contempt for its own customers.

The ‘no frills’, challenger brand ethos became such an important part of Ryanair’s image and tone of voice that it ended up antagonising consumers as well as the competition.

But changing consumer expectations and mass adoption of digital technology means that Ryanair risks being left behind if it doesn’t change its ways, so new CMO Kenny Jacobs has been tasked with overhauling the customer experience and improving people’s perceptions of the brand.

The airline’s appeal comes from its low prices and massive choice of routes, so that has to remain intact if the business is to continue growing. Therefore Jacobs is focusing much of his efforts on improving the digital experience.

The biggest change is going to come in all things digital. So what data we get on customers, how we use it to make the experience better, how we personalise and retarget, what we do on CRM, mobile and content.

All of those things over the next two years will become the bigger levers of, not new growth, but improved customer retention.

Implementing an effective digital strategy within a business that has been lagging behind the competition is no easy task. So what exactly does Jacobs have planned?

Digital vs. traditional advertising

Ryanair is in an enviable position where it has already established massive brand awareness, so Jacobs’ faces different challenges to most CMOs.

If you contrast it with price comparison, which is where I previously worked, everyone in that industry is bidding massively for PPC and is working really hard to own the key terms in SEO just to create brand awareness.

But we have incredible brand awareness, so the job is to communicate that we’re making changes and improving the service.

This impacts Ryanair’s marketing budget and the channels that it uses to broadcast its message, and in order to make a big noise about the new brand image Ryanair chose to run its first ever TV campaign.

Jacobs sees TV and above-the-line advertising as the perfect method to communicate the changes, and consumer research shows that the campaign has been a success in terms of driving site traffic, awareness of new services and brand reappraisal.

But once these initial goals have been achieved then there will be a greater focus on digital advertising.

Once we’ve improved the product and the service we’ll aim to use digital such as the website itself, email, retargeting and display to communicate our prices, alongside a bit of above-the-line and our owned media within the aircraft and airports.

CRM

According to Jacobs around 40% of Ryanair customers are repeat buyers and the company is busy developing its CRM platform as it works to improve this rate of retention.

Ryanair works with a custom-built CRM platform and is also building a new data platform on Hadoop, but much of what Jacobs has planned is on hold until all the systems are in place and feeding into one another.

At the moment the target is to have the CRM platform in place by September, at which point Ryanair can begin to implement more targeting and personalisation.

We need to be able to feed all the customer and user data back into the platform, so we can personalise the experience including everything from the desktop journey down to the emails that we send you.

The company is so far behind in terms of its digital marketing that it still can’t send targeted email campaigns, a channel that Jacobs believes will be extremely powerful for improving the customer experience.

We want to be able to start adding in new stuff like personalised content on where they’re going to, as well as upselling ancillaries. We haven’t done that well enough so far.

The new website

It wasn’t going to be difficult for Ryanair to improve its clunky, old school website, but the new site that went live in April is a massive improvement.

Ryanair’s old website

The interface and booking system are far more user-friendly, however this is only the beginning of the development process.

At my previous companies building a website would be like unveiling the new Taj Mahal, and then you had the next one two years later. Now you start in a caravan and upgrade it bit by bit and keep things moving forward, it’s a more iterative process.

Jacobs has daily meetings with his ecommerce team to track visits and conversions in each market, as well as flagging up any anomalies and discussing any issues that are being worked on.

Bigger development projects are then discussed in more depth at regular weekly and monthly meetings.

Ryanair’s new site

Part of the challenge is that Ryanair operates in 30 markets and in 18 different languages, so it’s a huge task to understand how conversions are affected along the entire journey.

To help solve this problem the company is on a massive recruitment drive for developers and data scientists, with plans to triple the size of the dev team in the next few years to around 100 employees.

Search issues

It was thanks to Ryanair’s attention to detail that it was able to quickly rectify an error with its URL structure that occurred when the new site went live.

The airline failed to implement redirects for many of its old pages, which meant that 404 pages began showing up in SERPs and caused a massive drop in rankings.

But though the problem made the national news, it wasn’t a big deal for Ryanair as around 90% of traffic comes direct or from people searching the brand name.

It was only long-tail terms that were affected, and as non-branded search makes up just 0.5% of traffic it wasn’t the end of the world.

According to Jacobs:

For many head terms, like ‘cheap flights’, the rankings actually went up, but it was the long tail that was impacted. I’d take an increase in the head terms vs. a drop in the long tail any time.

Going mobile

Jacobs admits that Ryanair has fallen behind when it comes to mobile, and despite unveiling the new website in April it still doesn’t have a mobile optimised version.

I’ll be honest, Ryanair wasn’t aware enough of the change in consumer behaviour in moving to mobile. It wasn’t a strategic decision to take our time, we’ve missed it and we’re now catching up.

That process is well underway with a mobile optimised site due to go live in June followed by an app in July that will allow customers to search and book flights, check in, and use a mobile boarding pass.

Sadly that comes too late for those of us that had to pay £65 to print out a boarding pass in the past…

New content

With the new site and a move to social marketing it’s inevitable that Ryanair will need to start producing more of its own content.

At the moment the website is quite thin but the content team is in the process of creating hub pages and content guides for key locations.

However Jacobs pointed out that if Ryanair is to deliver a truly excellent customer experience then it needs to go beyond generic content that can be found anywhere on the web.

For example, if a customer is heading to Barcelona for the weekend we need to be able to come up with unique and interesting ideas rather than just advising people to go to Las Ramblas.

Jacobs said that one of the brand’s strengths in this area is its range of destinations, which could make user-generated content an interesting option.

This would also feed into its social strategy as the content would be eminently more shareable than branded comms.

Social

Ryanair only joined Twitter in late 2013 but it has already posted close to 10,000 tweets thanks to its focus on answering customer service queries.

This includes questions about specific routes, flight delays and even problems with the website.

The content and earned media teams also have some control over the Twitter feed, but it’s primarily used by the customer service department.

Jacobs said the aim is to build out a wider presence across Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and YouTube then integrate the user data back into its CRM platform. As with other aspects of Ryanair’s digital strategy, there is still some way to go until this is full implemented.

That trinity of social, content and mobile, and how we figure out what we want to do there and integrate it into our customer experience, will be a first for us.

Retain its challenger brand status

Despite the massive changes that are underway in terms of the customer experience, Ryanair will retain its tone of voice and position as a challenger brand.

This is evident with the new TV adverts, which promote the improved website while giving a sly nod to the brand’s reputation for dodgy customer service.

Irony is a very good tool to use, as I think people expected us to do a bit of mea culpa and apologise, but the setup we went for has worked without being too clever.

Rather than trying to be very classy or stick two fingers up, we want to be confident in the product that we have and still position ourselves as the challenger brand.

This means we can expect a new style of communication from Ryanair, one that has a modern outlook and doesn’t rely on controversy for spikes in PR.

That said, the challenger brand status does mean there’s room for the occasional disruptive campaign, with Jacobs citing K-Swiss and Dollar Shave Club as examples that Ryanair might seek to emulate.

Digital video is cheaper and focuses on a different audience. We need that as Ryanair is for everyone.

All things considered, Jacobs has a big task ahead of him at Ryanair, with the ultimate aim being to establish the company as a leader in digital rather than a laggard.

But he benefits from the fact that the company is seeking to make changes from a position of strength.

I’ve a very supportive boss who’s up for change, so we just need to get on with it. We’re not precious about things as we’ve become Europe’s biggest airline with, let’s be honest, a rubbish website that didn’t work on mobile and barely worked on tablet. We didn’t even have a decent email programme.

So imagine if we hold on to the low fares, keep adding the destinations and have a great website that works on mobile alongside our app. If we then improve the in-flight service as well, then the opportunity is huge.

Kenny Jacobs will be speaking at our Festival of Marketing event in November, a two day celebration of the modern marketing industry, featuring speakers from brands including Tesco, Barclays, FT.com and more.