Navigating the Maze: Integrating Social Media into Your Air Show Business Operations

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When Tyson Goodridge spoke to the 2010 ICAS Convention to help us understand and use social media, the fledgling platforms that were available were just coming into their own. Some in our industry immediately grasped its tremendous potential as a promotional tool, as well as for rapid dissemination of timely information. Others saw it as a passing fad that would eventually go the way of the 8-track tape and VHS. Now, four years later, social media has gone from a wondrous novelty to an absolute necessity, and nearly everyone in our industry is connected to social media in one way or another. But Goodridge says there is still room for improvement if we are to maximize its full potential.

From air shows to performers, most users have found their own way through the maze, finding what works mostly by trial and error. They are quick to share their experience when asked, and the lessons learned are slowly spreading, but at too slow a pace, according to Goodridge.

Since he first spoke to the convention, Goodridge, who owns a marketing firm in Boston, says that, “First and foremost, we’ve learned that the use of social media must be timely, relevant and topical if it is to be effective.”

And second, all social media platforms, including most web sites, are now optimized for mobile devices. “Mobile should be your first thought when it comes to communicating with fans. Repeat that to yourself over and over again, because most of our fans are connected through Facebook and Twitter on one type of mobile device or another,” said Goodrich.

Goodridge also noted that image sharing sites like Instagram are taking on a much bigger role than ever before.  But, all of these media tools come with their own built-in limitations if they are to be effective. “Quality is more important than quantity. Keep it short and fast. It’s about distilling the message and the excitement of your brand in as concise a way as possible.”

Like any new technology, younger people have been quicker to embrace this new medium than their older counterparts. As a result, some shows use interns to manage their pages. Other shows use savvy volunteers. “No matter who you use, you should use all the resources you can afford,” he said.

While others may disagree, Goodridge is not a fan of repeating the same message from one platform to another.  “Duplicating messages gives the appearance you are cutting corners and just blasting stuff out there. Many of those who follow you on Facebook also follow you on Twitter. I believe you should tailor your content to the audience using each platform,” he said.

Simon Landau, who consults and works for a Washington, D.C. area television station, is another social media expert who has spoken at the ICAS Convention.  He believes social media should be about having a conversation: “Social media gives you the ability to put a creative twist on your information and allows your followers to become advocates for you. Because of this, users need to develop a plan or a campaign that will put their product out there in a unique way that will get people to want to tell their friends,” he says.

Like Goodridge, Landau is not a fan of sending duplicate messages. “Different platforms connect you to different audiences. Pushing the same thing out the same way to all the platforms does a disservice because you are talking in the same language to the different audiences.”

There is another side to social media that Landau feels is essential to consider. If you put information out there, you have to expect the comments that come back, and that can be hard to take sometimes. “You have to have a thick skin because you and all your followers will see any negative comments that come in. You need to be open to this and shouldn’t fear it because your fans will immediately come to your defense,” he said.

For marketing consultant Deb Mitchell, of all the social tools available, Facebook is central.  Mitchell ran the NAS Oceana Air Show for several years and now runs her own marketing company in Jacksonville, Florida. As one who lives and breathes all things air show, she understands the business from both sides. “Many shows still aren’t exploiting the full benefits of social media. Some are good on Facebook, but they need to include Twitter and Instagram, at a minimum, because that’s where the younger crowd is. ‘Fish where the fish are and cast several lines.’”

To maximize the advantage of Facebook to an air show, Mitchell says the show has to make regular posts that drive traffic to their web site: “Shows should be running promotions and sweepstakes on Facebook continually to engage fans and drive ticket sales,” she said.

One tremendous advantage of social media is that it allows shows to be their own news outlets, whether it is prior to a show or real time during a show. “This is a fantastic tool, but you need to keep posting with updates. Talk about what is on the ramp, promote specific exhibits and post lots of pictures.  Keep the posts short and your fans will love them,” Mitchell said.  “And don’t forget to provide information to the show’s narrator to promote the show’s Facebook page.”

Mitchell believes performers are generally doing a better job using social media than are their air show counterparts.  “Because performers do several shows each year, they have a lot to share as they move from one show to another. They have a wonderful opportunity to post interesting pictures and show fans the inside of our business.  People are hungry for information about performers,” she said.

An outsider who has developed a strong affinity for air shows — after a stint working for Boeing’s Defense, Space & Security division — is Portland, Oregon television anchor Stephanie Stricklen. Stricklen has evolved into the social media go-to person for her station. She has covered many air shows since the late 90s and has spoken at several ICAS conventions in recent years. “The operative word here is social. You have to really enjoy using it or it isn’t social and your fans are going to know it,” she said.

Stricklen notes that, while fans of all ages come to air shows, it’s the younger fans who are all over social media. Shows and performers alike have to find creative and fun ways to reach out to them. “Most people who use Facebook use it on their mobile devices. Go into any restaurant and see how many people are on their smart phones and other devices. Walk across your air show ramp and see how many people are either reading something on their mobile devices, taking pictures, with them, or texting with them. That’s the way the world is now,” she said.

These days, when people want to know something, the first thing they do is go to their phones to find it.  And, when they go to your air show web page or Facebook page, the information they want should be readily available. “When you post, post for a purpose,” Stricklen says.

Beyond the goals of an air show or individual performer, Stricklen wants everyone to do more to help each other navigate social media. “If something works on the East Coast, it will certainly work on the West Coast, and we all need to work in concert. Our industry is so good about helping each other, and it would be great if those who are good at this reached out to those who need help and provided mentorship,” she said.

The Duluth Air & Aviation Expo in Minnesota focuses on Facebook and Twitter, but also includes Instagram, Vine and YouTube. President Ryan Kern says they spend a lot of time interconnecting them. “As we tweet, we share images leading up to the event. These go to Facebook and to our web site. We’ve learned that most people over 40 don’t usually use Twitter, but they do visit our web site and use Facebook, so a single posting can reach just about everyone,” he said.

Kern owns a marketing and special events company in Duluth. Prior to his show, his staff develops a communications plan and holds weekly meetings where they make a list of updates to send out that week. By using one of the more than 20 social media management software programs now available (Google “Social Media Management Software” to see examples), he said they can write the updates in advance and schedule their release through the various media throughout the week.

Most shows use social media to drive customers to their web sites – still the foundation for all social media. But, Kern says savvy shows are now including links in their messages that take fans directly to on-line ticket purchasing. “We ran a promotion on Twitter in 2012 where we offered discounted tickets. We gave a promo code and said the offer was good for only thirty minutes. Fans started buying and they re-tweeted the message to their friends. It went viral and we sold a tremendous number of tickets that way,” he said.

Kern says their social media campaign increases in intensity from three to six weeks out. But it doesn’t end with the start of the show. “During the show, we have one person on our team who serves as our social media point of contact. Her only job is to follow us around, take pictures, send out tweets, and post on Facebook nonstop, no matter what else is going on. She takes pictures on her phone and puts them out there. Fans love it and the news media loves it. They repost it and it builds on itself,” he said.

Another ICAS member who has embraced social media is Bryan Lilley, who runs the OC Air Show in Ocean City, Maryland. As part of his promotional strategy, he conducts surveys, holds contests and makes the best use he can of social media with the time he has available. “Because our time is limited, we focus first on Facebook. It’s the best value for us because of the large number of people of all ages who use it,” he said.

Lilley said Facebook is invaluable to them in gauging the popularity of performers. “Within an hour after posting something, we can tell if our fans are engaged.” He and his team post all performer information on their web page, and then roll the information out on Facebook one at a time. “We do this over the course of several weeks and it allows us to benchmark one to another to see what people are interested in.”

Lilley encourages event organizers to be cautious with sponsor acknowledgments. He says too much promotion of a sponsor will draw negative reactions. “Sponsors like to see their names out there, but fans don’t always want to read the ads. Sponsor logos can be incorporated in messages, just don’t make it blatant,” he said.

Marketing executive Herb Gillen, who owns Herb Gillen Advertising in Columbus, Ohio, is active in the air show business. His client list includes nearly a dozen air shows and several performers. He is pleased with the growth in the use of social media in the air show industry, noting that shows are more engaged, more innovative, and — overall — doing a great job, a trend that he hopes will continue.

Gillen says there are three key things to understand if you want to make the best use of Facebook: “First, if you list yourself as a business on Facebook, expect to pay for the exposure. Otherwise, you won’t get what you want. Second is to create regular content.”  He says performers are doing a better job at this than a lot of shows he sees. And third, have fun with it. “Think outside the box. Be promotional, but balance it with fun and information that can create a buzz and create revenue.”

He says that, during the show, most fans have one kind of mobile device or another, so tweets and posts can be sent out with photos reminding fans of who is in the autograph tent. Other messages can focus on the schedule or the weather. These messages can’t replace information from the announcer because a lot of older fans don’t use mobile devices in the same way.  But, he notes, parents and grandparents are getting on Facebook at an ever faster rate and it has become an inter-generational medium. “I’ve had clients who resisted using social media a few years ago, but they now embrace it because they know it’s important if they want to stay in touch with their customers. They may not fully understand it, but — because they have accepted it as necessary — they have assigned someone on their staff to be responsible for it.”

Facebook allows users to purchase ads and purchase how broadly a user’s message will be distributed in search of “Likes.” Kevin Walsh, who organizes Thunder Over Michigan on behalf of the Yankee Air Museum, says his data shows Facebook is quantifiably cheaper than conventional media in terms of the number of people it reaches. With nearly 10,000 followers, their strategy is working. “Most of our fans use Facebook, so we’ve developed targeted posts and use some of our traditional advertising budget to drive people to our Facebook page. We can see instant results every time something is posted on Facebook,” he said.

Walsh believes most shows can make more effective use of the services available in Facebook if they will spend a little time learning about it. For example, a conventional post on Facebook goes only to Facebook friends, but a promoted post also goes out to others who have similar interests, whether they are friends with you or not, and invites them to “Like” your page. This option allows a user to determine how much to pay, how widely it should be disseminated and which demographic to target. “People who don’t follow our show will still be asked to Like our page because Facebook knows they like airplanes. Television and radio hit everybody. Facebook can target everyone who likes airplanes within the area I select. I love it because we have never been so in touch with our audience as we are with Facebook.” Walsh said most shows would be far more effective with their advertising if they spent at least part of their advertising budget on Facebook rather than conventional media.

Walsh says, while Facebook presents some fantastic new opportunities, it also creates new obligations. “You will fail if you don’t immediately respond or don’t show that messages and posts are being checked. Our audience doesn’t hold back. They are letting their feelings be known and you have to at least acknowledge a post by ‘Liking’ it and, when appropriate, commenting on it.  It’s a real eye opener, for example, to see how fans respond when you ask them what they want to see next year.”

Walsh says that, while Facebook presents some fantastic new opportunities, it also creates some new obligations. “You will fail if you don’t immediately respond or don’t show that messages and posts are being checked. Our audience doesn’t hold back. They are letting their feelings be known and you have to at least acknowledge a post by ‘Liking’ it and, when appropriate, commenting on it.  It’s a real eye opener, for example, to see how fans respond when you ask them what they want to see next year.”

Kasi Woidyla is director of marketing for the Oregon International Air Show in Hillsboro, Oregon. She says her top two social media priorities are Facebook and Twitter. “The use of social media is essential because just about everybody is connected in one way or another. We do a lot of hashtagging campaigns since we can now integrate the different platforms. We also use Instagram for photo contests after the show. Social media has allowed us to develop a relationship directly with our fans in ways that weren’t available just a few years ago,” she said.

Because of the ability to integrate them, Woidyla said they can now cross-promote with different social media tools, using Facebook to promote the web and the web to promote Facebook and Twitter. Their web site encourages fans to follow them on Facebook by promoting it as an insider connection where they will get updates on air show activities ahead of anyone else. “There is redundancy across the platforms and that’s the idea. You can drive your Facebook friends to your web site, drive web users to your Facebook page, and connect everyone through Twitter. We want everyone interacting with us on all of the different platforms because we can reach so many more people,” she said.

Three years ago, critics weren’t sure social media was here to stay or that it could be an effective marketing tool. Woidyla was in that camp. “It was hard to measure and hard to see results. But the platforms have changed enough that we can now closely track which responses come from which platforms and can generate all sorts of great demographic data, and we have learned how to leverage the information to our advantage,” Woidyla says.

Woidyla says they use social media during the show for a number of on-field promotions, including a scavenger hunt.  Three times a day, they post clues and get fans to go out and find the clues at sponsor booths. “We want our fans to take a selfie when they find the clue, post it on Instagram, and the winners receive free tickets to next year’s show. Fans love it and so do our sponsors.”

People who follow an air show on Facebook or Twitter are obviously fans or they wouldn’t be there, which requires shows to keep feeding the system. “We can’t just do it a few weeks before the show. We have to do it year round,” says Woidyla. “We don’t post as much during the off season, but we keep it going by thanking sponsors, reminding fans how the show donates its money back to the community, etc. If we were to go dark for nine months, people would quit following us.”

Social media has become mainstream and has opened new opportunities for marketers savvy enough to take advantage of them. “We are always looking for new ideas and new ways to keep pushing the envelope. Marketing via social media is so much faster, easier, and less expensive than ever before. The accessibility of the internet was once revolutionary, and so was Facebook, but just like the Internet, Facebook is now evolutionary because it is being used so widely. It is the logical next step and I’m excited when we can create something new and provide immediate access to our fans,” Woidyla said.

For performers, Facebook has been a godsend in the development of a fan base. Now, for the first time, fans can follow their favorite performers from one end of the country to the other in ways that simply weren’t possible a few years ago.  “It’s as if Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram were made for performers who can post all sorts of exciting stills and videos of their flying and give fans a unique insight into air show performers,” says performer Michael Goulian.

Goulian has a staff that takes care of much of his social media input, but he says — when it comes to Twitter — it’s him and him alone. “Fans can tell if I’m not doing the posting. They want to engage with me. They aren’t interested in hearing from my crew chief or someone else. If a post does not come from me, we make it very clear so fans know it’s from a team member.”

Goulian feels social media needs to be real. “This is the performer’s opportunity to interact with fans. I make sure they know where I’m going, when I get there, and what I’m doing while there. I also maintain a dialogue with the show and their fan base, as well. Posting a tweet is not a big intrusion in my life, and I always include a picture to tell a story,” he said.

Through Facebook, primarily, fans have a better opportunity to get to know the pilots. “I’ve followed NASCAR drivers and pro golfers for a long time. I see how they interact and have learned from it. They provide glimpses into the human side of their business and I try to do that as well. People want to know we are human,” he said.

The more fan interaction there is, Goulian says, the better it is, not just for performers, but for the shows as well. “The interaction increases drawing power which brings more people to the show.” Another benefit is that fans can’t get up close to the pilots very often and social media makes them seem more like normal people. And he says social media can create an authentic relationship between fans and sponsors if links to the sponsors are included in Facebook posts and tweets.  “I make sure I include photos of me wearing my sponsor’s headset, for example,” Goulian said.

Social media also fits with one of the air show industry’s goals of inspiring the next generation of aviators. “Social media reaches younger fans in ways never before possible because they are always connected. Most of the interaction I have on my Facebook page is from younger fans wanting to know how I got into air shows,” he said.

Skydiver Rex Pemberton uses social media to promote his act, as well as that of his wife, Melissa Pemberton. “If you feed it on a regular basis, you can create quite a following, but you have to feed it if you want a decent marketing presence,” he said.

Like other performers, Pemberton believes the use of video is critical. And thanks to the miniature digital cameras that are available, video can be used to tell amazing stories. “Videos that are from one to three minutes long grab interest and leave fans wanting more. Fans will tune out if the videos are too long.”

Pemberton believes performers have an obligation to organizers to advance their messages on social media. “As we travel, I will make numerous posts promoting the next show down the line. The shows see this, link to it from their sites, repost the material, and it all helps sell tickets. Everyone is a winner,” he said. It was through social media that a television producer became acquainted with Rex and Melissa; it’s what led to the two of them appearing on the April 27 CBS television Sunday Morning program…an interview that is available on YouTube.

Pemberton notes the entire industry is benefiting from the use of social media. But he cautions that individual posts should not just be about one’s self, but about others as well. “This gives all of our followers a more well-rounded view of our industry,” he said.

Air show narrator Ric Peterson is very active on Facebook, even though he acknowledges he could be making better use of it than he does. “I believe that the more all of us use it and the more we take chances with it, the rewards will be there for all of us. It’s a ‘must use’ technology,” he says.

Peterson believes our industry is behind the curve, that the real leaders are in other industries, but thinks we’re catching up. “I see more and more shows that use social media effectively to build their fan base, keep fans informed year round, and even inform them of other events beyond their own show.”

Peterson is waiting for the day when air shows manage to connect with every air show performer. “The more our fans see how big the industry really is, the better for all of us,” he said.

Peterson shares the same view as most of his colleagues of criticism in the social media. He’s just a bit more blunt about it. “It can be nasty out there, but I say let it happen.  If someone is being an ass out there, they will look like an ass and there will be pushback from fans. It always happens,” he said.

Peterson advises users of Facebook to be sure to “Like” the positive comments.  “Just the simple act of clicking ‘Like’ shows fans you care,” he says. “You also need to respond to negative comments, but always take the high road in the face of criticism because your fans have your six.”

New Hampshire performer Rob Holland uses his Facebook page largely for promotion purposes. “I share pictures and videos, promote events, promote sponsors and plug them however I can, but I don’t bombard people to the point they get tired of hearing from me.” Holland posts something new three or four times a week, sometimes more frequently if his schedule warrants.

In the Facebook world, the return on investment is measured in how many “Likes” are garnered. For Holland, his number is 115,000. He says he has no idea how that happened because he doesn’t pay for it. “I use my Facebook page as a business tool, not as a social tool. I have a personal page, but I don’t post personal information on my business page. I leave my personal life out of it,” he says.

For pilot Jon Melby, social media is more than just promoting his act. He’s a strong advocate of also using it to promote the air show industry as a whole. As a performer, Melby says he does his own thing on Facebook like most people, but he also makes a point to tag his friends which sends his posts in directions that they otherwise wouldn’t go. “Too many of us are in our own silos. We need to do a better job of tagging each other, providing links to each other, and hashtagging each other. The more we do that, the more our messages will multiply,” he said.

Melby says it is about bridging gaps with others in the air show community. “We always say we are a family, so we need to act like it.  There is competition among us, but — if I hashtag performers who do several shows with me — producers will see that. They will explore the various Facebook pages, and begin making hiring decisions based partly on how well we all get along. They need to know who works well together,” Melby said.

Melby has experimented with his posting and found that he gets far more responses with a photo than without. “I’ve even re-sent old pictures of me flying and they get hundreds of ‘Likes.’ Fans simply want to know what is going on in my life, so I use Facebook to tell them,” he said.

Because social media is dynamic, he says it must remain fresh. “Your web page is your place of business and it’s static, but Facebook is your day-to-day activity.”

Auto racing and professional athletics are most often the benchmarks for how to use social media. “Go outside the industry and see how they do it. Times have changed. Younger people want Facebook. They want Twitter and they want Instagram. This isn’t the 70s or 80s or 90s anymore. Young people coming into this industry are bringing change with them.

“Success, in part, is becoming based on how well you look,” says Melby. “And it’s up to you how you make yourself look.”

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Mike Berriochoa
Mike Berriochoa is an air show announcer, former member of the ICAS Board of Directors, longtime communications professional and award-winning broadcast journalized based in Pasco, Washington.