KLM Karlijn Vogel-MeijerKLM’s social media strategy is based on three pillars: customer service, brand and engagement, and commerce. How does this look across channels?

Service is the basis of everything we do. A lot of people follow us because they know they can ask any question at any time and within an hour have an answer. We get about 40,000 messages a week, so that really shows us that people are looking for service.

If you add to that brand and reputation, then you make it interesting for everybody around the clock, so even if you don’t have a question, there’s always a reason to follow us.

If you can provide good service and engaging content then you can earn a lot of money with commerce. For example, if you send people a commercial offer in their timeline that’s relevant to them, they will never see it as spam.

We apply these three pillars on every platform. They are relevant on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, on VK in Russia and WeChat in China as well.

A strategic challenge a lot of global brands face is how to deal with different audiences on the same platform. Aside from being multilingual on social, how does KLM approach this challenge?

It’s our struggle as well. If you look at Facebook KLM, we have our global account, but we also have a lot of local pages. We had a big discussion about whether we should close all those local pages or let them survive next to the global page.

We chose the latter because we see that especially when you look at commerce, people feel more comfortable if they’re on a page that displays a culture they can identify with.

We have also made the mistake as a Western company of assuming that service should be open and transparent. That works in most of the Western world, but not in the East.

When we offered service on the Japanese page, nobody asked a question. But then we started to open the direct message button, and immediately we got a lot of questions. So we have to adjust. One strategy won’t work everywhere.

KLM Japan Facebook screenshot

KLM uses local pages on Facebook to attract diverse audiences.

KLM faced criticism for its Tweet about Mexico’s loss at the World Cup. Gaffes on social are all but inevitable. Still, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on how to deal with them. What’s your take?

We got 92,000 tweets from that post! It was a very difficult period for us because we had so much negative feedback. But if I look back at it there were some really important lessons to be learned.

First about what works with content. Never try to make fun of somebody else. That’s what we did and it was really wrong. We made fun of Mexico, which was really stupid. We shouldn’t have done that.

Second, the way we reacted by taking away the tweet – that is not social. You should never ever do that.

It’s all part of experimenting and finding out what’s possible and what isn’t. Sometimes you fall and you should accept that and learn your lessons and continue.

The current paradigm seems to be that all brands have to be witty and quirky on social media. Based on your experience, do you think people tire of brands trying to have “conversations” with them?

We have those same discussions within KLM. About a year and half ago, we were still thinking that with a good organic post you could reach millions of people. Now we know you have to pay to get the best reach, but still your post has to be so good that people want to share and discuss it.

I agree that everybody tries to be witty and better than the next brand. But to us it’s really important that you stick to who you are and not try to be something you’re not.

KLM is a Dutch brand and the Dutch are known for being pragmatic and authentic and also for being very straightforward, which is sometimes confused with being rude, but that’s really who the Dutch are.

A mistake a lot of brands make is that they don’t stick to who they are. But social is so straightforward that you get it back immediately.

I wanted to touch on the MH17 tragedy. A lot of passengers had KLM tickets and KLM worked very closely with Malaysian Airlines during the crisis. What did you learn from the experience?

The most important thing is to look at the people you are talking to. Look at the cultures and immediately start reacting.

The moment we heard about Malaysia Airlines, everything stopped. To keep it clear we sent everybody to Malaysia airlines to make sure they got the same storyline. People need straight answers at a moment like that. Then we posted the latest updates and where people could get information.

In one post we included a photo of a board that was hanging in the inflight services department where cabin attendants could leave messages for their colleagues at Malaysian Airlines.

The reactions were fantastic. It shows the strength of social media. People want to react and they want a reaction back and if that reaction is human, then it works.

KLM mourns the loss of MH370 and shares its sympathy with those affected. Image via KLM.

KLM mourns the loss of MH17 and shares its sympathy with those affected. Image via KLM.

Many KLM social media contests and content have an offline component to them. The Must See Map, or KLM Surprise, for example, merge the digital and the physical. Is that intentional?

Yes. In the airline industry you see a lot of digitalization, but you also see the strength of personal contact. Recognizing people as people instead of numbers is key.

With KLM Surprise, by looking into the digital profiles that people shared on Foursquare, we knew who they were and by recognizing them with a very small gift, we immediately found a way to make people share a message about KLM.

If you recognize somebody and if you give them something that really makes them feel special, then people want to share that on social, and that’s sharing the KLM message again.

With its "Citizens of the Airport" campaign, inspired by the popular Humans of New York blog, KLM publishes portraits and interviews of passengers.

With its “Citizens of the Airport” campaign, inspired by the popular Humans of New York blog, KLM publishes portraits and interviews of passengers.

The intersection of social and mobile changes how people behave on the web, especially in terms of purchase decisions. As more people adopt mobile, how does that change your approach to social media strategy, especially from a commerce perspective?

It absolutely changes our approach, especially because most people use social on their mobile.

We also know that people are not yet comfortable making big purchases on mobile. Usually people get inspired on mobile and then buy on their desktop.

So yes, it definitely changes our commercial strategy – especially with all these platforms giving more opportunities to retarget, like Facebook Exchange, which has been open for a couple of months.

If we know that somebody has been looking into into the opportunities for buying a ticket from Amsterdam to Barcelona, for instance, we can retarget them in their timeline if they haven’t finalized the sale, showing them a nice post of Barcelona.

Social and mobile are so well connected. You can’t try to do social without focusing on mobile – that’s old fashioned.