As someone who has spent a lifetime researching the aviation industry, I’m often asked what my favourite airline is. 

It’s quite flattering to think this would influence other people’s views. But I’ll usually turn the question around to find out what’s important to the person asking the question. Because we’re all looking for different things when it comes to air travel. Some prefer the full-service treatment, while others are just happy to get from A to B for as little as possible.

The same is true when airlines are trying to connect back the other way, especially in the digital environment. Different consumers have different needs, preferences and quirks. Online is essentially a permission medium – the customer will only build relationships with brands that play it their way. So some kind of aggregation is helpful for brands to understand their customers.

Digital types

TNS’ recent Digital Life study, conducted in 47 countries around the globe, uncovered six different types of digital consumers. Here in Australia, with our high Internet penetration and diverse online population, four of the six segments emerged as dominant:

  1. Functionals access the Internet to perform tasks such as e-mailing, reading news, checking weather and personal banking. Functionals are less interested in social networking and are not driven by the need to express themselves.
  2. Networkers access the Internet to build and maintain relationships, mostly via social networking sites, and predominantly as a way to keep in touch rather than as a means of self-expression.
  3. Knowledge Seekers access the Internet to gain knowledge and information and to educate themselves about the world.
  4. Influencers access the Internet for almost all parts of their lives. They are heavily involved in social networking, blogging, mobile Internet and online shopping. Influencers like to share opinions and will contribute to blogs and other channels that rely on user-generated content.

The predominance of these different types of Internet users varies greatly across different markets with different cultures and varying levels of Internet diffusion:

*Developed Asia includes Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea.

Rules of engagement

So how do airline marketers know if they have permission to engage? Taking my home market of Australia as an example, we’ve outlined the degree of openness to brand communications via different channels for each of these digital segments.

When targeting Functionals (our largest group – got to love that Aussie pragmatism!), an airline has several options but would be best to communicate through general browsing and shopping channels. In particular, the need is to try to attract the attention of those who are actively in the purchase-cycle mode with facts and proof points.

On the other hand, airlines might want to focus on branded communications when targeting Influencers, a group that is nearly as large and obviously key in generating excitement around a brand. Like Functionals, Influencers like to hear from (new) brands when they are in planning mode, but here the focus is on more emotive or intriguing messages.

Not every consumer wants to interact with brands in the same way. "Tune out” represents respondents who “don’t even notice” branded communications.

Airline horses for digital courses

Smart brands might want to find out which type of digital consumer their customers are. We asked our six segments of Australians where their loyalties lie when taking to the sky. Like any other mix of humans, our different digital segments favoured different airlines:

  • Networkers – the group that values keeping in touch with friends and family on a regular basis – are big on JetStar, one of the two true low-cost carriers in Australia.
  • Functionals – the segment more likely to be made up of older, more conservative people – are really Qantas’ heartland.
  • The sought-after Influencer group is a battleground between Qantas and Australia’s domestic Virgin brand, Virgin Blue.

Knowing this, the weight each airline would put on any one of these segments needs to be different. For example, the barriers to persuading a Functional (and therefore the cost) would be higher for Virgin than for Qantas.

Tone of voice and exact mix of communications will also need to be nuanced differently because what appeals to Influencers about Virgin Blue will be different than what this group finds appealing about Qantas. As a hypothesis, the former might win hearts with its quirkiness and personality, while the latter might earn points with its status, leadership and scale.

It really is horses for courses when you talk to online consumers.

Oh, and for those of you who are still wondering what my favourite airline is – it’s Ariana Afghan Airlines. Doesn’t that prove the point?