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How digital marketing built Aer Arann

How digital marketing built Aer Arann

By UTalkMarketing Founding Editor, Clark Turner.

If you’re going to build your business online, then it’s critical you get your digital marketing right.

Aer Arann has come a long way from it’s inception as an island-hopping carrier operating from Connemara off the west of Ireland to the Aran Islands. In 1999 the airline had 10 staff, a turn over of £250,000 and carried around 12,000 passengers.

Today it operates 600 flights a week on 16 routes to Europe carrying 1.15 million passengers, employing 400 staff.  Around 92 per cent of bookings are made online after the company took the decision in 2003 to develop its digital operations.

But it was in 2006 with the arrival of Head of Sales and Marketing, Colin Lewis, that the company’s digital strategy was developed to the next level to convert as many consumer as possible to make online bookings.

“Top be honest there wasn’t a digital strategy before 2006,” Lewis told us. “We had a database but didn’t really know what to do with it. We were taking baby steps but now we’re one of the top five sites in Ireland in terms of the sophistication of our e-commerce operations.

“There are still some airlines in the UK whose websites we need to emulate, but our digital strategy is built on three elements: acquisition, conversion, and retention and growth.”

The weighting of these elements depends on the time of year. Once the PPC acquisition model has been set up it tends to manage itself, while conversion is driven through website redesign, which tends to be project based.

In order to retain its customers the airline sends over one million emails a month. Mail is sent to confirm itineraries, remind customers of flights and of relevant promotions.

“We’ve learnt a few things from working with Google,” Lewis explained. “There’s a mystique about digital marketing which means we need to educate people internally.

“At a tactical level, we need to have a continuous presence for separate markets and we have found banner advertising to be very successful but tailoring plays a big part and speaking to the consumer in their way of thinking.

He added, “Microsoft is excellent value but 90 per cent of our business is still with Google.“

PPC marketing involves 44 route specific campaigns targeted within 50 miles of each airport and involving 47,000 keywords.

“We have to think about the long tail, so to bid for a generic term such as ‘flights Ireland’ is generic and expensive, but ‘flights Manchester-Sligo ‘ is too specific despite costing less. We find that the mid-way works best, with the likes of ‘Flights to Dublin/Sligo/Cork’.”

The site also carries a blog that Lewis claims the search engines love but admits can be high maintenance to update with two new pieces of fresh content a month.

“Inheriting a site can be as much a challenge as building one from scratch but there have been two main areas where development has been key – communicating to our customers about our destinations and making sure all aspects of the booking system are up to scratch.”

The airline has also implemented what it calls an ‘Online Touch Strategy’ which aims to engage with customers through both e-mail and SMS reminding them in advance to check-in and or car rental and hotel offers. On return, passengers are also sent an online survey to gauge customer feedback.

“We’ve learnt some key lessons,” Lewis revealed. “Everyone should find out who their account manager at Google is and make them their new best friend. They are experts in optimisation and PPC and have been invaluable.

“But we’re learnt not to simply rely on PPC, but that we need banner advertising as well. In the UK people click-though less but buy more, but it’s the opposite in Ireland.”

He added, “Monday is the most successful day for e-mail marketing, backing up the ATL we place over the weekends. We’ve discovered no one books travel at home and increasingly consumers use their work e-mail, rather than personal accounts, to receive promotions. As a result the peak booking period being is between 12 and 2pm.

“We’d love our mail to be more targeted than it is, but we’re restricted by technology. So we deal with this by tailoring our content to be relevant geographically rather than it being generic.”

With air travel up for Aer Arann and the industry in general how concerned is Lewis with the airline’s CSR credentials?

“We’re in a lucky position as we fly turbo props. They used to be considered unsexy but now they’re in great demand because they’re lighter, use less fuel and has less of a carbon footprint than some jets,” said Lewis.

“It was never our long term plan to have the fleet that we have but it’s worked out very well for us.”

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