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WestJet's Web czar has customers a-Twitter

Greg Hounslow of WestJet.

Rosa Park for The Globe and Mail/rosa park The Globe and Mail

What are Winglet Wednesdays? If you're a WestJet fan following the airline on Twitter or Facebook, you already know it's not a chicken dinner. That's when WestJet employees post a photo taken from the window of a plane and invite customers to do the same. Stunning views of the Rockies during descent, bumpy storm clouds and sunsets pour in.

"With mobile and smart phones, everybody has a camera on their phone now," says Greg Hounslow, the emerging media adviser for WestJet Airlines Ltd., Canada's second largest air carrier. "It's something we've been doing with great success all through 2010."

Mr. Hounslow takes care of social media – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs – for the Canadian airline, which flies throughout Canada, the United States and the Caribbean.

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"Our online customer experience is a true reflection of what you'd expect in real-life," says Mr. Hounslow. "We strive to make any type of interaction you have with us, whether it's on the website, Facebook or Twitter, a positive, fun and friendly experience that you'd expect from WestJet."

Of course, not every customer is having fun, and social media is a very public forum for complaints. But Mr. Hounslow says the airline wants to hear about it all.

"Our guests are not afraid to tell us what they think, so we're definitely learning a lot from them through social media," says Mr. Hounslow. "One of the benefits is that it's an unfiltered way to get that feedback. Every business will have a hiccup along the way and how you deal with that is important. If you can show that you do problem-solve and do address issues, that's a benefit if it's out there in social media."

The biggest benefit to the company, he says, is that it offers one-on-one connections with customers in the place that they choose. Since they already have a connection on the phone, in the airport and on board the aircraft, this is one extra touch point.

"We're having conversations in social media, finding out what people are interested in, what they're doing, if they have suggestions for us," says Mr. Hounslow. "We listen to what they say and at the same time, we're sharing what we do as a company."

So what are people looking for?

"They're looking for some fun and that's something we're happy to provide," says Mr. Hounslow. "They're looking for certain information, questions and answers about their upcoming trip. They want to share their experience with us, whether they had a great experience or a challenge along the way. As well, you can't deny, people are looking for a deal."

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What hasn't worked in social media is when the company has been too promotional.

"There's a fine line out in social media between selling and being out there in the conversation," says Mr. Hounslow. "What we've learned from social media is to evaluate what it is that people are looking for. If we say, we'd like to highlight this part of our business or this focus, it's not necessarily where people are looking to spend their money."

WestJet's long term social media strategy is to be one of the foremost travel company involved in social media in Canada, Mr. Hounslow says. The short term strategy is simply to have some fun, sell some plane tickets and show people where they can go on vacation. The company recently invited customers to post photos of themselves in their Halloween costumes in exchange for discount codes.

Despite a customer base of millions, only tens of thousands actually communicate with the company on social media on a regular basis, but that group is influential, says Mr. Hounslow.

"The influence of social media is very similar to word-of-mouth," says Mr. Hounslow. "The power of social media is that with one click of a button, you can talk to 40,000 people. There is a magnified voice in terms of your actual opinion."

Yet, he maintains, feedback and comments from the customer who is not involved in social media is as important as the person with 100,000 people following them. The airline's biggest feedback mechanism is still its website, where customers can fill in a comment form.

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"All customer complaints, whether online, by phone or social media, go to the same team dedicated to responding to customer complaints, and investigating the situation if necessary and getting in touch with the guest," he says.

His advice to other companies considering social media is to jump in with two feet.

"There really is no other way to do it," says Mr. Hounslow. "A lot of companies just trying it out are worried about what's going to happen and losing control. But one of the beauties about social media is that you don't have a lot of control about what people are going to say about you. To be out there and be part of the conversation speaks volumes about your company. It's very important."

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