If I have to name the advertiser of 2011, I don’t have to think long; it’s easily KLM. The reason? The Royal Dutch airline launched numerous digital platforms in the past year, experimented wildly with social media, and turned Twitter into a mature customer relationship channel. If there’s one company that has fully embraced the extensive possibilities of digital communication, without forgetting about both its commercial and communication targets, it’s KLM.

Though KLM had been experimenting with digital before, its digital communication strategy took a serious turn in April 2010. The Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted and caused a big ash cloud to paralyze European air traffic, forcing KLM to cancel almost all flights from and towards Amsterdam airport. It was a nightmare for KLM, cause it couldn’t deal with the overwhelming amount of passengers that demanded to know how this would affect them. KLM’s call centre was overloaded and the website down. That’s when the airline decided to deploy a team that would primarily communicate via Twitter and Facebook to give constant updates on the situation. A move that proved successful.

The airline discovered how useful social media are in talking directly with the customer, while simultaneously reaching the masses. On top of that the positive feedback from the passengers made KLM realize that it also humanized its brand image. It was this insight that created enough believe within the organisation to introduce a dedicated social media department.

The airline discovered how useful social media are in talking directly with the customer, while simultaneously reaching the masses

The first time KLM used a social medium as primary advertising tactic was in the fall of 2010. KLM briefed Boondoggle Amsterdam to “do something with Foursquare”. The agency came up with ‘KLM Surprise’, a very simple idea; passengers that checked in on one of the many Foursquare locations inside the airport were given a present, relevant to their journey. This was filmed and seeded online. Even though Foursquare is a niche app and only 28 passengers were given a present, it generated lots of buzz on Twitter and was picked up by a bunch of tech and ad blogs. The tone was set.

But it’s not just social media. After all, in principle social media are merely a ‘word of mouth’ accelerator, rather than a concept in itself. A more integrated idea using digital was brought to market by Tribal DDB; a concept that crowdsourced digital Delft Blue tiles with a personal slogan. The tiles were physically printed on a plastic foil and attached to a Boeing 777. This ‘Tile & Inspire‘ campaign attracted 120.000 participants from 124 countries. It not just generated buzz, but also increased KLM’s brand preference in some key markets. Quite an accomplishment when the average consumer doesn’t really care what company he or she flies.

social media are merely a ‘word of mouth’ accelerator

Around the same time Tribal also created a platform for KLM, called Travlr: a website that inspires travellers by aggregating geo-tagged photo’s and films from the web presented on a navigable map of the world. When you search for a certain activity — e.g. hiking — the map show where it’s done. The perfect brand utility to sell KLM flights. What I especially like about it is that KLM started it in beta, showing it is not afraid to experiment and that it understands the digital age. At the same time it proves KLM understands the importance of continuous forms of communication.

 What I especially like about it is that KLM started it in beta, showing it is not afraid to experiment and that it understands the digital age

Another tactic was the announcement of KLM’s 24/7 Twitter service – get an answer within the hour and a solution within the day. Amsterdam agency Lemz came up with a ‘Live Reply’ on Twitter by filming 140 KLM employees from the top of a hangar, each physically holding up one letter of the complete answer to some of the tweeted questions. The 64 personalized films answering the more original questions were posted on Twitter and thus naturally shared through this channel. Within no time it became the trending topic on Twitter. The medium was the message.

Finally, KLM’s most sexy concepts of 2011 was the ‘KLM Passport‘ app “turning journeys into movies”, created by Muse and Ice Mobile; an app that uses selected travel pics on your iPhone and turns them into a richly animated movie. A brand utility that makes KLM relevant and loveable, and on top of that an experience brand, rather than a simple seller of airline seats. Something that not just gives KLM a state of the art image, but also builds a long term relationship with its passengers.

What finally stood out in KLM’s comms strategy is that it works flexibly with a wide range of specialized agencies; selecting the best in town to create very different forms of communication, while at the same time making sure the different tactics have more or less the same look and feel and tone of voice. Quite an opportunistic strategy – from an agency’s point of view – but if KLM is one of the more innovative communicators in the market, this might just become the new standard.