How Southwest Airlines Uses Social Listening to Produce Compelling Videos

By: Linda Rutherford, Southwest Airlines

March 3, 2017

New digital platforms are driving the evolution of communications departments into media conglomerates, generating graphic, video and other content for both broad and targeted audiences.

The agenda spans from an annual horizon of what we need to communicate, all the way down to what just happened a moment ago online and whether there is an organic way to join the conversation. So, Southwest Airlines is exploring how to create content from conversation trends, born out of data and presented in a timely manner.

Let me break down the phenomenon with a recent example. We were seeing questions and chatter from customers online about what happens to flights during winter weather operations, such as snow storms and de-icing situations. We sent a crew to Denver International Airport in January with the idea of creating a quick digital video about what happens when we have to cancel a flight after a winter weather storm.

We opted to begin with a video about the process that goes into de-icing a plane. We know our customers looking out the window often wonder what the person in the crane truck is doing and what in the world is being sprayed on the fuselage and on the wings. Who is the “bucket man?”

We ended up getting a great, informational and engaging story about de-icing and loaded it to our social channels and online customer community. And that led to another opportunity. During our filming in Denver, we uncovered a quirky fact about overnight aircraft cabin temperatures and the team turned that story into another video, called “Checking the Temperature.

Southwest Airlines CCO Linda Rutherford

Linda Rutherford, Vice President, Chief Communications Officer, Southwest Airlines

The two videos are examples of our community manager team scouring the comments in our online customer community, Facebook and Twitter and finding a common theme in the feedback data.

Another example is when we talked to our lost and found department. Our original intent was to do a “volume” story based on customer inquiries that explained the number of lost items onboard our planes each year and the process we go through to try and reunite travelers with their belongings.

During our interviews we uncovered two great storylines: First, instead of selling all our unclaimed items for bulk at auction, we actually donate them to The Salvation Army, which made for a great story about how we can turn the disappointment of a lost item into a charitable narrative about how we are paying it forward. Second, we learned there are a number of unusual items left on our planes, from inflatable rafts to prosthetic limbs, which made for another great story about the crazy things our employees find.

Learn more from Linda Rutherford at The Social Shake-Up, which will be held May 22-24, 2017, in Atlanta. Brand communicators from Coca-Cola, Dunkin’ Donuts, the Atlanta Hawks, Arby’s and many more will speak on a breadth of topics from content marketing to measurement to Snapchat strategy.

The lesson? Encourage your content teams to explore when looking to create pieces that have utility, entertainment quality or educational value. What starts as an effort to create a video about one subject can quickly uncover other stories.

Teams should be inquisitive, have intellectual curiosity and a “nose for news.” Short, snackable content is well-received digitally; resist the temptation to have to tell the “whole story.” Our data suggests three short videos of less than a minute that are related (such as about winter weather) but served up as independent content will have better reach and engagement than one three-plus minute video about operating in winter weather. Our team now sees the value in acting like reporters when they go out to talk with our employees about a particular topic, looking to “get the story,” which often leads to another.


Linda Rutherford is vice president and chief communications officer for Dallas-based Southwest Airlines. Her responsibilities include overseeing media relations, crisis communications, emergency response and business continuity planning, community relations and charitable giving, corporate community affairs, public relations, social business, multimedia and visual communication, and legislative communication/grassroots activities.

Connect with Linda: @SWAfollower 

At The Social Shake-Up