Web exclusive: DMNews speaks with Chris Vukelich, VP of distribution and e-commerce for OpenSkies

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Chris Vukelich
Chris Vukelich
DMNews sits down with Chris Vukelich, VP of distribution and e-commerce for OpenSkies — the new airline launched by British Airways last week.

Q: How big a role does e-commerce play in the overall marketing mix for OpenSkies?

A: It's pretty significant, which is no surprise considering travel is the one industry that embraced digital long before anyone else. We have an interesting distribution opportunity at OpenSkies because it's essentially a brand new airline. It has an online reservation system and the ability to take direct booking online, but because it's a part of British Airways it also has distribution opportunities presented by that company — all flights show up in all the British Airways systems, and our strategy includes what British Airways is doing online. 

Q: What is the general e-commerce/digital strategy — that is, what are the top focal points for OpenSkies online?

A: The OpenSkies direct channels include our Web site, our call center and our concierge desk. Very specifically, the highlights on the digital approach are simply that we built what we think is a good Web site that's easy to use.  We want to offer a very simple user experience and have a straightforward approach. As far as driving traffic to the site, search is key — both natural and pay-per-click — so the idea of building the site to be visible in search was key. We want to build natural growth over time, and the paid stuff jumpstarts that. We believe in taking advantage of the latest ad-serving capabilities, such as storyboarding.

Q: What is storyboarding?

A: We talk to a person numerous times as they move along the Web, telling the OpenSkies story where the target customer is likely to be. First, we may talk about the feel of the airline, and then the next ad shows off the cabins and then the staff and so on, so the storyboard approach gives an impression of us over a period of time. 

Q: Where do you find the best audience for these ads?

A: We do a lot of ad optimization. The beauty of digital media is that you can optimize, which you can't do in traditional media. In the online world, you can absolutely measure what's working with one particular channel or one particular media opportunity. The trick to this is not just about slapping out online messages but relevant messages in a contextual sense and talking to people when they are likely to be thinking about traveling.

Q: Can you give an example of this?

A: Yes, our blog is one. We were building an airline in a very short period of time, and we needed to run the gauntlet of government approvals. In that period, we were not permitted to sell anything, so we made the decision to launch a blog in January. Part of the approach is that there are going to be conversations taking place about you on the Web, so you might as well get actively involved in shaping it. As word got out that British Airways was launching OpenSkies, there was a lot of speculation and rumor, and we thought it was important to communicate what we were doing. By the time we got government approval in May we had 75,000 visitors or so to our site who knew we were coming. That's part of our digital strategy: play in the buzz of the Web. Everybody has an opinion and a blog, and we want to participate. We generally post to the blog every week.

Q: What campaign work have you done?

A: We only started marketing at the end of May, so the digital work we've done to date is brand building, creating an awareness that OpenSkies exists, and we will continue to do that for a period of time. In that case, digital is just one prong in the overall marketing and communication strategy. As we evolve, we'll become a lot more tactical.

Q: Who are you targeting with online communications?

A: We have communicated with British Airways customers in the Executive Club online and introduced a bonus mileage offer for members. We also sent an e-mail campaign to readers of The Fashion Journal because a fair number [of its readers] are likely to travel between New York and Paris. We've also targeted groups by industry or by other affiliation; we've been working on business travelers. That's why we reach out to bloggers — we invited some bloggers on a flight so they could communicate to their own, which is better than advertising.

Q: What's the next step for OpenSkies?

A: The problem with digital is you can never forecast where it's going. What I'm interested in doing is creating an image of my airline and selling OpenSkies, and the Web allows me to do it cost effectively. Stuff will be around a year from now that we don't even know about yet, but we will continue to take advantage of the opportunities that digital marketing presents. Behaviors have changed and conditions have changed. When I first got into digital it was about CPM, then it moved aggressively to CPC and cost per transaction and now it is almost back to CPM because media owners recognize their value. The industry ebbs and flows, so you need to be nimble — the minute you think you understand it, you're doomed.

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