All the articles I have read on this started with the “airlines go social” angle, and I get it. Start here with this from Springwise, but you can also find it here from MSN Money and here from Mashable.
But I think this points to a much more interesting opportunity.
In the same way that many brands use Facebook to corral their audience rather than go to the effort and expense of setting up their own community spaces, airlines can now offload their seatfinder applications to Facebook (where friends connect) and LinkedIn (or, as I like to call it, Facebook for business people). This means the real heavy lifting is done by the consumer: do I really want the window seat when I can chat up someone who works at a company where I want to be hired?
In reverse, it’s a little trickier: do I want someone targeting me for a seatmate based on my professional background or music preferences? (Answer: Not me. I am a silent flyer. I carry a French newspaper with me and whip it out and start reading at the first hint of being seated next to a talker. If they try speaking to me, I look at them in pleasant bewilderment, shrug behind a half-smile, and return to the paper.)
For airlines to fully leverage what Facebook and LinkedIn can do for them, they should create destination-specific pages that allow users to choose their flights based on who else is going to be on that flight. Flying to a TED conference? Let me see if Nathan Myhrvold is going to be on this one…
In practice it would not be as simple as this, but the underlying opportunity I believe remains valid: When any online commerce process can be fully integrated with a social media experience, the end result is going to be better for the consumer, and less expensive (ultimately) for the purveyor. The notion of the funnel that leads people into becoming customers will finally die, or at least will be significantly revised to accommodate for a more emotive buying impetus, and a less linear transaction completion.
As The Carpenters taught us decades ago, we’ve only just begun.