Virgin America's CMO and CIO come together with 'techmarketing'

The airline's IT and marketing leaders stress the importance of collaboration, empathy and teamwork in building effective modern marketing strategy

Virgin America vice-president of marketing, Luanne Calvert (left) and CIO and VP, Dean Cookson
Virgin America vice-president of marketing, Luanne Calvert (left) and CIO and VP, Dean Cookson

Collaboration and empathy with IT is vital for CMOs looking to be effective in the new age of customer-driven, digital conversations, according to Virgin America’s CMO.

Speaking during the keynote opening of the Oracle Interact conference in San Francisco, Virgin America vice-president of marketing, Luanne Calvert, and her CIO and VP counterpart, Dean Cookson, explained how their teams have come together under the tag ‘techmarketing’ to better tap into each other’s skillsets and improve customer experiences.

The pair used the recent launch of Virgin America’s website as an example of the work now being done in partnership, and why marketing today can only be effective if it’s driven and supported by technology smarts.

Calvert pointed out digital channels are core to the airline’s interactions with consumers, and said marketing’s role has changed dramatically as a result.

“Marketing used to be like being a film director, where we controlled the conversation, you could polish things up, it was all one-way, and it was rather more glamorous,” she told attendees.

“Today, it’s more like being a farmer – it’s 24 hours a day, you don’t know what people are going to be doing on Twitter overnight, so you have to be aware of it, and there are these seeds we need to plant in conversations. These are going on between our guests, consumers and the brand. We need to put those thought starters out there as well as have a product people want to talk about.”

Calvert cited a number of recent campaigns where Virgin America has strived to trigger conversations by tapping into social and digital channels, all in the name of making flying a more enjoyable experience.

One example is the ‘My Virgin Experience’ social campaign, where consumers were asked to take photos of themselves flying on the airline’s planes, which were flashed on a billboard in Times Square, New York. The campaign generated significant social engagement, as well as consumer generated content, Calvert said.

The airline’s VX safety video is another example of trying to kickstart a digital conversation, Calvert said, and has had nearly 10 million views since its launch.

“When we launched the video, we treated it like a movie, with a premiere, interviews with the director, our dancers went on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and it was supported by an email campaign with attributed revenue,” she said. “We also had a safety video fare sale, which generate half a million dollars in value. The idea that a safety video could generate that kind of content for us was pretty astonishing.”

Calvert then moved on to overhauling Virgin America’s website, stressing the importance of the technology team in its creation and efforts to change the travel booking process. The pair began work on the new site two years ago and shared revenue management and design.

While Cookson said his priorities were a responsively designed site for all devices and touchpoints, as well as a superior ecommerce experience, Calvert said protecting customer data was a key consideration for her.

To ensure the site met everyone’s needs, the two teams built a personal relationship and worked in partnership, a key to minimising animosity, Cookson said.

“Reaching into each other’s sphere of influence and understanding the importance of both sides is a big part of how we work well together,” he added.

“Dean knows things that I don’t, so getting together to create effective marketing is crucial,” Calvert continued. “Having collaboration and working in a startup mode is vital to this.”

Cookson stressed the role of today’s CIO is about helping the business do things faster, smarter and better not just for marketing, but all lines of business.

“Tech is great – I’m a geek at heart ... but it’s important to make sure the technology team helps the rest of the business get its job done,” he said. “Our business needs marketing to do more, to be faster and better. The only way marketing can do more with a flat budget is by being able to lean on tech as a force multiplier for getting things done.

“If we are able to support each other in getting the job done, then when it comes to going for budget and priorities, we have an understanding of what everyone needs.”

Cookson compared the changing relationship between IT and marketing to the struggles IT operational executives have had with developers over recent years and the rise of the ‘DevOps’ methodology, which emphasises constant collaboration, communication and information sharing.

“DevOps has been an attempt to straddle the line between development and operations. Together, they make something more reliable, that’s faster and gets to market easier. ‘Techmarketing’ is extending this concept into the rest of the business and about getting out of this tug of war between marketing and technology teams,” he said.

Nadia Cameron travelled to Oracle Interact as a guest of Oracle.

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