American Airlines is suing GoGo, and it’s a huge opportunity (for American, that is — GoGo is pretty much screwed)

UPDATE on 1/11/17: JetBlue partners with ViaSat for a solution, and the opportunity is more plausible now than it was when I first wrote this.

GoGo Inflight Internet is horrendous. No one is really sure how the most awful wifi service imaginable monopolized the market and signed contracts with twelve of the largest airlines on the planet. All we know is it’s here now, we hate it, and we’re all pretty much done with it.

American Airlines agrees. In fact, they’re so done with GoGo that they filed a lawsuit to terminate their contract, in favor of the dramatically faster ViaSat (they have since temporarily retracted their lawsuit while GoGo attempts to comply with their standards, but it’s likely these two will end up in court again).

Lawsuits are insanely expensive. This study indicates that Fortune 500 companies spend roughly one third of their profits on litigation, and GoGo has made clear they’re not giving up one of their biggest contracts without a fight. This could be an expensive battle for American Airlines.

But you know what? I’m an American Airlines flyer, and I’m pretty happy they’re suing. As I write this, I’m sitting on an American Airlines cross-country flight, and Medium has notified me that my draft article has failed to autosave three times in the last five minutes because the wifi is so awful.

At the end of the day, American Airlines is trying to do right by their customers by providing faster internet to American flyers. If they make that obvious — and if they rally everyday travelers like me to their cause — they can use this as an opportunity to frame themselves as the airline that fights for the little guy, and chip away at their competitors’ customer base by creating loyal new brand ambassadors.

Because here’s the thing: flyers are just as pissed off at GoGo as American is.

American can harness that frustration. They can capitalize on their top-down lawsuit against GoGo with a whole new stream of potential AAdvantage members, brand ambassadors and social influencers. They can use the moment as an opportunity to take stock of their support and build true brand loyalty among individual customers. And relative to the cost of corporate litigation, they can do this at hilariously low cost.

They do it by organizing.

Yes, organizing. Not the spring cleaning, listening to old Fleetwood Mac records while filing four years of back taxes type of organizing, but the Barack Obama “Yes we can” social media kind of organizing.

But how?

By learning about their people

There’s really no better use of social media than finding people who are mad about a thing and mobilizing them to action. That’s even more true when it’s so blatantly obvious who those people are.

American Airlines is sitting on the biggest, most obvious list of people who hate GoGo in the world: AAdvantage frequent flyers. These are folks who likely fly a few times a month — often for business — and slog through endless service interruptions while they work (according to AA, I’ve racked up 7,841 miles in the sky the last two weeks. I’m positive I’ve spent at least 4,500 of those miles clicking refresh on my browser). For frequent flyers, the novelty of flying has worn off — they just need to get their jobs done, and GoGo is the biggest obstacle in their way.

But what does American know about their AAdvantage members? Well, American Airlines generally knows their email addresses, how often they fly and where they travel. I’d also imagine they’ve purchased additional demographic and socioeconomic data to figure out what a typical frequent flyer looks like to make life easier for their marketing team.

But I doubt they know more helpful social media data points — data crucial to a public awareness effort like this. They don’t know which of their members have more than 1500 followers on Twitter or what they do for a living according to LinkedIn. They don’t know which of their member are socially influential, and which are activists. They don’t know which of them are retweeting them every day, or which of them also follow Delta or Southwest.

But they can.

Now’s probably the time to tell you I’m going to plug my company pretty hard. I work for NationBuilder, a software platform that helps leaders and organizations build movements. We’ve built the technology used by all types of leaders—from political parties to national associations and international brands — to help engage with their followers and drive them to action.

One cool feature in NationBuilder is that it allows users to match email addresses to social media accounts. This means American can easily import their AAdvantage accounts and see exactly who their frequent flyers are. They can find, for example, those people who have keywords in their Twitter bios like “CEO,” “Director,” or “Principal,” have more than 500 Twitter followers, and live within 150 miles of GoGo’s Chicago headquarters. They can find their AAdvantage members who retweet American frequently and who comment on their Facebook page. In short, American Airlines, in just a couple days, can identify the new generals for an army of angry flyers.

And finding Delta’s people

But more people are mad at GoGo than just loyal American Airlines customers. The passengers of other airlines with crappy GoGo deals are pretty pissed, too.

Among those airlines? Delta.

I’m sure American Airlines wishes they had access to Delta’s list of frequent flyers. Unfortunately, NationBuilder can’t quite help them there. But we can come close.

American Airlines has 1.26 million Twitter followers (US Airways, recently acquired by American Airlines, adds another 565k to that total). Delta follows close behind with roughly 1.1 million.

Within NationBuilder, users can import the Twitter followers of anyone following anyone. Yes — anyone. The Pope, Donald Trump, CNN. Anyone. To be clear, that means American Airlines has access to a map like this of all of Delta’s Twitter followers:

It gets crazier. If they click those bubbles, they can see Delta’s people individually, like this:

Everything you see above? It’s all searchable. That I live in Los Angeles, the word “technology” in my Twitter bio, that I follow both American and Delta. American Airlines can use any of it to find similar people who they want to target.

They can run a search to cross reference their own followers and frequent flyers with those following Delta (or United, or Virgin Atlantic, or any of the other major airlines associated with GoGo). They can specifically find the most influential people by targeting for those with high Klout scores or lots of followers, and they can target by specific career types with keyword searches of Twitter biographies for words like “software” or “tech,” as opposed to “finance” or “accounting.”

Activating those people & poaching Delta in the process

Let’s hold off on Delta’s followers for just a minute. American Airlines now knows exactly who their most socially influential frequent flyers are. They know where they live and where they like to travel, but they also know how they’re engaging with AA and other airlines online, what they say in their bios, and the extent of their social networks.

Firstly, let’s break that group into two universes: high influence and low influence. The break here can be pretty simple: those with 1000+ Twitter followers or a 60+ Klout score are high influence, and those with 1000- followers or a 60- Klout score are low influence. Those high influence folks are going to get some serious time and attention, so AA can set the bar fairly high.

Then, we can find people with specific keywords in their 140 character Twitter biographies. For instance, keywords like “tech,” “developer,” “software,” or “programmer” can be used to identify people in the tech sector, whereas folks with keywords like “travel” or “vacation” are probably using their AAdvantage memberships for leisure. They can get more creative by targeting people by city or travel destinations, but that’s gravy. In the end, AA will end up with categories that look something like this:

Because we’re still talking about AAdvantage members, American Airlines has the email addresses of everyone in all these categories. Whether or not they want to spend social capital on a corporate advocacy email is their prerogative, but a highly targeted ask based on social media engagement about an issue which personally impacts every recipient will most definitely result in outstanding open, click-through and activation rates (at your leisure, read this interesting case study about doing similar targeting in the political arena with excellent results). Even still, they have other options if they choose not to use blast email to target these people — we’ll go into those options in a minute.

Regardless of how AA is reaching out, the asks themselves are easy. Those in the “low influence” category are driven to anti-GoGo coalition pages (IE “Tech leaders for better in-air wifi”). Those pages all come with built-in social share prompts and recruiter links, which means people who then share the coalition link on social media are tracked as they happen.

That’s hard to explain without visualizing it, so take a look for yourself (the most recent action is listed first, so read from the bottom to the top):

Did you see what happened right there? An AAdvantage member Tweeted a link, which was seen by a whole bunch of people who aren’t necessarily AAdvantage members but are following that person on Twitter. Then, one of them said, “yeah, my friend Will and American Airlines are totally right — GoGo sucks. I’m going to help them fight against it.”

American Airlines can become the airline people fight for. That fast.

What starts as public awareness effort quickly turns into one of the most effective marketing tactics of all time: AAdvantage members are recruiting new potential AAdvantage members by themselves!

Those people who sign petitions who are not already AAdvantage members funnel into the marketing pipeline — maybe, they, too are offered bonus miles for signing up and recruiting new members. Maybe not. Maybe the impact of oh my gosh, American Airlines is actually doing something about GoGo is enough. The iterative nature of what success looks like is up to American Airlines.

By activating highly influential people

It goes without saying, but those people originally identified as “low influence” who do a good job of recruiting lots of new petition signers should be promptly moved into the “high influence” category.

The ask for high influence targets can be even more aggressive. Not only should they be asked to sign petitions or join coalitions, but they should be asked to evangelize on behalf of American Airlines. Can you recruit 100 people to fight back against GoGo?

Those people can even have their own personal recruiting web pages — complete with their pictures at the top and some anti-GoGo language, with a call to action for their friends below. American can send them daily or weekly leaderboards that show the recruiting activities of their peers (social pressure is a mind-blowingly effective way to keep the wheels turning). If American Airlines is so inclined, it can even offer miles for members who hit certain recruiting benchmarks.

GoGo’s stock tanked 27% in the days after American Airlines filed suit. Can you imagine what would happen if American Airlines activated the largest network of frequent flyers on the planet to mobilize against GoGo?

But we’re not done.

Poaching Delta

Now that AAdvantage members are at work recruiting and sharing, public outcry is loud, and American is presumably seeing insane press for their outreach effort, it’s time to begin poaching.

Remember the 1.1 million Delta Twitter followers? We’re going after them now. We’ll target them with the same categories: level of influence and reason for flying. This time, though, we’ll filter against our AAdvantage members, so we make sure we’re targeting people following Delta who are specifically not active American Airlines customers.

A search might look something like this:

We don’t have their email addresses, so we can’t email them, but that’s not a problem. Twitter changed its advertising platform to allow users to import lists of Twitter handles, and NationBuilder has the handles and the targeting tools. So we’ll just export our Twitter lists and import them as campaigns on Twitter for promoted Tweets. Amazingly, Twitter charges advertisers per engagement — not per impression — and costs are cheaper when people engage with Tweets more frequently. Our highly-targeted universes will likely be quite cost-effective, especially in the wake of the public spat with GoGo. And it’ll bolster American Airlines’ potential new frequent flyers, as Delta’s marketing team watches all their Twitter followers talk about how awesome American Airlines is.

What just happened

At the start, it seemed like a bad moment for American Airlines — they signed a contract at the genesis of in-air wifi that went horribly wrong. They had to threaten lawsuit with a business partner and publicly admit they made a mistake.

By organizing, though, American Airlines can turn a bad moment into an incredible opportunity to mobilize their own people, to recruit new AAdvantage members, and to build a public movement that frames American Airlines as the airline that sticks up for its passengers.

And if they choose to do something like this, they would be exactly that type of airline, because GoGo has deleted drafts of this article three times since my flight took off four hours ago.

I am a Director of Politics & Advocacy at NationBuilder, where I help leaders use technology to build and grow relationships. I mostly work with federal and statewide campaigns and PACs, national advocacy organizations and presidential campaigns. Follow me on Twitter here.