Last month, when a Ryanair passenger tweeted a complaint about the lack of a window by her exit row seat, she might have expected Europe’s largest airline to offer an apology using language straight out of a customer service manual.
In response to the window complaint, Ryanair’s account shot back, reposting the passenger’s picture with a sloppy circle drawn around the tiny, round window on the exit door as if to say, “there’s your window.” According to a LinkedIn post by Michael Corcoran, the airline’s head of social media, the reply racked up more than 55 million views, mentions in dozens of news articles and a shout-out from Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show.”
It was just another day for Corcoran’s team, whose mission is to be the “most talked about brand on social media,” Corcoran said in the post. At the core of their strategy: Don’t sound like the other companies.
A little Gen Z, ‘a little bit bolshie’
On Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, the company has endeared itself to millions of fans with its crude call-outs of British prime ministers, subtle digs at customers and general bucking of the typical corporate voice. The voice of the account doesn’t just sound human. It sounds like a hilarious member of Gen Z: fluent in the latest memes, ready to pounce on bad takes and eager to troll for likes.
Felicity McCarthy, a social media consultant based in Dublin, said Ryanair’s social media strategy revolves around being “unapologetic” and “a little bit bolshie,” a British word that Macmillan Dictionary defines as “deliberately creating problems and not willing to be helpful.”
In many ways, McCarthy said, the airline’s social media persona complements its business model — to be unapologetically cheap — as well as its bombastic CEO, Michael O’Leary. Known for his combative personality and off-color quotes, O’Leary has said his airline’s business strategy was inspired by a drunken night in Dallas with Southwest Airlines co-founder Herb Kelleher.
Building on Southwest’s model, Ryanair sells flights across the continent for as low as 10 euros, and O’Leary has said his goal is for the airline to eventually offer some flights free. Ryanair makes its money off expensive in-flight purchases and a bevy of fees for everything from carry-on bags to changing the name on your reservation. O’Leary once famously floated the idea that Ryanair would charge passengers for using the bathroom.
The airline bets it can convince passengers to ignore its service shortcomings when fares are cheaper than a train ticket or the cost of gas. The gamble has paid off — Ryanair revolutionized Europe’s aviation industry and now carries more passengers than any other airline on the continent.
Kerry FitzGerald, another social media consultant in Dublin, said O’Leary’s “maverick approach” to business “seeps down” to the company’s marketing and PR departments.
“It’s probably a bit astonishing in the States because you don’t know Ryanair,” she said. “They just seem like this crazy brand. … Here, we’re just like ‘ah, typical Ryanair.’”
Evolution of trolling
Ryanair was later than many of its competitors to social media, claiming in 2009 that it would spurn traditional networks like Facebook and Twitter.
When it eventually did join those sites, its early marketing approach amounted to “any publicity is good publicity,” but that has matured over the years by incorporating humor, McCarthy said. The airline also bifurcated its Twitter presence to focus its main account on marketing, while directing customer service inquires to a separate account, @askryanair.
Ryanair declined requests to interview a member of its social media team. However, Corcoran offered insights into the company’s strategy in a webinar with the software company ContentCal last October. At the time, he said there were six members of his team who divide their work between planned marketing campaigns and reactive content, replying to other posts and joining viral trends.
this gotta be a Gen Z admin😂😂— happyfeet (@kupamanyere1) August 23, 2022
The social media team is given rules on “spaces to stay away from,” Corcoran said, but is otherwise empowered to create and post without the sign-off of higher-ups. This allows them to vary their content, jump quickly on trends and use the “brazen nature and tone” the company has become known for.
Corcoran said taking a self-deprecating tone is a direct appeal to Gen Z’s sense of humor. Off-limits is “anything that feels too corporate” or “blandish,” he said. “When it comes to what is considered traditional content, we will avoid doing — it is a no-go for us.”
While much of Ryanair’s banter on social media is aimed at competitors with higher fares or passengers who complain about its service, the company sometimes takes aim at figures and issues unrelated to the aviation industry.
In recent months, Ryanair’s Twitter has trolled tennis player Novak Djokovic’s anti-vaccine stance, former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s parties during covid lockdown and embattled current Prime Minister Liz Truss.
Building a ‘human connection’
Jumping on existing trends positions Ryanair as part of the human-to-human conversations that are already happening online, McCarthy said. She pointed to a campaign over the summer in which Ryanair tweeted consistently about Formula 1, jumping into niche social media trends that only racing fans would know about.
“It helps them to connect with different audiences on more of a deep basis,” McCarthy said. “It builds that human connection or that sense of the brand having personality — that brand being a person on social that people can almost feel that they’re getting to know.”
Because the posts feel casual, like another social media user produced them, consumers continue the conversation on their own, often boosting the viewership of the airline’s original post into the millions. For the airline, it’s essentially free publicity.
“[Social media is] not just a dumping ground, it’s a place where you can actually really connect with future audiences and beyond in a way that traditional platforms will never, never do,” Corcoran said in the ContentCal webinar.
Risks of roasting
McCarthy said there are other organizations in Ireland taking a similar approach in using social media in “humanizing the brand,” including the Irish National Police and sports betting company Paddy Power, where Corcoran formerly worked in marketing.
It also follows a broader trend of official accounts bringing more voice and personality to their social media. Even the White House has started to get more feisty on Twitter; recently hired deputy director of platforms Megan Coyne popularized the state of New Jersey’s Twitter with snappy, dry humor.
“More and more brands are realizing that if you can get that human [voice] right, you get a lot of popularity from it,” said Adam Fisher, a content editor at MediaFirst, a communications training company in the U.K.
Still, he said, moving away from a typical corporate voice on social media can be risky, especially with social media users quick to “cancel” a brand for any misstep. Fisher pointed to Burger King UK’s since-deleted International Women’s Day tweet, “Women belong in the kitchen,” as an example of how attempts at humor can go wrong.
FitzGerald said other airlines have started to try to follow in Ryanair’s footsteps on social media, but she predicted they will ultimately be reined back because they “don’t have the cojones to do it.”
Fisher said brands must ask, “does that humor fit with your brand identity?”
“It fits with Ryanair quite well,” Fisher said. “If [British Airways] were suddenly to go down the same route, would it fit? Probably not.”
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