Content Marketing All-Stars Q&A: Brooks Thomas of Southwest Airlines

By NativeAI / January 29, 2018

Tell great stories.

Southwest takes that often heard—and extraordinarily effective—advice to heart. The airline excels at creating content that engages, compels, and inspires. Over and over, the company produces pieces which tell extraordinary stories about its customers, its employees, and its brand. 

How do they do it? Recently we chatted with Brooks Thomas, Social Business Advisor at Southwest Airlines, to find out.

Check out the full Q&A below:

Q: Starting broadly, what role does digital content play for Southwest? Why are you
creating it?

A: Content plays a big role for us because it gives us the ability to tell a wide array of stories.

We pride ourselves on having the best employees in the industry and the best customers in the industry. Telling their stories authentically—I know that word is cliché—is what we seek to do.

We have both employees and customers sharing so many interesting moments; from trip planning, to the Southwest experience, to the lasting impact travel leaves. We want to harness all that and tell emotional stories.

Q: What is the team like that is pulling together these stories? 

A: It’s not a single team, this really is a company effort.

We enable any Southwest employee who has a really good story to be able to tell it. We provide the platforms for them to share it on, and we’ve got teams like Social Business—which I reside on—curating those pieces.

We and the Social Customer Care folks are constantly harvesting customer and employee stories. Often that process starts with something as simple as a mention of Southwest on Twitter, or Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn.

We look as an enterprise – it really does transcend individual teams – how to distribute those stories internally and externally. Content at Southwest drives a larger narrative that extends beyond where it was curated. We look for ways to integrate it in other channels, in training
opportunities, and shout-outs from leadership during major news and announcements.

Everybody here, in every team and in every city, is part of telling our story. That’s how it should be—everyone involved is part of the Southwest story.

Q: What are the mechanisms for employees sharing stories? Which platforms do you use to share and find stories?

A: There are a couple of different ways, but the one that is the most practical, and maybe the
most obvious, is our robust internal online groups, particularly on Facebook.

Employees can go in and tag the right person with their story, and depending on the type of content it’ll make it to the right team. It’s a hub-and-spoke model for sharing.

We’ve had these Facebook groups for five or six years now and they’ve become very popular. People learn over time who to tag within the company. We’re like a family at Southwest; name almost any city or airport and I could tell you the name of somebody who is eager jump into action and help.

Social has helped to cultivate that company community. Friendships that used to be infrequent – “Hey I’ll see you a couple times a year because we work on opposite sides of the country” – can now be sustained digitally. Now people are able to constantly share really cool stuff with each other, which magnifies their relationships and also helps us cultivate an
environment where the sharing is constant.

Q: We’re big fans of the Southwest Stories on the website. Can you talk a bit about how that area came about and what it is?

A: It has a bit of an unusual origin story.

Back in 2004 and 2005 there was an A&E show called Airline which featured Southwest employees. We didn’t have any editorial control of the show, we just believed that our people would do the right thing and Southwest would be shown in a positive light.

And it did; after each episode we would receive an influx of applications from people who wanted to work for us.

When the show went off the air we experienced a big decrease, because the stories became much harder to find. Company blogs weren’t a big thing back then, but we launched one so that we could keep storytelling.

Over time the space grew to include video and became a much bigger thing. About a year-and-a-half ago we relaunched it as a community. We wanted it to be not just the stories we tell, but a discussion with peer-to-peer sharing; people helping people


Q: Another great offering from you guys is 175 Stories. Can you talk about what it is?

A: That has been a fabulous effort from our advertising folks in conjunction with our
advertising agency of record, GSD&M.

We’d had the tagline “Every city has a story” peppered through our offerings for a while, but the idea hadn’t received the structure it deserved until the creation of 175 Stories. We called it that because that’s how many seats our new Boeing 737 MAX 8 holds. That aircraft went into service in October, which synched with our timing for a fall campaign.

175 Stories is essentially a combination of a lot of different storytelling efforts, but mostly involves our social content curation and advertising. The effort tells the stories of all the different people you might find on a flight. Some are real stories and some are produced commercials, derived from real situations.

We wanted to take that whole theme of “behind every seat is a story” and showcase it. We also wanted to highlight our coined term “transfarency” and show how we separate ourselves from the pack with two free checked bags—as long as weight and size limits apply – no change fees, and other similarly unique Southwest offerings.


Q: How do you measure the success of a piece of content? Which metrics do you pay close
attention to?

A: It depends on the piece; where it is coming from and how it fits into the greater puzzle.

If it’s a piece that has some duality—for example, if it’s supposed to be building brand affinity and also encouraging people to apply for a job—then we want to be able to measure against both goals.

Typically, we’re putting out content because we want to build awareness around something, or we want to build brand affinity, or we want to inspire people to take action; whether it’s booking a fare, applying for a job, or simply engaging. Whichever of those is relevant drives the metrics we analyze.

Q: Finally, do you have any personal favorite pieces of Southwest content?

A: I’ll give you a newer one and an older one.

The older one is from a few years ago: I got a voicemail from a woman, Maraleen Manos-Jones, saying there was a crisis. She was in Albany, NY, and said she had a beautiful, healthy butterfly that had just emerged from its cocoon late in the season. She was afraid it wouldn’t successfully migrate south because by the time it got to around Kansas City in the midsection of America the temperature would be too low for a butterfly to survive.

So, she was asking of we would fly the butterfly down to San Antonio to be released in a botanic garden there. 

We ended up doing it. We took her from Albany through Baltimore and down to San Antonio. We pitched the story to the press and by the time she got to the botanic garden in Texas there were throngs of cameras just waiting for this butterfly to be released. It was amazing, the story got picked up domestically and internationally.

We cheekily called it the “butterfly effect”: if we could raise awareness about something like climate change, or sustainability, or environmental friendliness, with one donated ticket—one butterfly—then we’ve done our job. In hindsight, seeing all of the coverage, we would have been crazy to pass on it, even though I’m sure many people thought we were crazy for
pursuing it.



The newer story involves a man named Earl Richards, who is a World War II veteran and describes himself as the happiest guy in Albuquerque.  He is also a huge Southwest fan. He sings for customers as they board; he asks to pass out snacks. He just loves the company.

So, we organized for him to come to our headquarters and get the royal treatment.

He was so taken aback that we would do this for him; he got choked up and was so thankful.

It’s a fun story and very representative of our customers. People take so much pride in associating themselves with us. That makes Southwest as much theirs as it is mine.



Read more: How to use Editorial Analytics to increase Audience Engagement

Written by NativeAI / January 29, 2018