Winning Instagram - The TSA Way

  • by , Columnist, March 27, 2017

Creating compelling and original content for social media is a challenge for most brands. In travel, we are, at least, gifted with the use of exotic locations, and a domain in which people have interest or passion. But nonetheless, it’s hard to consistently come up with material that can continually divert an audience and prompt interest in what a brand has to say in a busy social feed.

So you’d think that the TSA, the unloved guardians of air travel security, would make unlikely teachers for a masterclass in social media marketing. But under the guidance of their social media manager Bob Burns, that is exactly what has happened. Burns attended SXSW this month to speak to a rapt audience about how the TSA went from a standing start to becoming Rolling Stone’s “#4 account to follow” on Instagram.

Burns, a former musician who became an airport TSA officer after 9/11, though he presents himself with a self-deprecating and everyman demeanor, has a keen understanding of what makes people take notice in social media. His simple formula is “Weapons + Cute Dogs = Instagram Gold,” a policy that is executed with some style. Burns is fortunate in that he has a couple of ready sources of content. 



The first is the goldmine that is the TSA’s incident report system. All intercepted items must be photographed, and thanks to the unbelievable things that some people think it’s okay to take on a plane, this provides a rich stream of content. Burns’ favorites include a tomahawk attached to a replica grenade, some huge blocks of heroin lovingly wrapped in Christmas gift paper, a home-made replica suicide vest, a keg of gunpowder intended for blasting tree stumps, and any number of live firearms.

The second is the people (but more specifically the dogs) who work at the TSA, and humanizing the man behind the badge is one of the TSA’s main social objectives. Hero posts include retirement announcements for TSA’s working dogs (fun fact: they are invariably adopted as pets by their handlers) or stories of the good work that TSA agents do in the community. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes content as well – hundreds of left-behind laptops piled high in a back room at Newark, and a menagerie of sad stuffed animals forgotten by children.

So what does the TSA have to teach the rest of us about success in social? I think there are a couple of key points to take note of:

  • Forget branded content – your mission first and foremost is to create something that will stand out from the feed and be able to compete on the same terms as commercial or media content. This means creating a point-of-view that can gain traction in today’s meme-friendly environment – the more surprising, heart-warming or OMG, the better
  • Recruit from the shop floor to create authentic content. If you want to create a warm and relatable presence, your best bet is to find someone who can tell true stories that get to the heart of what makes any business special. More than any head office social media team, they will be fueled by real stories and characters that will inspire travelers.
  • Connect stories cleverly: the TSA is smart in connecting the stories about the crazy items they find to practical advice about getting through the airport. For example, the gift-wrapped heroin led to some sound advice about not wrapping presents in hand baggage, as the TSA frequently has to open them so they will need to be wrapped again. And a bizarre bullet-studded Mad Max-style face mask led to useful advice on how replica weapons, even replica bullets, can’t be taken on board. Pulling in viewers with arresting or amusing imagery, and then connecting that to a real product story without over-selling is a key task for social content.

These tactics have helped score an unlikely win in the battle for credibility and share of voice in social media, and elements of their left-field approach could be helpful to avoid becoming just another brand with nothing really interesting to say.

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