The widget, dubbed Travel Bag, offers features that let Facebook friends share personal tips and experiences through tools like Favorites, Travelogue, and Trip-O-Vent. American Airlines hopes that by learning more about consumers, it will be able to provide relevant information about services and destinations, rather than deliver a bunch of postal junk mail or email spam.
"We want to understand how consumers interact with one another," says Billy Sanez, American Airlines director of advertising, promotions and corporate communications, who admits the widget has become a "bit of an experiment."
American Airlines is working with Microsoft to advertise the Facebook widget within Hotmail.com and Window's Messenger, along with sites like Digg.com. It also will be marketed through a few ad-buying networks and smart ad buys that will allow it to serve ads through Facebook. Other social network sites are also being considered.
The multi-phase campaign also will include AAirmail, the company's monthly email newsletter, as well as other internal channels.
Social media is about joining the conversation and freely sharing information, but the application also puts marketing in the hands of consumers by allowing them to generate lists of best restaurants, gyms, and museums on Favorites. The Travelogue feature lets Facebook users post journals about trips, post photographs, share anecdotes, and keep friends updated.
Trip-O-Vent creates a visual countdown to important events, such as upcoming trips, graduations, and weddings. An additional component allows Facebook users to search for public events by destination, so those who have free time or feel bored now know the happenings around town.
Sanez, 34, who has been tinkering with Facebook apps for the past eight months, says: "There's no controlling a widget. You just put it out there and hope it spreads virally."
The widget's viral nature becomes the marketing tool by which American Airlines hopes to learn more about consumer preferences for travel destinations, restaurants and leisure activities. If someone shares with friends a list of places to see in Barcelona, Spain, for example, the carrier might send both the customer and friend information on services and flights to the city, along with a 10% discount coupon.
Sanez says American Airlines won't bombard consumers with traditional advertising on Facebook because it defeats the purpose to create community and negatively affects the brand. The airline knows that information on trips to Paris, Rome or London must remain informative, not intrusive, if the carrier wants to reach consumers in the online world.
The widget, which took a mere two months to create, was developed specifically as a Facebook application, but there are plans to make it available across other social network sites with the hope that it will create buzz across a wide demographic. The application doesn't solely target today's youth, but rather the focus remains on appealing to all.
A direct link to AA.com also allows consumers to check for low fares, make reservations, view AAdvantage miles, check gate and arrival or departure information, and get the particulars on destinations from their unique profile pages.
Recently, the carrier also introduced features such as mobile phone ticketing, and a tool that enables some customers to change their reservations online up to three hours prior to a scheduled flight departure.