How Marketers Can Improve the Customer Experience: 3 Learnings from Virgin America’s Long-Awaited App Release

By: Katrina Cho | February 1, 2017 | Mobile Marketing, Push Notifications

There is a lot of noise about transforming marketing strategies from multi-channel to cross-channel and setting up your data and produce to work in an agile way. To get definitions out of the way, broadly speaking, a multi-channel method means incessantly blasting the same marketing message on every channel, in the hopes that your message reaches the user. Cross-channel, on the other hand, involves carefully orchestrating your messaging in a way that ensures you reach the right customer on the single best channel at that specific point in time.

Through the high-pitched chaos, the challenge is to stay focused on your business goals such as driving sales, increasing user engagement, and reducing churn. The key to achieving those goals is to focus on the customer experience that drives these metrics.

Virgin America is a company that understands customer experience and how to delight its customers. It was crowned the Best U.S. Airline in Conde Nast Traveler’s 2016 Reader’s Choice Awards for the ninth year in a row. Interestingly, however, despite touting an extremely innovative and customer-focused philosophy, Virgin America left its tech-focused travelers without a native app for years—until last summer.

During this time lag, Virgin America seemed to be improving the full customer journey at all touch points. With fleetwide WiFi, an energetic check-in atmosphere, and countless modern amenities for comfort and efficiency, an app was really just the cherry on top for avid Virgin fliers.

Even without a mobile app, Virgin America still provided travelers with a great mobile experience. In 2014, it was the first airline to launch a fully responsive and beautiful website that was done so well, it won multiple awards for design. Even with all of the success of the revamped website, it only brought fleeting satisfaction to customers and over time, an app proved to be a necessity rather than an accessory. Marketers can definitely learn from this story.

Here are 3 key learnings marketers can take from Virgin America’s long-awaited app release, in an effort to improve their customer experience:

1. Make a (tough) decision between innovation and security for your brand

Mobile-responsive website homepage vs. new mobile app homepage. I told the Virgin America app in an onboarding carousel that my most frequent destination is Los Angeles. I’m down for LA!


Innovating your product and offerings requires a significant amount of research, validation, and development. Product decisions like the one Virgin America had to make with its app release are difficult because even with all of the work, it can still fail at adoption. Companies end up having two options when making launch decisions:

  1. High-Risk, High-Reward: Launch the product for the innovators and early adopters and take risks on failed adoption but reap benefits of brand presence and market leadership.
  2. Low-Risk, Diminishing Reward: Let other companies take the gamble of launching a product or idea that has not yet been validated in the market. Jump in when there is data firmly supporting the value of investing in it. You’ll get kudos for being the first in the market but you can play it safe and not jump into something that could ultimately waste resources and time.

Virgin America’s brand strategy revolves around reinvention, style, and the highest level of service. This may lead us to think that they would always choose the more innovative and customer-pleasing product paths, but when it came to investing in an app launch, option two was a difficult but likely sound business decision that they needed to make at the time. Still, Virgin America used this setback as a springboard to connect with its audience again and humanize itself.

2. Band together and focus on the customer experience

Whether you are traveling for business and looking for frictionless booking management or simply looking for a stress-free flight across the country to see friends or family, there is a unique customer experience for everyone at Virgin America.

They have worked hard to be known as the best and most innovative airline in the US. Virgin America has executed on this by cherishing every interaction with the customer and delivering holistic, cross-channel communication and service.

Virgin America’s team sees that customers can enter and exit their brand relationship anywhere and anytime so being agile enough to hit the ground running is crucial to capture the customer. A frictionless booking process, thoughtful flight notifications for a stress-free journey, an attentive in-flight crew, WiFi, and entertainment are only powerful if they work in a connected manner rather than individually.

In discussions with my clients who are digital marketers and product innovators coming from growth-stage to enterprise-level companies, we talk a great deal about the pressure to reduce churn and retain repeat purchasers in a customer environment with seemingly infinite ways to connect with them. I believe that a proactive—rather than batch & blast—marketing strategy built around the customer’s behavioral cues and preferences helps marketing efforts produce increased retention through credibility and trust.

It is important to take the most valuable marketing insights and feed them into your product R&D pipeline; this can be the difference between your long-term success and a one-time spike. I encourage my clients to mobilize all teams who are involved with anything related to the customer experience to work collaboratively with one another to share knowledge and create the ultimate customer experience.  

This is required to build a great brand. Customer loyalty will provide you with security during times of adversity and taking risks.

3. Leverage content to powerfully connect with customers

Virgin America delivered the app and tried to make good on the fact that it was embarrassing to be so delayed, technologically-speaking. In fact, they turned the situation into an opportunity for themselves to showcase their PR skills and create something that was both entertaining and memorable. They paired the release with a heartfelt apology and admitted they were, frankly, late. The voice in this campaign had a sense of humor, empathy, and understanding that was also well-executed with a cross-channel approach.

I first heard about the app through an email (I’m a Virgin America customer) and saw it a few times again, all on different channels in a very timely and relevant way from that point forward. As you can see in the images below, they used very clever plays on words and strategic placement of communication. I found digital and OOH ads in areas where it made sense to download the app like in my mobile inbox or right next to check-in where I can use the app to generate a paperless boarding ticket.

Bon voyage

As I write this, I am en-route to NYC on my Virgin America flight, connected to WiFi while watching satellite TV under calm mood-lighting. The perspective gained from my individual customer journey has brought me a huge appreciation for the team at Virgin America who gracefully orchestrates my customer experience from 35,000 feet in the air, on the ground, and of course, digitally.

What we have learned

Technology is evolving quickly and affecting all industries and consumer experiences and expectations. Many marketers are left having to make choices that mean staying relevant or being a brand that is stuck in the past. We all want to focus on creating a compelling brand story but we still need to resonate with a growing (and changing) audience. We can learn from companies like Virgin America for guiding our own marketing and product evolutions. Here are the 3 lessons we can learn from their app release:

  1. Create great products and experiences for the customer that are smooth and complete from 35,000 feet in the air, on the ground, AND digitally—not painful ones with gaps that leave users feeling lost and frustrated.
  2. Success comes from efforts across the whole company. Identify, optimize, and collaborate to produce an amazing experience for the customer.
  3. Pay attention to your brand voice and make every customer-facing feature, event, or announcement an opportunity to connect with your customers and build a brand that cuts through the distractions.

These 3 key learnings are important to execute on an individual basis, but the more meaningful result is that you are committing your brand to provide a solid customer experience that delights and engages customers and ultimately, drives revenue.


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Author: Katrina Cho

Katrina Cho is a Client Strategist at Kahuna. She is inspired to create and execute marketing campaigns that are innovative and results-driven for both enterprise and growth-stage companies. Prior to Kahuna, Katrina worked at Responsys and Oracle Marketing Cloud where she provided strategic consult and direction to implement key marketing initiatives for Fortune 500 companies. In her spare time, she loves to travel and grow from her experiences with new places and people.

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