Southwest Airlines Navigates Turbulent Cyber Skies And Links PR To Sales

Company: Southwest Airlines

Agency: SEO-PR

Timeframe: January 2004 - Spring 2005

To be alive in the airline industry today is no small feat; to be thriving in it is a heroic accomplishment. Bankruptcy news has plagued the likes of Delta,

Independence Air and United Airlines, but Southwest Airlines has ducked that trend and enjoyed continued profitability. To further promote its success, the

domestic carrier - known largely for its affordable prices - teamed up with search engine optimization company/PR firm SEO-PR (San Francisco) in 2004 and instigated a

measurement juggernaut: linking online press release dissemination to sales via major search engines, including Yahoo News, Google News and AOL

News. The result: an estimated $2.5 million in ticket sales generated solely from online releases.

But the distance between points A and B was not so easily traversed, as is often the case with measurement challenges. Greg Jarboe, CEO of SEO-PR, and his team of

practitioners enabled optimized press releases to precipitate measurable sales results for Southwest through a five-step campaign that hinged on a history lesson. Harold

Lasswell, a proprietary PR practitioner from the World War II era, developed a model of communications that Jarboe edited for this new-media age where search engines are channels

of communications: Who seeks what in which channel from whom with what effects?

What sounds like a word-play nightmare translates into a five-step process that can be applied to most any company's PR ROI. Step 1: Research keywords so you know what

people - the "who" in the literary equation, be they the general public or journalists - are looking for in an online press release's headline.

"Audiences are no longer passively receiving messages," Jarboe says. "They are actively looking for what interests them." Researching key search terms can be done easily -

and inexpensively - with tools such as Wordtracker and Overture. Once common words are established, Step 2 - incorporating them into press release headlines - begins.

In the case of Southwest, this meant adding the word "airlines" to press release headlines, as people who search for Southwest alone won't find the carrier in the top results.

Another buzzword: low fares. Jarboe emphasizes the importance of including key search terms in headlines, because landing outside the top five search results drastically lowers

your chance of being viewed.

Step 3 is most indicative of the paradigm shift in pitching press releases: In order to measure results with any degree of certainty, it is imperative to imbed live,

unique links into online documents that will send viewers to the provider's Web site. For Southwest, this step allowed PR executives to promote an airfare sale and see how many

people ended up purchasing tickets based on the issued release.

"Converting traffic to the Web site into leads or sales is what it's all about," Jarboe says, emphasizing that the tactic is useful for any corporation or agency looking to

track online sales. But it's not just a matter of placing links anywhere in the release; they should be incorporated into the body of the text, not hidden at the bottom of the


Next comes Step 4: distribution. Southwest, with Jarboe's direction, used standard online new distributors that allow releases to be tweaked for and targeted at

specific audiences based on region (or any other differentiator). It's not until Step 5 that measurement appears but, as Jarboe says, "If you get the first four steps

right, you actually have something interesting to measure."

By testing a variety of releases using the four previous steps, Southwest was able to determine the its successful press release and subsequently link it to ROI. According the

spokesperson Angela Vargo, it was the July 15, 2004 release, which coincided with news of the then-CEO Jim Parker's resignation. Though the release itself was promoting fare

sales, it appeared first in searches for Southwest Airlines' news because it was optimized; the placement paid off, generating more then $1 million in sales. And the lesson that

began with a little history ended with a glimpse into the future of PR in an online setting.

"PR professionals' biggest competitor is inertia," Jarboe says. "We need to evolve the practice to embrace pitching press releases to algorithms as well as reporters. That's

the art and science that makes PR either useful or irrelevant."

Contact: Greg Jarboe, 978.298.1545, [email protected]