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Marketing with meaning: How KLM activates dormant social networks

KLM's Africa and China Clubs, launched in 2007 and 2006 respectively, provide an interesting case study of 'marketing with meaning.'


I wrote earlier that "marketing with meaning" has the ability to "activate" customers. An effective way to activate customers is by activating the dormant social networks they inhabit (often without even knowing it). While social networking has visualized the so-called six degrees of separation, all business transactions have a social component and can be seen as expressions of the underlying social micro-universes, the "worlds within worlds," in which--shifting time and place--individuals travel and interact. As marketers face the daunting challenge of connecting with fragmented audiences that are increasingly split into billions of social atoms populating myriad micro networks, activating dormant social networks is their foremost task.

KLM's Africa and China clubs, launched in 2007 and 2006 respectively, provide an interesting case study. The Dutch airline offers business customers the opportunity to meet fellow travelers who do business with or in either of these two regions, before take-off or during the flight, online and in person. KLM plays the role of the matchmaker and adds value to the otherwise somewhat value-free hours frequent travelers spend at airport lounges. It is the principle of the social networking site Dopplr, applied to the exclusive crowd of business or first-class travelers: connecting travelers who share the same connections. KLM prefilters the club members so that travelers who sign up for the exclusive network are warranted a certain quality of contacts.

The clubs are a win-win-win: trade groups and business offices from the travel regions are provided with a highly targeted way to advertise their services; travelers benefit from a true value-add and a richer travel experience; and, lastly, the clubs bolster KLM's reputation as an airline that cares about its customers. Of course, these networks already exist, they're just dormant. KLM does not make immediate revenue but it generates "social wealth" as long-term equity.

The KLM clubs exhibit all the characteristics of "meaningful marketing" (see chart below):

  • Social: The clubs help people connect.

  • Personal: The clubs are relevant for the people they serve, and the service is exclusive and highly personalized.

  • Storytelling: The clubs make sense of disparate information, perspectives, and events. They facilitate crossing paths by creating--quite literally--a common goal and therefore a joint narrative.

  • Disruptive: The clubs disrupt the usual travel routine; they make it comfortable for business travelers to leave their comfort zone and go off the beaten path to meet new people.

  • Responsible: The clubs generate social capital by bringing together business people in pursuit of related goals. The KLM Club Africa, in particular, has helped African entrepreneurs to get in front of influential business executives (investors) conducting business in Africa.