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Full Nelson: A Web Presence Needs Sizzle, For Shizzle

Customer engagement is the future of the Web. For the bold and the willing, successful ideas are there for the trying -- just don’t try too hard.
The city of San Francisco has created an impressive profile of city data and given it back to its citizens as part of DataSF.org . There, application developers take that data and craft mobile applications that can, for example, tell users when the next bus is coming, based on location. It can feed crime data by location. Any piece of data the city can access, it makes available, and developers are taking these data feeds and building brilliant applications like Routesy and Crimespotting and EcoFinder. Mayor Gavin Newsom's goal is to make his city's citizens into participants.

Of course, things often go awry. Much was made of Microsoft's Windows 7 parties, an idea the company thought could generate a viral buzz around the launch of Windows 7. Microsoft created a YouTube video showing party-throwers how to prepare for the throngs who would descend upon their homes to get glimpses of (and then purchase copies of) Windows 7.

Seemingly modeled after some sort of Food Network show, with an attempt to appeal to Dockers-wearing tools (just a guess), this was the epitome of marketing gone wrong -- a disastrously straight-laced idea dressed up in trappings of hip, for the ultimate in banality. Like the school nerd with bling, or a Tupperware party with Crystal Meth favors and Akon playing in the backyard. Luckily for Microsoft, most observers laughed, thought it was cute, and chalked it up to Microsoft being Microsoft. Kind of like your grandmother spewing a few Snoop Dog lines.

The ideas are there for the trying, for the bold and the willing. American Airlines, try this out. If someone’s a frequent flyer, the airline should, in theory, know that person's routes, favorite flight times, frequency of upgrade requests (and success), how early he checks in online or in person, how often he calls the Executive Platinum desk, and how he spends his earned miles. When frequent flyers sit in business class, American Airlines gives them an entertainment system.

With all of this data, the airline (any airline, hell, any company) should be able to create an array of helpful services. "Listening" to that data should provide key insights. What about offering the holders of the entertainment system a way to offer feedback, book their next flight, order a meal? In exchange for feedback, the device's users could earn more miles, and send free drinks back to a lonely co-worker in economy class. If an upgrade wasn't available, the airline could guarantee at least an exit row on the next flight the flyer takes using that particular route within the next month.

Being an Executive Platinum (or whatever other class of flyer exists) could put them in a club where they could connect with other frequent flyers, perhaps ones that fly similar routes or conduct similar types of business. When booking with other airlines, those elite flyers could be given a chance to let American Airlines match or beat that price. Flyers could become "mayors" of certain routes, offering tips to other flyers on everything from best travel gear to books to adapters. The airline could run programs that allowed flyers to pool micro-mile installments and donate them, collectively, to charities of choice -- say, flying foreign students home during holidays, or sending missionaries to places in need.

What if American Airlines aggregated some of its data and provided it back to its flyers (anonymized, of course): data on the number of flights missed, bags lost or damaged, delays due to weather, the number of sold-out seats, the number of upgrades, the number of successful and unsuccessful standbys, airline pilot turnover, flight attendant years of service. Would this expose data AA wouldn't want exposed? Sure. But it would also create more informed passengers. It would let an airline listen and engage with its customers.

The predictability of the reward is illusive, but the airline industry and many others like it aren't setting the world ablaze. Maybe it's time to shed those Dockers and dance naked for a while. But leave the parties to the future virtual farmers of America, for shizzle.

Fritz Nelson is an Executive Editor at InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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