Steve Jenkins was waiting for takeoff when he noticed it—his boarding pass for Virgin America Flight 753, bound for San Francisco, was missing his frequent flier number. He could have flagged a flight attendant. He could have called customer service. Instead, Jenkins, the CEO of a Seattle-based gaming company, decided to pick up his phone and tweet.
@VirginAmerica What's the best way for me to add my Elevate # to a flight that I'm sitting on right now (VX 753)?
Four minutes later, Virgin America responded:
Jenkins messaged @VirginAmerica with his ticket details. He was all set before the plane left the tarmac.
"It would have taken me longer to call, go through the whole phone tree, find someone, and authenticate myself," he said. "And if I hadn't done it when I thought about it, I might have forgotten about it."
It was easier—and faster—to tweet.
"Twitter is really good at feeding that need for immediacy," said Jenkins. "Not just the result I wanted, but the tone of conversation that Virgin America's trying to apply to all their marketing. They play different music at check in, their flights look different when you get on—they're going for a different vibe, and that vibe still comes through from their Twitter."
Tweeting – at 35,000 Feet
That's where Tony Amrich and his team come in.
"It's not like you're visiting the doctor's office," said Amrich, manager of social media guest services for Virgin America. "You're going on a trip. It should be exciting and it should be sexy and it should be enjoyable. In the same way it's fun on the flight, it should be fun when you're talking to somebody that's working our Twitter."
As the official voices of @VirginAmerica, the team's goal is to respond in under 15 minutes, but according to Amrich, staffers are usually able to reply in less than five. They have nearly 435,000 followers, and he estimates they send about 50,000 tweets a year, handling everything from seat changes to snack requests. And many of those tweets come from 35,000 feet.
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"Maybe you're mad. Maybe you're not. Maybe you just want something to be different," said Amrich. "But you can talk to us right there, from the plane, using our WiFi. We can actually message the plane and figure out what's going on and fix it for you right there. This is letting us do everything in real time."
Employees are continuously monitoring Twitter for suggestions and feedback from customers—that's how the HBO series "Girls" was added to inflight entertainment. One promotion, Fly Like a Boss, encouraged business passengers to tweet their experiences on Virgin America; those tweets then populated digital billboards.
Another had passengers voting on their favorite cocktails, with the winners making it on the menu. And then there's #nerdbird, a playful nod to Twitter and Silicon Valley culture: a plane named with a hashtag.
Virgin America has built up its social media presence over time. The company was on Twitter before it had a single plane in the sky, and it's become increasingly important to the carrier's business.
"We use Twitter at three points in our basic marketing strategy: at the awareness level, the purchase level and the customer care level," said Luanne Calvert, Virgin America's vice president of marketing and communications. "We want people to share their experiences. We like that it's live-time, that it's immediate. But that's probably even more important when we want to use Twitter to generate revenue. For example, if we have empty seats available for the weekend, we can use Twitter as a way to push a fare sale at the last minute."
Adapt or die
With 200 million active users generating 400 million tweets a day, a growing number of businesses are looking to make the most of their Twitter presence.
"With Twitter, you've got an ad that's intertwined with insight of content," said Adam Bain, president of global revenue at Twitter. "In order to get attention and engagement, you have to be as good as you possibly can. Being loud actually works in reverse."
Companies advertise on Twitter using promoted accounts, tweets and trends, all of which appear prominently in a user's feed. Twitter doesn't charge to post the ads, marketers pay based on the amount of engagement—how many users click and retweet them.
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Faced with shrinking digital attention spans, brands must compete to stay relevant. It's adapt or die, said Brian Solis, principal analyst at the Altimeter Group and the author of ''What's the Future of Business?''
"This is a true customer revolution," Solis said. "Once you become more connected, you become more informed. Once you become more informed, you become more empowered. Once you become more empowered, you become more expressive. And once you become more expressive, you become more demanding."
The Struggle for Relevance
And the pressure to meet that demand has never been higher. When the power went out during the Super Bowl last February, a timely tweet from Oreo went viral.
Recent efforts to duplicate Oreo's success included a barrage of royal baby tweets, many of which inspired eye rolls more than anything else.
"Marketers are looking for real-time moments," Bain said. "This is the one place where, in real time, you can be instantly relevant to consumers at a moment. Whether it be a shared collective moment in the real world or an event that you watch on TV."
From small businesses, like A.J. Bombers burger joint in Milwaukee, Wisc., to bigger brands like NASA and the NBA, the key to a successful social media presence remains the same. It's all about consumer engagement.
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"We do our best to have a really good experience," said Calvert at Virgin America. "We might not have the budgets, but because we have something that's worthwhile to talk about through social media, we can then match and exceed budgets by having other people do the talking for us."
"Twitter is going to be here and it's going to continue to disrupt everything: politics, education, business," said Solis. "It's yours to define, and it's yours to ignore."
As for Steve Jenkins, he had two more positive Twitter exchanges with Virgin America during his trip. When he tried to tweet another airline, he wasn't so lucky.
"I won't mention any names, but it rhymes with Melta," he laughed. "I heard chirping crickets."
CNBC tells the story behind the rise of Twitter, the social media giant whose 200 million active users have made it a fixture at home and around the world. Twitter Revolution arrives Wed., Aug. 7, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
—By Meghan Lisson, Special to CNBC.com.