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Is social media a waste of time for flight schools?Is social media a waste of time for flight schools?

When it comes to social media, we’re all over the spectrum. Some of us love it; some of us hate it. Some of us are eager to use it to help market our businesses and our personal agendas, while others go to great lengths to avoid it, maintaining strict privacy settings and declining every invitation to network or otherwise join the conversation.

Love it or hate it, most of us would probably agree that social media is a valuable marketing tool for a flight school. According to Paula Williams, president and vice president of marketing at Aviation Business Consultants, International, about 10 to 20 percent of new customers are coming to aviation businesses through social media. (See more of her survey results here.) But how well is it working for you?

Many of us have spent some time deciphering the secret language of Twitter, and often we’re left with more questions than we started with. Does social media actually help my business? Does it bring in customers? How should we define return on investment (ROI) when it comes to social media use? Am I using it correctly? Isn’t it all just a bit more work than it’s worth?

Perhaps it is.

Without a strategic marketing plan, experts say, social media use can easily become nothing more than a huge waste of time. "Everyone believes that all companies should be on social media, and companies believe they need to be on social media, but they get it backwards sometimes," says Ian Hoyt, a partner at aviation marketing firm Wilbur, LLC. "Social media is just a portion of digital marketing. Content marketing needs to be the forefront. Content marketing brings ROI, and social media is just a part of that. Social media alone won’t give you ROI."

It’s pretty easy to think that we understand the value of social media when it comes to marketing our businesses or networking with other aviation professionals. But even marketing experts don’t always fully understand what’s going on before their very own eyes. It’s an ever-changing marketing tool, an accelerating freight train, and it certainly isn’t going to wait for us to jump on. So before you go full speed ahead and try to catch up to a moving train, consider your overall marketing plan.

Hoyt says that for small flight schools with a limited marketing budget, it might not be a good use of time or resources to focus on social media. "I would assess where customers are coming from. For small, local flight schools, I’d be inclined to put any budgeted money toward more locally refined digital marketing efforts—maybe digital search ads on Google or Bing or even paid advertisements on Facebook. I’d target the actual demographic and create content strategies around that philosophy," says Hoyt.

Williams agrees. "Many people do what we call ‘random acts of marketing,’ and they don’t measure anything," says Williams. "Social media is like everything else. If you do it casually, you’ll get few results or none at all. Marketing should be anything but casual."

If all you’re doing is social media, and it’s not part of a bigger plan that includes other digital marketing, then you’re doing it wrong, Williams says. "Many people only use part of the equation. A marketing campaign includes three parts: the list, the offer, and the presentation. The only thing social media does for you is the presentation part."

So what should flight schools do? It depends on your budget and your target market. A larger budget might mean hiring a digital marketing manager or at least paying a professional to develop a really good marketing plan. Flight schools with smaller marketing budgets must decide how much time and effort they are willing—and can afford—to invest in digital marketing and how best to leverage limited resources.

Sarina Houston is a flight instructor and freelance writer.

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