By Colin Jordan
Flight training can be a tough industry. Overhead is high; the customer base is relatively small; margins are often thin. But you’re in this business because you love aviation, not because it’s easy money. So you work hard to minimize costs and maximize growth.
Chances are you’re doing a decent job of managing costs. Frankly, that’s the simple part. You know which expenses are necessary and which can wait, and you’ve figured out how to get the most out of what you spend each month on payroll, insurance, and maintenance.
The growth side of the equation is more complex. Everyone knows that a penny saved is a penny earned, but no one knows exactly what will happen when you spend a dollar on marketing. Maybe you’ll earn $50 in return. Or maybe you’ll earn nothing at all.
When marketing outcomes seem so uncertain, it’s hard not to treat the growth side of your business like a wager in a Vegas casino. You hold your breath, and then cautiously lay a few chips down on the table with one question ringing in your mind: How much money can I afford to lose?
However, you know that’s not the right mindset. You can’t succeed in business with a cost-control strategy. A business must grow if it is to survive, and a smart marketing plan is crucial to growth.
So what’s the right mindset? Begin by thinking of marketing as an investment instead of an expense. Costs are just something you watch to keep them in check. Investments are carefully considered, nurtured, and increased so that they will yield greater returns.
Next, remember that good investments are built on accurate data. The more challenging the market is, the more granular and complete your data must be. To put it in aviation terms, you can’t expect to fly safely in IFR conditions with VFR information. Success in the flight training market requires more than looking for visual cues, putting your nose on the horizon, and trimming for level flight. You must manage and interpret the wealth of data that is displayed on your instrument panel.
In practical business terms, this boils down to three fundamental actions. First, start with what you know to be true about your clients, the current market conditions, and the more profitable areas of your business. Your marketing plan should be built on that knowledge. It should focus on the aspects of your business you especially want to promote, and take into account who your potential customers are, and where they can be found. Brainstorm with trusted and knowledgeable advisors about the factors that are important to your customers when they are considering a purchase, and what would be barriers to the sale. As you continually develop and fine-tune this information, you will become much better at targeting your marketing plan so it reaches the right people with the right message at the right time.
Second, your plan must have specific purposes and goals. Ultimately, the goal may be to sell a private pilot course, a professional pilot program, or an airplane, but there are usually intermediate goals that must come first. Maybe those goals are to visit a page on your website, become a social media follower, come in for a tour, or take an introductory flight. Maybe you want them to join your email contact list, follow your blog, come to your event, or contact you by phone or email for more information. Your purpose is to cultivate a relationship with the potential customer, and you begin by inviting them to take a tangible and measurable step toward your business. In time, you’ll encourage them to take additional steps that will lead them to become an actual customer.
Once you know who and where your potential customers are, and what action you’d like them to take, you have to work at gathering data on their journey from awareness of your existence, to first contact, to becoming a client. That’s where key performance indicators (KPIs) come in.
For instance, let’s say you have some search engine optimization (SEO) work done, buy an ad on someone else’s website, or just tried boosting your social media activity yourself in hopes of bringing people to your website. How will you know if your efforts are working?
You won’t really know if you’re achieving your goals unless you can measure them, so you must become familiar with some of the digital tools available for gathering data on website visitors, social media activity, and email opens. Your first digital KPIs will likely be information garnered from these sources.
Tracking visitor interactions with your website is relatively easy. You can get a free account with Google Analytics, and the code can be uploaded and installed on your website in just a few minutes. Once in place, the program will begin collecting volumes of data on visitor demographics, behaviors, and sources, and all of it is displayed graphically on your account dashboard to help with interpretation. This information can be very revealing and interesting.
If your aim is to attract more international students from Europe or South America, your KPIs might be the visitors’ physical location, gender, and age group, the last page they view on your website before leaving it, how long they spend there, and whether they have emailed you.
After spending a few months learning what activity is typical for your website with these KPIs, and what path through your website these visitors tend to take after they first arrive on your homepage, you can easily detect positive or negative changes in the KPIs in response to your marketing plan. Armed with this information, you can then begin shaping visitor behavior by making regular small adjustments to your website.
Along the way, you can explore other data points and learn what websites are referring visitors to your site, what percentage of your visitors are new or returning, what portion of them found you by a web search versus going directly to your site, and much more.
There are also many free and low-cost tools for tracking increases in social media followers, impressions, likes, and shares. These insights will allow you to quickly see how your customers and others respond to news and content that you post, yield valuable information on keywords for SEO, and give you excellent information on your customer’s likes and dislikes relative to your industry.
Finally, as you build and maintain your contact database of potential, active, and former customers, find a good software application or service that will allow you to target your email campaigns at persons who are most likely to be interested in your offer. The application should include features that track exactly who opens and reads those emails, or clicks on any links to webpages, contact forms, or other content from there. This will give you very precise information on where a potential customer is in the relationship process with your business, and who may be moving closer to purchase and therefore needs additional attention.
Of course it’s also important to track offline contacts as well, such as telephone calls and drop-ins, and track referral sources and closure rates on things such as introductory flights so you can develop an even more accurate picture of customer referral sources, the average time it takes for a potential customer to decide to schedule an introductory flight, and the percentage of introductory flights that then convert into student pilots. Focus on creating methods for building simple tracking procedures into your daily contacts and follow-ups. Then use what you learn from your marketing plan to improve those numbers over time.
Finally, you should plan to use both your online and offline tracking of customer and transaction data to build an increasingly complete picture so you can regularly update and better target your marketing plan. This will help you improve overall recruiting, closure, and retention rates. It will also provide opportunities for increasing customer lifetime value as you find ways of marketing other products and services to former students after they’ve completed their flight course and checkride.
If collecting and analyzing this data seems like a lot of work, you’re right—it can be. But you can start small, and expand your data gathering as you begin to see which KPIs prove to be the best sources of business intelligence. Reasonably priced software programs can track and automate these functions for you, or you can hire a digital marketing company that specializes in aviation and let them worry about the data while you focus on charting the course forward for your business.
Whatever path you choose, don’t make the mistake of treating your marketing investments as if they were expenses. Dollars spent on marketing should net real and measurable returns that can be tracked, analyzed, and improved upon, so that your business can be all that you’ve dreamed.
Colin Jordan, CFI, is the owner of Jordan and Cross Digital Marketing, Venice, Florida, which specializes in aviation business. He took a break from flying but has recently been working to get back into the left seat. Visit the website.