For the last few years, airlines and other travel companies have tried to figure out what to do about social media. Since the advent of TripAdvisor in 2000, suppliers at one industry conference after another were warned that they should not ignore the phenomenon. "It's out there," speakers would say. "You can't ignore it." But suggestions about the appropriate response were uniformly vague.

A new report by Steven Frischling and Addison Schonland of Innovation Analysis Group tackles the problem head-on. Titled "The Airline Industry & Social Media - A must-have strategic guide for airline marketing and sales," the 62-page report aims to show airline executives what social media can accomplish for them and to walk them through the process of establishing a presence on Twitter, Facebook and other virtual venues.

Airlines can't be blamed for not intuitively knowing how to get a handle on the concept, the authors noted. "Twitter, Facebook and MySpace were never designed to be business tools," Schonland said. "And it's still so new. It's still proving itself in so many ways."

But several airlines have shown that in the right hands, social media can indeed become a powerful tool. While brand awareness is often the initial goal, there are other benefits to be had.

Southwest Airlines, for example, has an active Twitter team that acts on customers' problems before they escalate into complaints. The report notes that retired chief executive officer Herb Kelleher attributes the reduction in the airline's U.S. Department of Transportation complaints to this quick intervention. The report provides a summary of the dos and don'ts of social media, as well as a rollout plan.

If any single event illustrated the need for airlines to understand the power of social media, it was the experience of a Canadian band whose instruments were callously mistreated by United Airlines baggage handlers. After seeking restitution in vain for more than a year, the band posted a music video titled "United Breaks Guitars" on YouTube in July. At last count, the original video had been viewed more than 5.5 million times. The video has been reposted on sites like Facebook countless times.

The IAG report, produced in association with the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation, analyzes the behavior and experiences of several airlines on Twitter, the current hot social medium, and identifies the good, the bad and the sadly mistaken ways in which it is used.

The first lesson to be learned is that a presence on social media "cannot be created with a view to quickly turn it into a revenue stream," the report says. "Social media is about relationships first. These systems work on referrals." "Airlines are jumping in and out of Twitter because they can't figure out, 'How do we jump in and make money?'" Frischling said. But they can't just "jump in to say, 'We're here!' They need to interact fully."

The burnout rate on Twitter is "significantly high," he said. "One of the big problems is lack of resources. Another is airlines' inability to determine who this project 'belongs' to: Is it the marketing department, communications, customer service?" The reality, he said, is that the effort "needs to span all those departments. It can't be kept in a silo."

Many airline executives, faced with the daunting prospect of learning the Twitter "language" and protocol of # and @ and RT, do what they did when they got their first VCRs: They ask the nearest kid to set it up. Schonland and Frischling found a number of major airlines that entrusted their Twitter accounts to college interns. "Of course, in September, the interns all go back to school," Schonland noted. Interns also are not usually empowered to make customers whole when problems arise; often, they may not even know where to seek help.

The IAG report cites one major U.S. airline that joined Twitter in early August, sent out its first tweet five days later and never responded to the same tweeter more than once. During the last week of the month, 231 complaints about the airline appeared on Twitter. In addition, 186 direct questions were sent to the airline via Twitter. Yet it sent out a total of five responses.

The carrier missed 231 opportunities to address complaints and 186 opportunities to respond to direct questions made in a public forum, the report said. The complaints and question simply went unanswered.

While answering all the questions and complaints can be an impossible task, the report urged airlines to endeavor to address some of them based on priority and validity. In contrast, JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America have a high level of interaction with their followers and develop a level of loyalty among them. For example, JetBlue is interacting frequently with purchasers of its All-You-Can-Jet pass, which offered unlimited travel between Sept. 8 and Oct. 8 for $599. JetBlue encouraged other tweeters to follow the pass users as they traveled and tweeted. United takes a different approach, using Twitter to distribute distressed merchandise, which it calls "twares" (for Twitter fares). They tend to sell out quickly.

Twitter is more effective than e-mail for these purposes, Schonland said. "E-mail is too long, it has all the graphics, it doesn't get to the point quickly," he said. Twitter, on the other hand, is like "Ding on steroids," he said. Ding is Southwest's application that delivers short-term deals to users' desktops. The phenomenon of social media is a moving target, making it tricky to determine how to allocate resources. Notably absent from the report is any mention of Second Life, once the hot new thing just a few years ago.

The love-it-or-hate-it quality of Twitter could also send the medium into cyber-afterlife, "but there will always be something coming up behind it," Frischling said. "Airlines need to be there when that something shows up."

A copy of the report can be obtained at:

iag-inc.com. Price: $475.