(Social Media) Sir Richard Branson has never been slow to transition his business. What started as a bootstrapped mail-order record retailer that he founded in 1970 is now an empire of more than 300 companies in 30 countries that span diverse industries such as music, travel, health and beyond.
Well before commercial space travel is economically viable, Virgin Galactic is already selling $200,000 tickets to space.
So, too, has Sir Richard Branson been quick to transition to the social web with a personal style. Where most corporate blogs still house formal announcements, the Virgin Group website hosts a blog written with Branson’s first-person flair. Many of them read like diary entries.
Q&A with Richard Branson
When did you start using social media? How has the way that you use it changed since then?
Virgin as a brand is naturally conversational. We like to chat with our customers to see how things are going and what we can do better. So for us, using social media feels very natural. I started to get active in 2008, first because of Virgin America, whose guests are quite active online (the airline is based in the Silicon Valley) and whose fans expressed their enthusiasm for the airline online even before they started flying. But social media is also beyond business people want to know what’s meaningful. So I use social media to share what philanthropic causes and campaigns are important to me and Virgin Unite [the non-profit foundation of Virgin Group]. Our companies do it too. For example, Virgin America’s #flyfwdgiveback sale on Twitter drove lots of donations to educational charities in a very short window of time.
Why is it important for the head of a company to have an independent social media presence?
It’s very important because there are so many Virgin companies globally who each do different things, and my current focus is philanthropy. While I’m still active with the companies, I spend a great deal of time with Virgin Unite and have seen how social media can spread awareness about how we use business as a force for good. It also allows me to share the lessons I’ve learned in business, as people are always keen to find ways to be better at what they do.
You keep a blog on the Virgin Group website. What inspired you to start doing this?
My first company was a student magazine so it felt right to use the blog to share entrepreneurial insights and tips and share the stories of other entrepreneurs, both in the profit-making sector and not-for profit. There are many entrepreneurs out there who are looking for fresh ideas and to exchange feedback, and the blog on virgin.com is a great place for that sort of exchange.
What is the most interesting or consequential Twitter exchange you’ve ever had?
“It’s not that hard to do, and it’s fun to share what I’m doing and who I’m with.”
I first realized that Twitter would change how we communicate back in 2008 when I did an interview via Twitter with the L.A. Times at 35,000 feet from onboard Virgin America’s first-ever Wi-Fi flight. I thought at that point, you can have any sort of exchange in 140 characters or less, no matter where in the world you are. That made me realize just how much the medium was changing and also the message.
To make an understatement, it seems as though you have a lot on your plate. How do you have time to tweet?
Well, it’s not that hard to do, and it’s fun to share what I’m doing and who I’m with, be it at a Carbon War Room meeting with climate wealth entrepreneurs, the Grand Prix with Rihanna, checking out Virgin Galactic space vehicles with future astronauts or raising money for the London Marathon and equally fun to hear immediately what people think. Social media overall the comments on the blog and Facebook, Twitter allows me to hear what people are saying on a daily level about each business and the brand too the good, the bad and everything in between. It’s important to take the time to listen.
How has Virgin Group or its companies used social media internally?
The airlines use it a lot with its employees I know, and they train them on how to use it to help their guests. We’ve found that sometimes their guests are more likely to tweet about a problem than tell their in-flight teammates, so Twitter can actually help deliver real-time guest service. They are also exploring internal platforms like Chatter or Yammer there are so many innovations in social media, I can hardly keep up!
What advice would you give to other company leaders about how to develop a presence on social media?
Be authentic and organic. It can’t be forced or it won’t work. And most importantly, have fun.
By: Sarah Kessler