October 27, 2004
Case Study

How Southwest Airlines Sold $1.5 Million in Tickets by Posting Four Press Releases Online

SUMMARY: It's time for you to change your press release writing and distribution tactics radically. More than 27 million consumers actively surf Yahoo News and Google News each month. It only costs a single $80.00 fee to post your release on both these sites. And if your release is written with search engines in mind, your results can be outstanding. Find out how Southwest's PR department tested four releases with a directly measurable result -- not just in awareness, clips, or readership, but in immediate online ticket sales:

Since the dawn of PR, corporate communications execs have yearned for a measurable way to tie a press release to actual sales.

You can hand your CEO a pile of clippings and estimated reach counts, but at the end of the day, proven sales are what matters. You can create formulas showing how increased brand awareness ultimately results in sales; but again, it's almost impossible to prove a particular release made the sale happen. Until now...

According to Nielsen/NetRatings, In June 2004, 21 million people visited Yahoo News. Plus, Yahoo News feeds much of MSN.com's news too, so you can add in a couple of million more eyeballs.

And just one year after launch, Google News now exceeds 6.5 million visitors in an average month.

Getting your release into searchable news sites is a great way to catch press attention -- more than 80% of reporters surf search engines looking for news to write about. But reporters are only a tiny percent of this audience. Most search news site visitors are end-consumers.

Southwest Airline's PR department began to wonder if there was a way they could reach that consumer audience directly through search news sites. And if so, how to measure results?


At the start of 2004, the team set up a five-step process to conduct and measure trial search PR campaigns...

Step #1. Research keywords so you know what people are looking for

First, the team used online tools such as Wordtracker.com and Overture's bidding research tool to find out what terms consumers tend to search for. These tools are mainly used by pay-per-click search marketing, but there's no reason why a PR campaign can't also benefit from them.

There were some surprises - for example, while 12,000 searches were conducted for "cheap airline tickets" on an average day, more than 51,000 searches were conducted for the term "cheap airfare."

Two of the terms that were most popular were Southwest and Southwest Airlines -- trademarks and brand names can drive significant traffic.

Step #2. Copywrite press releases to match search terms

Although a press release should appear to be newsworthy (rather than a marketing piece) to maintain credibility online, the team trained themselves to optimize release wording subtly for search news sites.

They'd write a standard release, then edit it, seamlessly including specific search terms (such as "cheap airfare") in the headline and several times in the body copy, especially in the first paragraph. (See below for link to examples of four optimized releases.)

Step #3. Have special hotlinks on hand, and use them wisely

Many online news readers won't scroll all the way to the bottom of your press release to find a clickable link or response number. Southwest made it easier for them by routinely including a hotlink at the end of the first paragraph of each optimized press release.

Following best practices in online marketing, these links were not the generic Southwest.com URL. Instead, the PR department worked a deal with the Web development department to quickly and easily get unique hotlinks for releases on demand.

These unique links were not only trackable -- so PR could tell how many people clicked on them and what actions they took on the site (including purchasing) -- they were also deep. This means a release about a particular offer would link directly to the site page where a visitor could take advantage of the offer.

Step #4. Distribute via a wire service that hits the Web

Most standard wire services, such as PR Newswire or BusinessWire, include full search news site distribution as a free add-on to regular distribution even if you choose to have your release sent to just one city or region in the real world.

Southwest used their standard wire service to send out the tweaked releases. Everything was the same, including the cost.

(Note: If your main concern is search news site distribution, an online-only wire service such as PR Web can save you a bit of money and get the same online results as the big guys. PR Web charges $80.00 for Yahoo and Google News distribution.)

Step #5. Test a variety of releases

Next, starting in February 2004, Southwest's PR department began a series of tests with optimized releases. Here are notes on three of them:

Test A. Philadelphia Launch

PR Specialist Angela Vargo explains, "It was our first new city launch since September 11th. Philadelphia is a huge city and we wanted to get the word out and get high visibility."

The team decided to optimize the release for the popular terms "airfare to Philadelphia" and "low fares" which appeared in the headline and body copy. The release hit the wires February 22nd. Test B. Spanish-language launch

To promote Southwest's new Spanish-language online ticketing capabilities, the team sent two releases on June 5th, one in English and one in Spanish. For extra search pop, the English language release included the term "en espanol" in the first paragraph.

Test C. July 15th -- PR Hell Day

"You don't want your news to get buried," says Vargo. "We typically never send more than one release in a day. If there's big corporate news, you don't piggyback another release."

But this July 15th the PR team had no choice. Southwest's investor relations department sent out two releases on quarterly earnings, plus the company's CEO unexpectedly resigned, forcing corporate communications to issue a release too. In the meantime, marketing had scheduled a major fare sale announcement featuring tickets as low as $29.

The PR department had to get all four releases out on the wires at the start of the day.

They figured the marketing release had no hope of breaking through the buzz from the other news. But, they optimized the release carefully for their company name, added a special hotlink in the first paragraph, and crossed their fingers.


Over the past eight months, Southwest has been able to directly track more than $1.5 million in online ticket sales to optimized press releases, including the ones described above.

"With each release we've seen increased revenues," notes Vargo. "One single release almost equaled two million alone."

Which one? PR Hell Day.

Turns out that, intrigued by the buzz about earnings and the CEO resignation, loads of consumers searched news sites for more info. Since the marketing release about low fares was the only optimized release, it showed up above the rest at the very top of results. Since top links are 50-150% more likely to be clicked on than #2 links are, the marketing release was more widely read... and acted on.

The first release about the Philadelphia launch directly resulted in a respectable $80,000 in ticket sales, plus stories in 14 media outlets, including The New York Times.

The two releases for the Spanish-language reservation system launch directly resulted in $38,000 in ticket sales.

Vargo says results tended to start out with a sharp sales hike for the first few days, and then dribble in slowly for 30-60 more days after that. On average her doubling date (the time by which you can estimate total orders by doubling currently received orders) is roughly 72 hours.

Her advice to other PR departments, "Everyone should imbed measured links to their site in releases. These tactics and tracking are beneficial for everyone, not just companies with products to sell online. You can show leadership that these releases are driving attention to your site. Sometimes awareness is just as valuable as revenues."

Useful links related to this article:

Samples of the press releases mentioned above, plus screenshots as they appeared on news search engines: http://www.marketingsherpa.com/swa/ad.html

SEO-PR -- the specialist search marketing agency that helped Southwest Airlines with their campaign tactics and strategy: http://www.seo-pr.com/

Southwest Airlines http://www.southwest.com

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