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There was bad news at the Cargo Network Services conference in Orlando this week for publishers of traditional print magazines and the journalists who write for them.

The unlikely message bearer was Enno Osinga, senior VP cargo at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. Showing a remarkable grasp of social media for someone who is set to retire this year – though he admitted he’d had help putting his presentation together – Mr Osinga said people of his generation still relied on the traditional trade media for their information. “We still need them. But will the next generation?” he asked.

News travels fast in the age of the “information tsunami” and Mr Osinga showed the now familiar film footage of a FedEx delivery man, captured on a security camera, carelessly tossing a package over the recipient’s fence.

It was nothing personal, he insisted; he could have found something similar for any of the company’s competitors. He was simply demonstrating that “if you mess up, you don’t just lose someone’s business, you lose your reputation”. (The clip has been viewed more than 9m times.)

Social media can equally be a force for good. A KLM film showing a heroic dog as a lost property finder has had 19m views. It’s a question of how to harness a force that did not exist 10 years ago.

Mr Osinga quoted the advertising guru who once admitted he knew 50% of his advertising budget was wasted, but he didn’t know which 50%. “With social media you know exactly.”

Schiphol Cargo still needs to persuade commodity suppliers to move their products through Amsterdam, but has thrown out the old marketing model driven by product, price, place and promotion and is focusing its entire promotional budget on customer-centric “inbound marketing”.

The key is to understand the buyer’s persona and what they are concerned about – “if only we could learn their names,” Mr Osinga said. Now, Schiphol believes it can. A new video describing the smooth flow of freight through the cargo terminal, which cost less than $6,000 to produce, generated much conversation after it was put out on YouTube.

“It took a year’s research but has got customer attraction and interaction,” he said. “We only got 60 viewers in India, but we learned about 60 people that we didn’t know before.”

Scott Case, a licensed customs broker who is now involved in branding, marketing and web development for freight forwarders and trade associations, said marketing objectives have not changed. It’s still about getting in front of the ultimate decision maker and persuading them to put their trust in you.

But a straw poll of almost 600 CNS delegates found that only minority of delegates are using tools such as Facebook or Twitter professionally. Fewer than 30 have staff dedicated to monitoring social media and online reviews, or were prepared to say so in a public forum.

For those about to set sail into these choppy waters for the first time, Brooks Thomas, communication advisor to Southwest Airlines’ social business team, pointed out that Facebook, Twitter and other platforms can “change at a whim” and are therefore outside companies’ immediate control.

Blogs by contrast are there forever, so in Mr Thomas’s view are just as valuable as the carrier’s website. They are “our real estate”, he said.

Mr Thomas recommended: “Utilise your employees’ strengths and train them in the digital world. Turn your workforce into reporters. Humanise your content by telling stories through the eyes of those experiencing them first hand.”

Mr Case said critics of social media complained it was like “yelling into a canyon” with no echo, but advised that tools such as Google Analytics can tell companies who is responding, where in the world they are, and what devices they’re using. No inky fingered old-school journalist, crouched behind his manual typewriter, ever knew so much about his readers.

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