The fresh bloom of interactive applications available on portable devices today is changing how pilots fly, but if SocialFlight.com has its way it may also be changing why you fly -- and for all the right reasons. SocialFlight's creators have lofty goals. They aim to improve your business connections, your social life, your flying life, and ultimately drive sustainability if not growth in the statistically shrinking GA segment, all free of charge. It's sunshine and roses level stuff. But here's the twist: according to Jason Clemens, vice president of marketing for Where2 Interactive (SocialFlight's developer), "between summer 2012 and January 2013, we got 12,000 pilots signed up." And if the business provides those users with what it intends to provide, SocialFlight could deliver real gains for GA. Even more important, because of its business model, the effort may not have to become profitable for its developers, or anyone else, to still grow and provide a sustained and increasingly useful service for pilots and the GA community as a whole.
Clemens' answer drew a line from the poetic to the practical, which further defines the driving principles behind SocialFlight. "Passion is the reason for existence. Most people have one -- anything from motorcycles, to skiing, to cars, to collecting … whatever. But whether it's the pace of life or the economy, it's harder and harder for people to immerse themselves in their passions. So, how can we make it easier? That's what we're about -- making it easy."
At its core, SocialFlight is an event aggregator … a database. It actively seeks out, collects and retains information regarding every pilot-oriented event about which it is informed, or that its employees can find through active search. It creates and presents (online, via email, and through its app) organized collections of those events. The events can be displayed in list form, or on a map, and might include everything from a local individual's public invitation to stop by for hangar talk, to FAA organized TRACON tours, to safety seminars, to EAA Chapter pancake breakfasts … even a manufacturer's invitation to fly their latest model. Essentially, SocialFlight aims to collect any aviation-relevant events that pilots are passionate about and present them in a simple straightforward way to its members. To make that potential barrage of information more useful, it also provides users with tools to keep the events organized and make sure they're relevant to the user's interests. Members can set parameters that triage and sort the events by date, distance from a location, type of event, and a group of other user-specified parameters. By the start of 2013, SocialFlight had collected and presented some 4,000 upcoming aviation events for its 12,000 members. But its creators see more purpose to the free product, they aim to make money, and both of those things could actually help you.
As Clemens told us, "We talked about how we could change participation in passionate events -- because it's all about events. In aviation you've got organizations you can talk to. You have resources that will suggest a bed and breakfast or the best $100 hamburger. Those are great resources, but they don't make the difference between whether someone decides to stay home or not. What changes that is the event. Something that's fun to do … something you'll miss if you don't go."
Beyond a simple event aggregator, SocialFlight's developers are working to develop relationships with sponsors to create events that would serve the interest of aviation product and service providers, as well as pilots. "Mutual benefit is essential to the equation," says Clemens. "SocialFlight's success as a product is defined by its ease of use and its ability to deliver a useful service to its members." The idea is that people won't use the service if it puts barriers between them and the information they seek. So, SocialFlight intends to develop partnerships in a way that is sensitive to those concerns. It's easy to see how the SocialFlight platform could be used to develop non-profit aviation entities like EAA chapters or other interest groups. But can SocialFlight integrate profit motivated aviation entities as sponsors to bring benefits to its users while making a buck? Clemens thinks so and he may have good reason.
SocialFlight was recently contacted by the FAA's safety team. Clemens says the FAA told the young company that it had held a meeting about what SocialFlight could do to increase the FAA's audience. In that regard, the FAA has a problem endemic to a lot of other aviation groups and general aviation as a whole. Clemens sums it up, "we're all looking to make the market healthy and growing, but most of the time, because of budgetary and time constraints we're just marketing to our base." For the FAA that means this: If you're already on the FAA's mailing list, you know about upcoming meetings; but if you're not on the list, it's not likely you'll find out. Clemens says that for volunteer groups it often plays out the same way. "They don't have the time or resources to mount an advertising offensive. So, often they'll promote their events by sending out information to their own members. It's understandable, but that isn't going to turn the industry around." SocialFlight aims to fill the void. It hopes to become the one-stop aggregator that matches those events to a broader base of pilots and even non-pilots. "There's no cost of entry, there's no fees, dues, or obligation, it's just here's what's happening."
For the FAA's safety team, the solution was simple: SocialFlight has now automated the collection of every FAA safety event as it's scheduled. The result is win-win-win. The FAA's events reach beyond their mailing list, SocialFlight becomes more valuable by offering a more comprehensive collection of events that may be suitable for serious pilots and aviation-philes alike, and SocialFlight members have more events to choose from. If it works for the FAA, manufacturers could be next.
Says Clemens, "We do have a revenue model. It revolves around sponsorship. But it's very important and I hope you take this to heart. This is something we really care about doing in a responsible way. We're not going to put things in your face. No one is going to open their email and get something they don't want."
SocialFlight is currently working to develop relationships with at least one aircraft manufacturer in an effort to craft a deal that would deliver quality content to its users and also benefit the manufacturer. In that situation and others like it, SocialFlight is determined to act as a gatekeeper, making sure that its partnerships serve its users, recognizing that the users are the business. The company wouldn't name names, but suggested scenarios in which SocialFlight could help promote a product through free hands-on local fly-in events organized by manufacturers or dealers to display or demonstrate a product or service. The events could include pilot-seducing flight demonstrations or be paired with discount incentives. It's not out of the question for a company to use SocialFlight to transform a travel stop for a company head into a meet-and-greet event for area pilots. With some forethought the list of potentially effective marketing outreach events quickly grows long. And the larger SocialFlight's member base becomes, the more effective its posted events may be.
Again, the key is convenience. SocialFlight's platform delivers events of interest to pilots without the multiple subscriptions, mailing lists, memberships, or research that might otherwise give them access to a similar collection of events. It's an option, to be sure, but SocialFlight aims to do the work for you.
Says Clemens, "Steve Jobs once said, 'it's not our customer's job to tell us what they want. It's our job.'" Clemens explains how the quote applies to SocialFlight. "There are interesting events going on all over the place. More than we expected. Pilots aren't going to know all the things they're interested in before they see them, which means for some events … events you'd really want to attend … you wouldn't even have thought to look. SocialFlight delivers those events to your door. You don't have to ask and you don't have to work." But there's more… .
The company's organizers think that the information provides an excuse for pilots to pursue their passion. It gives pilots a reason to keep flying, to continue flying and to develop more relationships around flying. Clemens says the hope is that members won't just fly more often, but that they'll find their passion for flight or aircraft ownership reborn. And the event structure also leads to a next logical development. Last December, SocialFlight took it.
Useful information only goes so far. SocialFlight's creators hope that its users will meet at events, interact online and form their own relationships and communities. Toward that end, aside from its database listings, the company in December 2012 launched version 2.0. That, says Clemens, was a watershed event. The new product provides the opportunity for members to create a hangar page -- not unlike a Facebook profile. The page allows individuals to better manage connections they've made through mutually attended events or develop relationships with other people in the SocialFlight online community. It provides the opportunity for users to list information like the aircraft they fly, where they are based, the sort of flying they're interested in and other relevant data. And people can search for new contacts based on that information. They can share correspondence with other members including pictures of their aircraft, events they've enjoyed, or anything else. Importantly, users can opt out of this feature and choose to remain private. The idea, however, is that SocialFlight 2.0, provides an effective platform to create, develop and maintain social contacts or relationships initiated around flying.
The developers of SocialFlight say their plan is to be successful by being useful. They say that at the end of the day they want to have a product that fails to provide an answer to the question "Why shouldn't people use it?" And the more people who do use it, the more useful the product will become and the more likely it is to succeed.
If they do succeed, we may very well see SocialFlights's loftier goals achieved: we may have more pilots flying more hours; we might find more interested pilots -- and non-pilots -- in attendance at our aviation-related events; we could all gain easier access to local hands-on product demonstrations; we may be attending more social activities with more like-minded individuals; and it's possible that through all that general aviation could find some renewed interest or support. Of course, it's also possible that SocialFlight could take other routes. But the possibility of failure is becoming less likely. Clemens says they're "getting close to taking public sponsors support" and expect to turn the corner toward profit in 2013. But that may not matter.
For now, SocialFlight developers plan to continue to add features that increase the usefulness of their product, paying for all development costs out of pocket. Aside from the social interfaces, they've already integrated access to weather information for their listed events. They plan to add more relevant information like whether or not there's a restaurant on the field and which of your friends are going. Entrepreneurs in our audience might have noticed that the SocialFlight platform could just as easily support passions other than flight … and they'd be a step behind. Clemens says Where2 Interactive sees the SocialFlight platform as "a universal approach" that they "plan to roll out across other markets." He held back specifics, but don't be surprised if you see something like SocialDriver for auto enthusiasts, SocialFairway (golf), SocialPhoto, or SocialMusic coming through the pipeline soon.
That means that even if our market segment fails to produce a profit for SocialFlight, the company's forays into larger markets could help further develop the platform. And at the very least, SocialFlight might survive as volunteer managed forum. At best, SocialFlight might just be the modest beginning for something much bigger.