When Iceland’s volcano erupted earlier this year, closing most of European airspace for weeks, social media web sites found a new purpose as airlines began to channel passenger updates through Facebook and Twitter. Air Berlin and Air Baltic, for example, said they received millions of requests for information via Twitter, despite posting news on their own web sites as soon as possible.

But if social media can be used successfully in a consumer environment, could it be used to communicate cargo updates between companies, too?

Not surprisingly, the integrators–early adapters of technology in airfreight–again lead the way. UPS has been using Twitter for two years, setting up a dedicated team of seven to handle customer service issues. While a large amount of the customer interaction is with the company’s US residential consumers, it is seeing more and more interest from the cargo community.


“Both individual and corporate customers use Twitter to ask us questions, such as why a delivery has been delayed, or to find the location of their nearest UPS centre,” comments Ellen Heinrich, who doubles as social media and public relations manager. “Smaller businesses have used Twitter to obtain quotes. And we used social media, along with UPS.com, to post service updates during the ash cloud disruption.

“Twitter is good because it provides a two-way conversation, rather the one-way offered by a corporate web site. And people don’t seem to mind that their query can be seen by other viewers. In fact, they often seek out other customers experiencing similar issues. We also have 10,000 active fans on our official Facebook pages, which are designed on a ‘by country’ basis.”

Heinrich does point out that some industries, such as IT and telecoms, creative/design, fashion and PR, are more likely to turn to social media than manufacturing or automotive. But there are some freight companies looking at the potential for social media.

In June, for example, Conway Multimodal created a special tool on Twitter called Tweetload, which allows carriers to find freight loads. By ‘following’ Tweetload, Conway’s carriers– whether registered with Conway Multimodal or not–can gain access to load information that is updated every 15 minutes.

However for most logistics providers, social networking remains more of a supplier and market communication tool than an operational one. Many have created their own pages, such as Forwarder Allport on Facebook; Britain’s Freight Transport Association broadcasts policy updates via Twitter, with links to press releases giving the fuller story; and Lufthansa Cargo started a Twitter channel, which it also found helpful for communications during the closure of European air space.

“We are currently evaluating how we can get the best out of social media,” says a spokesman. “We believe social media will become more important for B2B companies.”

It may be that business-oriented sites such as Linkedin, XIAG and Jive are better suited to business applications, since they are more widely used among the business community. “It would make sense to get involved with Linkedin,” says Allport’s marketing manager, Paul Kelly, “but we need to build up special interest groups to get people using it and we need to employ younger people with the technical expertise and an understanding of how people want to use these sites.”

Some suggest business sites serve a useful purpose for HR departments, as they act as great recruiting and talent scouting portals–but the constant bombardment by recruitment companies puts some visitors off. “In theory, social media should be of interest,” says Steve Jones, MD at finished vehicle logistics IT specialist, Vehnet, “but I don’t actually know anyone in business with a Twitter account. And too many Linkedin groups are hijacked by employment agencies.”

There are other problems associated with social media, too. As Stefan Schonbrunn, CIO at Automotive-IT, comments, data exchanged within the industry is structured and standardised and many companies have direct links to their trading partners anyway.

Many companies also block access to social media sites from their corporate networks to prevent staff abusing the privilege. Ellen Heinrich believes this will change, though. “It’s like an unanswered phone call: companies really can’t afford to ignore it,” she says.

Maybe so, but in the meantime, it looks as if we are still going to be using Automotive.com for some time to come.