United’s MileagePlus Model a B2B Partnership with Wings

united-mileageplus-small-business-networkI once wrote that growing market share while reducing business locations is akin to changing wings on an airplane in midflight. Few industries may be as familiar with this challenge as the ever-consolidating airline industry, which is seeing fewer carriers, fewer hubs and fewer direct flights.

But United Airlines appears to have found one fresh path to market share growth: It is partnering with a bunch of other merchants, including Staples, UPS and, to appeal to its small business customers.

The major carrier has launched MileagePlus Small Business Network. The business-to-business initiative is dubbed the first U.S. travel loyalty program that allows businesses to earn and redeem miles. But more important, it appears to be among the few programs that realize the potential of partnerships to create a coalition of companies that focus on rewarding customers with a common currency. Ultimately, the winners here are the small business customers and the partners in the program.

A coalition program is one that allows members to earn points by shopping at a number of partner vendors, and then redeem those accumulated points at any of those same brands. But unlike credit card loyalty programs that offer a similar model, members of a coalition do not have to charge their purchases on a specific credit card. They can use cash, checks, credit card, whatever.

This is how the MileagePlus model works – it recognizes the aggregate value of its small business customers and uses partnership marketing to deliver them value while also bringing potential new business to its network partners.

It’s about time. I recently completed extensive research on a number of B2B loyalty initiatives for my forthcoming e-book, The Loyalty Leap for B2B, and was surprised by the upside growth potential, particularly among airlines.

MileagePlus achieves many of the requirements I found are necessary to excel in the B2B realm, particularly among small businesses. For example, the program offers a variety of perks that would be relevant not only to a small business itself but also to the small business owner, from air travel to a chance to bid on sports packages or shows. This is crucial to succeeding in the B2B environment because the smaller the business, the more like an individual it will act.

Further, through its partnerships, United can capture a more comprehensive snapshot of its customers’ spending activities over time, helping it determine needs and preferences as well as the critical touch points for creating relevance. If the MileagePlus member directs a disproportionate amount of total spending to partner merchant, for instance, MileagePlus can deliver incentives that appeal to a contractor or interior designer.

I only wish the MileagePlus program were available to consumers as well as business, but it’s a solid start. I’d wager other marketers are watching in the wings.

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