United Airlines Cashes In: New Media Network Monetizes Your Eyeballs For Top Dollar

Last summer United brought in a Vice President from Comcast to lead MileagePlus. It wasn’t because he had a unique understanding of loyalty marketing. The idea was to better monetize MileagePlus members by selling ads more aggressively.

As United Airlines Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella put it, to “do a bunch of very interesting media plays that he had done in the past.”

A year later, United announced that their “media network” was ready.

The new technology platform gives marketers the opportunity to scale their reach across a wide range of channels including United’s award-winning mobile app and inflight entertainment screens. And the airline expects its MileagePlus® members will receive additional value through more personalized and real-time offers and experiences that drive even greater loyalty.

Kinective Media is already working with brands such as Norwegian Cruise Line, Macy’s, Chase United Co-Brand Credit Cards, TelevisaUnivision, IHG Hotels & Resorts, as well as agency groups like Dentsu. The focus is on premium brand relationships across key verticals such as retail, luxury goods, financial services, automotive, media brands and travel.

These are words, and MileagePlus CEO Richard Nunn said them:

We’ve built a first-of-its-kind, real-time, adtech-enabled traveler media network where brands have already started connecting to premium audiences at an unmatched scale.

Unlike some commerce media platforms, United gives brands across a wide range of industries the ability to reach engaged customers throughout the entire marketing funnel – from brand consideration to conversion – in a way that’s highly personalized and relevant, and we’re already seeing impressive results.

There has been a huge strategic shift within this high growth sector in the past five years where advertisers and brands have come together to determine how best to connect with consumers in a way that’s valuable, effective and personalized.

What does it mean?

  • Expect to be advertised to through more channels
  • And for these ads to be more targeted

United can advertise a Norwegian Cruise or Macy’s shirt to you through the app that you’ve already installed on your phone. And when you’re bored on a United flight, because the wifi still lags American, Delta, and JetBlue, you can learn about the latest Holiday Inn Express on your seatback screen, at least once UnitedNEXT interiors finally reach scale.

The airline says that there won’t be more advertising than there is today inflight, just more targeted advertising (but I do expect to see more ads across other channels).

They have a lot of data about their customers. This project puts that data to use, letting advertisers better target their messaging, for instance putting local ads in front of passengers as they head to a destination city. They know where a member is from, where they’re traveling, how old they are. They also know what stores they’ve made purchases from, crediting the transactions to their United mileage account.

For decades, airlines have been promising better monetization of a premium audience through what was once called ‘big data’. They have customers other businesses would like to reach, and in a subset of cases useful information about those customers.

But United isn’t even trying to ‘use AI’ to figure out member purchasing intent – just to allow customer segmentation on specific customer attributes like location and age.

And inflight advertising is nothing new, including to the United team of CEO Scott Kirby and COO Andrew Nocella.

America West was the first airline to do tray table advertising, a practice that moved over to US Airways on some aircraft. US Airways even experimented with ads on first class tray tables. Both Kirby and Nocella moved from America West to US Airways to American to United.

AirTran actually launched ads on the backs of the tray tables (at US Airways you actually had to put the tray table down in order to see the ad). United experimented with tray table ads under a previous management, too.

U.S. carriers never put ads on overhead bins, like on a bus, but they did have flight attendants announce credit card signup opportunities on early morning flights when passengers are trying to sleep.

This just takes a more high-tech, targeted approach which should make ads perform better (you’re more likely to buy) and let United sell access to you at a higher price.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Congrats to them for figuring out a way to better monetize their customer connections. I have zero problem with this. BTW, done all the time by many websites (I’m getting targeted ads for hotels in Taipei and ANA airlines since I recently checked flights and fares to Taiwan). BTW for Gary (or any other blogger) to complain about adds is hypocritical since they make their money on adds and pass through clicks.

  2. Fine with me as long as they keep improving the soft product and reverse some of the devaluation of MileagePlus

  3. If people start associating the company advertising with the UA soft product, this may not end well.

  4. I’d give them all the IFE and App-based advertising they want if they’d just get off the PA system with their obnoxious, dishonest credit card pitches.

  5. Some people will prefer the lady in front with her hair over the back of the seat covering the seat back video screen.

  6. wow!! such a vast collection of corpspeak bullsh**t that says so little with so much.

  7. UAL certainly makes it very difficult to opt-out. By attempting to opt-out while reviewing their privacy policies – and associated policies regarding the sale of your information, you are directed to a web form that is used for five states and another choice for all other states.

    I’m not assured that you can actually opt-out of this new program. UAL may retort that state laws and regulations do not apply while you are onboard an aircraft as that falls under the purview of the U.S.D.O.T.

    Watching for the first lawsuit to be filed over this.


  8. I actually like this idea. This system may end up frowning on seat swapping requests since the targeted ad will lose its effectiveness.

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