The budget airline’s famously sassy tweets and TikToks have commanded millions of eyeballs, and spawned almost as many imitators. What does the brand’s former head of social make of them all?
“When you try to be something you’re not, the users can smell bullshit a mile away.”
Very calmly and methodically, in his broad Irish accent, Michael Corcoran is eviscerating the current state of corporate social media.
“A lot of social media is like a really bad pyramid scheme,” he explains. “It’s like there’s a few ways of using the platforms that have been prescribed to people for so long that everyone thinks is correct. But that isn’t the only way, it’s not black and white, and it’s evolving at a faster rate than many other forms of communications ever have, with new platforms, new formats, and new ways of doing things.”
He stops for a quick sip of his tea before carrying on the take-down.
“Brands are just copying each other. They’re looking at other brands in their category that they think are doing the right thing, and are simply replicating it. But they’re probably doing it at a more filtered level, where they’ll never be able to reach the level, the scale, the storytelling capability, the tone, the direction – anything really – that allows them to succeed in the way that the people they’re looking at for inspiration are doing it.”
It’s direct, no-bullshit stuff. And exactly what I expected from the person who headed up one of the most influential social media operations of the past few years.
Corcoran was at the helm of Ryanair’s social media between July 2021 and November 2023, driving the famous (and famously) budget Irish airline to become one of the most controversial, admired and mimicked brands on social media.
The airline basically wrote the script for sassy socials, using irreverent and often savage humour to highlight – rather than apologise for – its shortcomings and foibles.
The social team regularly mocks superficial complaints from passengers, and publicly shreds first-world problems. And that’s just the reactive stuff.
The proactive, planned content is equally bold, celebrating their infamous windowless seat (11A), joking that they’ll start charging for breathing on their flights, and running an ongoing gag which taunts people who claim they’ll never fly (or fly again) with them.
Ryanair currently boasts about 10 million followers across its social channels, including 2.1 million on their influential TikTok, where they relentlessly play with memes and give their “plane face” persona free reign to get up to weird and wonderful antics.
And while the approach is naturally divisive, it has created plenty of advocates and fans who often go into bat for the airline in the comments, while others just turn up to watch the spectacle.
Speaking to me from his Dublin home, and sporting freshly dyed hair, Corcoran says people have two main motivations for spending time on social media.
“They want to be entertained, and they want to get away from the shitshow going on in their lives. And that could be their mundane job or stressful days as a parent, or even just getting away from the news and how bad life is right now for many people around the world. If you’re not even trying to cater to that space with any sort of emotional trigger, and then putting the best representation of yourself on the platform, you’re not going to win.
“You’re competing with other people, other creators who are delivering entertaining, interesting things to cater to that bingeable need, that search for serotonin. And you know what? Most brands don’t get that.”
Corcoran is quick to point out he didn’t invent Ryanair’s provocative approach – far from it. The organisation has long played the role of disruptor and scrappy upstart, often using outspoken CEO Michael O’Leary to gain attention through traditional media avenues.
“I didn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of positioning the brand, the honest tone and personality,” he says. “That’s something that was within our DNA, that was naturally locked inside when we built.
“My legacy is actually putting shape on that strategy, and identifying the right team of people to execute on that strategy, to train, to coach, to develop, and to give the platforms the opportunity to deliver their best for the business. I supercharged the strategy, and I made it work.”
And work it did.
Corcoran says Ryanair’s reach grew from about 5 million people a week on social media to between 30-40 million people a week – all with zero paid media. “I think within 18 months we reached over 2 billion people, and the holy grail was we appeared in the cold open of the Jimmy Fallon show on US television.”
Interestingly, Corcoran says Ryanair doesn’t need marketing in a sense, as the company is super confident its operating model alone will deliver the demand and growth needed to reach 300 million passengers by 2033.
So while everyone in the company “is there to sell plane tickets”, he says the role of marketing and earned media was at its very simplest form to generate top-of-mind awareness.
The other role of Ryanair’s social media was to change customers’ perceptions about flying low-cost, and particularly to lower the expectations of the many people who somehow still expect “a first-class experience on the flight that cost you the price of a can of Coke and a packet of crisps”.
“We didn’t need people to love Ryanair, because brand love is just another soppy marketing term. We wanted people to hate Ryanair less, and understand what it was, and what we were giving in terms of a product.”
Corcoran is acutely aware of the influence Ryanair has had, and the number of copycats – good and bad – out there.
As he puts it, there’s enough space for everyone to have their moment in the sun, so he doesn’t worry about the imitators. But he does worry that brands are being brash and sassy for short-term reach, without much thought being given to long-term strategy or what it might be doing to the brand over time.
“A lot of people are thinking that the formula for success is putting eyes and a mouth on your core product [Ryanair’s “plane face”], or having a big mascot [Duolingo and Hootsuite]. And that to me is not really looking at what we’re trying to do to win in that space.”
One local organisation influenced by Ryanair – in format much more than in tone – was Wellington City Council.
I was managing the social team when WCC launched the country’s first council TikTok in December 2021. There are now more than a dozen New Zealand councils on TikTok, but at the time we were very much feeling our way in the dark, working out what a council TikTok might even look like.
The basic strategy was simply to start a conversation with younger Wellingtonians traditionally underserved by council communications. The content was to be more loosely tied to services and facilities than on other channels, and with much more room for humour and creativity.
As part of our research, Ryanair’s plane face featured a lot, with WCC’s very first TikTok featuring a talking recycling bin. That video got 54 likes and hasn’t featured since. Instead, the team moved on and tried a bunch of other ideas before settling on more of a trend-first approach.
Corcoran says there’s nothing wrong with stealing ideas, as long as you put your own spin on it, and “bring it to life in a way that’s right for you”.
In fact, he wonders whether the bigger issue with Wellington City Council’s bin face was not actually giving it enough of a chance to work. “You didn’t stick to what you decided to do. You gave up and you didn’t try and test and learn and build. That talking bin could have been the funniest TikTok personality in New Zealand.”
Corcoran rates New Zealand TikTok, by the way – especially the accounts of some of our radio stations. He binges The Rock’s nickname gags (“comedy gold”), and rates the “Girl Math” content on ZM.
More generally, he credits TikTok with paving the way for a lot more authentic brand social media, where lo-fi, relatable content is king.
“The beauty of bloody TikTok is that it’s just so weird and so wonderful, that there’s so many niches and different styles of content that you never thought you would be into, and that the algorithm would push and serve to you.
“Jesus, one of my favourite ones is an account called the Hoof Doctor, who is basically a farrier for cattle and he goes around fixing the hooves on cattle around the UK. And I can watch that for hours. Did I ever think I would be watching a hoof doctor cleaning abscesses and sores on social media? No, but that’s the beauty of it.
“There are opportunities to do wild and interesting things that you normally don’t think are interesting. We don’t all have to be lip-synching and dancing.”
Corcoran left Ryanair recently, penning a pretty spectacular break-up post on LinkedIn in which he alluded to un-addressed issues that led him to resign. That exit opened another door, with Corcoran launching a new venture – Frankly – with two partners. Frankly’s goal is to deliver a more frank and direct approach to social media, starting with strategy.
“I’ve done a few keynote speaking events over the last year, and I always ask this question: ‘How many people in the room actually have a documented social media strategy? Not a list of tactics, when you publish on the channels, or your content themes, but an actual strategy?’
“I’ve been in rooms of 800 people, right down to 100 people, and no more than three people in each of those rooms put their hands up. And that scares me. It just shows the speed at which social media has moved, the people that they followed for all the wrong reasons, and the lack of thinking behind it all.
“It scares me how much investment and how much time is put into so much really bad work that people just shouldn’t be doing in the first place. Because it’s of no value to the brand and there’s no value to the consumer. And they would probably be better off – and actually have more profit at the end of the year – by not doing it at all.”