Most companies now use social media as a key tool for communicating with customers and those involved with transport are certainly no different. Although considered by some to be a little slower to develop the medium than other industries, the past two years have seen a large expansion of transport providers offering a new level of interaction with passengers through social media. And it's Twitter, the world's fastest growing social media site, with an estimated 500m accounts worldwide that leads the way as the most popular medium for train companies to communicate with passengers.
So why has railway and transit begun engaging with passengers through social media?
For Tim Healey, Marketing and Creative Services Director at Sound Transit (@SoundTransit), the reason is clear: "A large percentage of our riders and potential riders use social media. So the conversation is going on about us regardless of whether we use social media or not. We believe it is better to be part of the conversation and engage our customers and potential customers rather than to sit on the side lines and ignore it."
For an organisation with resource to commit to growing a social media presence the results can be significant. Amtrak (@Amtrak) for example at the time of writing has a very strong social media presence; its Facebook page boasting 304,207 likes, YouTube account having had 1,426,740 views, LinkedIn group lists 10,790 members and also has 54,691 followers on Twitter after 56,542 Tweets. Since its first tweet in March 2010, Amtrak has now fully embraced social media as a tool not just for information but also to develop its brand and give the organisation a stronger 'voice' when communicating with its passengers.
In any Twitter engagement with customers there are a number of positive outcomes that a railway will aim to deliver: deepen the relationship with the passenger and ensure they become a brand advocate, defuse any potential complaints by reassuring them with an update or directing towards further information and ensure the passenger feels positive about the conversation and will use the service again. Some railway Twitter accounts also aim to deliver a clear 'voice' for the railway with a more quirky or personal tone.
These outcomes manifest themselves in typical Twitter output for rail and metro companies' communications in two main areas; firstly travel updates including details of disruption and alterations of service and secondly of promotions and offers to drive revenue, engagement or to gather data. Some twitter accounts choose to engage with customers directly in one-to-one conversations, for example answering questions directly or thanking for feedback whilst others are purely for news and don't engage directly.
In Canada, Mohamed Bhanji, Director, Marketing Technology, Via Rail (@ViaRail) is aware of the opportunity that social media presents not just for passengers but also for their partners: "Social media is a huge and important part of our marketing service. We believe it must be fully integrated into our marketing and customer services team but also that of our partnerships. It gives us a great opportunity to build awareness for our partners and their projects."
Finding the right tone for a railway or metros Twitter output is one of the challenges for any company, particularly as passengers often turn to social media in times of transport delay or disruption. In a 2012 UK survey on this topic, carried out by Passenger Focus (@PassengerFocus) , found that rail Twitter accounts proved to be popular with users though the principal concerns were the tone and volume of information that was irrelevant to the user.
For Tim Healey, he can identify the challenges: "The biggest challenge in engaging customers is giving them a reason to follow us. This requires a commitment to develop engaging content that riders and potential riders need and want. That is not always an easy thing in an environment where many transit agencies are facing the financial realities of just keeping service on the street.“ He also added that “Selling the concept of social media to upper management is almost as challenging."
The Inside Track believes that the modern preference for live, real-time news has created an expectation for this from passengers which becomes particularly true in times of disruption or delays to service. Although still in its relative infancy, the most effective and low-cost way of engaging and delivering real-time information to passengers is through social media. Although traditional customer engagement, face-to-face or over the telephone remains important, the growth of this medium offers a host of opportunities for railways to develop stronger, happier and more committed relationships with their passengers.