Biggest Social Media Opportunity Of 2009

January 20th, 2009 by Mark Hanson


When my boss asked me recently to nominate a brand I’d love to work for, at a new business planning session a few weeks back, he was taken aback when rather than say Everton Football Club or Innocent Smoothies, my honest answer was a train operator. Any train operator.

I’ve never, ever been a trainspotter, train enthusiast, had a train set or anything like that. I just use them a heckuva lot – getting to work every day and travelling between London and the North West an average of every two weeks for the last few years. 

I’m also evangelical about how brands need to adopt a completely different tone with their customers as part of their PUBLIC relations. PR should never really just have been about press releases etc but now that customers have been able to take over the media, brands need to respond.

For train companies, there is some hope! The shining light in this area is executives like Vernon Barker, MD of Transpennine Express, who I noticed in this interview

 “Vernon may well be one of the first to detect any change in passengers’ views – whenever he criss-crosses the Pennines by train he announces his presence by tannoy to passengers, then invites them to speak to him and `share their travel experiences’.”

He’s already doing it face-2-face. Someone like that could reach so many more people by transferring that quality of interaction online. 

Before we get carried away, we have to remind ourselves that the train sytem is hugely complex. So many things can go wrong, which are outside of the train companies control, but will completely screw up the network. 

There is also huge investment ongoing to the track and trains, which will improve the service but cause temporary disruption. AND lets not forget that far from getting worse and worse, trains are getting quicker and more reliable. (The punctuality rate is 90.1% – the best for 10 years).

The problem is in the presentation (yeah I would say that!). I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’m stood at a station, the train is late and…

a) there’s no announcement, or

b) the announcement is unintelligable, or

c) there’s no one to ask, or

d) if there are staff, they just shrug their shoulders

People understand that running a train network is really complex and that things go wrong all the time. BUT they expect to be treated like grown-ups, with a reliable estimate of how late they’ll be so they can plan ahead and feel a bit more in control, be given a jargon-free explanation about what the problem is and be able to talk back to someone if this is a persistent problem or they have a specific problem. Isn’t it great to feel someone is at least listening?!

A lot of train companies are putting up-to-date information on their sites but it means you having to go looking for it or paying for them to text you. However, here’s an interesting development, set up by a tech-savvy but long-suffering commuter called Ben Smith. It’s an automatically generated Twitter update for all train services in the UK.

Inspired by this tweet from MP Tom Watson and enabled by the excellent BBC Backstage‘s travel feeds, this prototype service tweets disruption alerts for 25 UK train operators.  The original data is processed and shortened to less than 140 characters (in most cases) by Yahoo Pipes and tweeted via Twitterfeed which also adds a short-link back to the original BBC report. 

There’s still a customer service gap though. How do we get into dialogue? You’ll notice that a reader posts a comment at the end of the Vernon Barker interview, which Vernon spotted and responded to. It’s a bit long but 10/10 for approach. Someone like Vernon Barker could really benefit his bottom line by translating the interaction he has on his own trains with passengers and taking it into social media.

By monitoring conversations, here were two yesterday that I saw within my personal network, train companies can get early warning of problems, cut calls into customer services and more importantly make their customers feel valued, making them more likely to defend them online, in mainstream media or in the office with colleagues who moan about the amount of traffic on the roads on their journey to work.

OK, rant over and I’ve got a train to catch!

UPDATE – thanks to Peter (below) for recommending – the media coverage here demonstrates what kind of stink passengers can achieve by organising online and here’s how Manchester Confidential takes the principle a stage further!

5 Responses to “Biggest Social Media Opportunity Of 2009”

  1. Peter Bowyer Says:

    This is spot-on. I’ve been tweeting train-related customer service issues for ages – East Midlands Trains and Cross-Country Trains have had opportunities to listen and respond handed to them on a plate.

    See also – a Twitter-assisted campaign site highlighting problems on a particular route.

  2. Matthew Roche Says:

    Must agree with Peter, great article Mark.

    It’s always the companies that you naturally don;t associate with social media that could actually benefit the most.

    The twitter concept is very interesting. As a frequent train user a tweet telling me when my train will arrive would be a welcome bonus. Most consumers just want to be kept informed of what is happening and something like twitter would be a step in the right direction.

  3. Ben Says:

    Your exactly right, I’ve lost count of how many times i was stood waiting for a train without so much as a clue of when it would arrive or anyone to even ask.

    the twitter tool looks great will definatly be using it from now on.
    Great article Mark

  4. Danuta Bartels Says:

    I don’t usually comment, but great post 🙂

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