THE "Wild Wild West of marketing" it might be, but social media's rapidly-growing influence in societies all over the world means that transport operators should ignore it at their peril.

Facebook now has over 1 billion worldwide subscribers, while Twitter has 200 million active users. A vast number of these "likers" and "tweeters" also use public transport which inevitably means they are instantly commenting on the services they use, good or bad.

"Social media does not exclude anyone," Mr Ciarán Rogan, marketing executive for Northern Ireland's Translink, told the International Public Transport Association (UITP) social media workshop in Mechelen on March 7. "You are on it whether you want to be or not."

Indeed in many cities where operators have yet to embrace social media, passengers have taken it upon themselves to set up their own pages dedicated to reporting performance. When Vienna's publically-owned transport operator, Wiener Linien, was embarking on its social media strategy, Ms Claudia Riegler, Wiener Linien's content manager for social media, said that she found 68 pages and feeds dedicated to its activities which were set up by so-called "co-creators."

"One even used the official logo," she says. "This had the potential to leave a bad impression." It was a similar story in Dresden where Mr Jan Bleis, head of marketing and traffic planning at Dresden Public Transport (DVB), reported that his company contacted Twitter and actually took over an account that had been posing under DVB's identity.

Losing control of the message is clearly a dangerous proposition for operators; it is therefore no longer a case of whether an operator starts to use social media, but when.

As is often the case when reacting to new trends, the railway industry has been relatively slow to pick up social media and explore the full advantages that it could provide. Many operators seem to have deferred engaging with some platforms through fear of doing a bad job or the cost of maintaining a responsive online presence.

However, Rogan believes that the more you put in, the more you will get out in terms of improving an operator's reputation and ultimately the quality of service provided to passengers. He believes that operators should "treat it as an opportunity" and not shy away from dedicating resources to social media.

"It shouldn't be a space for what we have not done, but somewhere where you are able to say what you will do," Rogan says.

He added that with Twitter and Facebook now driving the news agenda with photographs and video of news events appearing on the platform in real-time, well before media outlets are able to pick up and disect them, transport operators have to equip themselves to respond quickly to these events. He says that Facebook in particular has been useful for Translink to state its official position on an issue before it gets out of hand, recalling its response to a recent picture of a rioter in Belfast who was wearing a Translink uniform. Rogan said that by responding to the incident immediately, Translink was able to quell negative reaction to a potentially damaging story.

He also recalled recent heavy snowfall in Belfast which had a huge impact on train and bus services during the morning commute, and the way in which social media helped to mitigate its impact. "I went into the control room for our train and bus operations at 04.00, sat in the corner with the laptop open and posted constant service updates from the information I was being fed," he said. "At 09.00, I closed the laptop and carried on with my everyday activities. It was simple to do and did not take up a huge amount of resources. And in the immediate aftermath I received a lot of comments from people saying that the information provided was the most comprehensive and best they had ever received on the status of our services during bad weather."

Constant stream

The ability to post a constant stream of instant service updates to passengers is the major attraction of social media. Like Translink, operators have found it particularly useful during service interruptions, and often experience a spike in followers during these events.

Mr Claudio Cassarino, managing director of Metro Service, the operator of the Copenhagen Metro, which is not yet using social media, says that surveys have identified passenger information as an element of its service that could be improved, with 70% of its passengers saying that receiving up-to-date and accurate journey information is the most important thing to them while they are travelling. "Social media appears to be the logical way to address this," he said.

Providing accurate, consistent and quality information are all critical elements of a social media strategy, and one of the major challenges to using it as a communications platform. Rogan says a feed has to remain active and live. However, he says passengers do understand that they may not get an immediate response to their query outside office hours or at the weekend as long as an operator is clear from the beginning when the feed is staffed.

Paris Transport Authority (RATP), which began using a corporate Twitter feed in 2011, took a more pragmatic approach to using social media for public information. It launched four Twitter feeds for its services in September 2012 following a long and extensive development process. This has since grown to 15 separate feeds for individual metro, tram and RER lines, with each now boasting between 700 and 4400 followers.

Mr Dominique de Ternay, head of marketing at RATP, said the reason for this approach was a desire to build a database of quality information on its own website which RATP and the public could access to answer any possible query. "This enables us to very quickly answer questions with attractive content," he says.

Central-Line-and-HandIn contrast, as an early starter with social media, Transport for London (TfL) took a step-by-step approach, allowing gradual growth as it, and its passengers, learnt how to use the different mediums most effectively.

Mr Steve Gumbrell, TfL's head of marketing strategy and business management, says steadily ramping up its presence helped to avoid a "big bang" in costs.

Gumbrell says Twitter is the focus of TfL's social media strategy and in 15 months it has gone from nothing to having dedicated Twitter feeds for each London Underground line as well as Overground services, a feed for the Oyster smartcard, a general TfL news feed, and feeds for bus and road traffic updates.

Mr Brian Dobson, TfL's online governance and planning manager, says the benefits of social media were felt during the London Olympics when up to 10 million people were using the network every day. "Twitter became an integral tool for many everyday as well as Olympic passengers to identify hotspots on the network early and arrange alternative routes which eased pressure on the network," he says.


In terms of staffing these feeds, Gumbrell says that no new staff have been hired specifically "to do social media." Instead eight people from its customer service team have received training with 30 people overall able to post tweets on TfL's behalf. He says that it is an "evolution" of its customer relations strategy with Twitter in particular having a noticeable effect in reducing the number of calls to TfL's customer relations centres.

The training process for individuals using social media focuses on the tone of voice used in Tweets, guaranteeing accuracy in what is posted, and how best to respond to certain complaints. This training emphasises pacifying aggressive tweeters by presenting information in a positive but firm way. Staff are assigned to man zones rather than specific lines which Gumbrell says helps to provide relevant traffic updates to passengers who might be using more than one mode of transport in a particular area of the city.

Gumbrelll says that TfL established a Social Media Working Group to manage its strategy, which he describes as a loose coalition of representatives from different sections of the business. During its meetings discussions have focused on how social media can potentially save costs and be better applied. Decisions taken include dropping the robotic voice of early tweets in favour of a human presence.

The discussions also look at new ways of using social media, recently prompting an increase in the use of LinkedIn as a resource to post jobs, and using YouTube more to promote public information.

While TfL is very active on Twitter, Gumbrell admits that it is less so on Facebook. He says that the operator has yet to decide the best way to utilise the platform with its current presence no more than a corporate page. Yet TfL does recognise Facebook's potential. Dobson says that with women between the ages of 18-34 making up 50% of Facebook users, promoting TfL's "Book a taxi" campaign, which highlights the dangers of late-night illegal cabs, is a logical subject for a Facebook campaign, but a decision has not yet been made on how to approach this.

Mr Anatol Scholz, passenger and product marketing manager at DB Regio, says his company had similar concerns about its presence on Facebook, with a DB page seemingly coming across as conservative and not attracting many likes.

Its solution was to target specific niches in the market with campaigns rather than organisations. The result is the Bayern-ticket page which is targeted at passengers under 18-years-of-age in Bavaria and now has 57,000 likes.

"We decided to launch the Bayern-ticket page around the time of the Chiemsee Reggae Summer festival which is very popular with young people, and was a way of attracting a core group of followers from the start," Scholz says.

He added that the page emphasises "fun," because "fun things are what draw engagement". For instance a white sausage with a caption of "typical Bayern" drew 408 likes and 64 shares.

A quick scan of the Bayern-ticket feed also shows photos of young people having fun in Bavaria, rather than the train service itself which is presented as the enabler of a good time.

Wiener Linien similarly emphasises fun in its posts, and Riegler says Facebook is now the company's primary social media portal, with around 32,000 current likes. She says the aim of its strategy is to develop an understanding audience by posting announcements and pictures of what is going on. Like the Bayern-ticket page, not all the posts are about the service itself, but about things taking place in Vienna which can build loyalty and expand the public's view of Wiener Linien as being more than just a transport operator.

This approach is shared by RATP, which Tweets about leisure activities and specific events taking place in Paris, while São Paulo transport authority's BOM card is marketed as a ticket to free and fun activities in the city. It provides a reason for people to travel through its related social media sites which promote events and offer information relevant to the area.

Clearly railway operators are still testing and developing their social media marketing strategies. Yet the rewards are potentially very attractive. A Twitter survey, or "Twervey," conducted for TfL found that 72% of people believed that its activities on Twitter had enhanced its reputation, while 81% check the feeds at least once a day and have changed their travel plans as a result.

With more and more operators looking to use social media in more and more creative ways, transport operators appear to be on the verge of taming marketing's new frontier. But as they do, Scholz warned that they should not lose sight of their overall strategy, and not do too much too soon. "Be easy going, relevant and above all keep it simple," he says. "And at the same time be prepared for the hard questions."