Arriva UK Bus has developed a national, co-ordinated approach to social media across its businesses. We spoke to Nick Gordon

The rise of social media has presented Britain’s bus companies with a challenge and an opportunity. Channels like Facebook and Twitter offer new ways to reach out to existing customers and attract new ones, but this requires operators to come up with a social media strategy. There are questions to answer: Who will be responsible for social media within the organisation? What will social media be used for? What level of resource should be allocated to it and during what hours? What tone should the organisation adopt in its responses?

There’s another question for Britain’s major bus groups: should the social media strategy be defined and led locally or centrally? Arriva, which is owned by Germany’s Deutsche Bahn, has opted for the latter. In the early days of social media some of its subsidiaries, notably Arriva Yorkshire, were among the pioneers. However, under Nick Gordon, senior marketing and communications manager at Arriva UK Bus, the group has implemented a national social media strategy to ensure a co-ordinated and consistent approach across its 5,900-vehicle bus business in England and Wales.

This strategy has gained recognition outside of the transport sector. It has been nominated for awards at three different awards schemes, including Best Social Media Customer Service Strategy/Campaign at the Social Buzz Awards.

Arriva’s approach brings together three different elements to create a social media community – the central customer services team, based at Arriva’s UK Bus head office in Luton, the regional marketing teams and local depot staff. Their work is supported and guided by a “national champion” for social media, Abigail White.

White’s appointment last autumn as social media and communications co-ordinator is thought to be the first of its kind across the UK’s major bus groups. She joined Arriva from Highcross shopping centre, in Leicester, where she implemented social strategies and campaigns not just for Highcross, but for all Hammerson-owned shopping centres throughout the UK. “It’s Abigail’s job to ensure consistency across all the channels, but with the flexibility for regions to develop their own content,” says Gordon. “I think that’s really important. We’re a national business but we’re still a local business.”

There are around 14 people in Arriva for whom social media is a significant part of their role, and this group will undertake a BTEC qualification in social media. They are constantly exchanging ideas and best practice, and the aim is for them to meet quarterly.

Responsibility for responding to comments on social media lies with the customer service team. This Luton-based team is split into four regions – Yorkshire/North East, North West/Wales, Midlands and South East – and each region has a social media specialist.

In total, there are currently 16 regional Facebook pages (with 50,000 ‘likes’), 16 regional Twitter pages (with 23,000 followers) and one YouTube channel. Arriva North West has just one account for Twitter and Facebook while the Midlands is divided into East and West. Enclosed networks in the South East like Milton Keynes and Medway have their own accounts, and the group also has accounts for non-branded networks, such as Green Line, Hinckley Bus, Network Colchester, Wardle Transport and Yorkshire Tiger.

“It’s constantly under review,” says Gordon. “If we think a local community would benefit more from having say Arriva Merseyside then we would look to do that, but you’ve got to be careful on how you resource that.

“You could end up going too granular, a Facebook page for every route. Clearly that wouldn’t be the best use of resource.”

Gordon says that social media is perceived as a desirable function within the central customer services team and there is healthy internal competition to take it on. The team uses special social media software, Crowd Control, which aggregates all of the various channels in the region that they are responsible for onto one feed on their screen. Commenting on the challenge of responding to the new tidal wave of communication that is coming from social media, Stagecoach chairman Sir Brian Souter has recalled his early days in the bus industry when depot phones regularly went unanswered – he says that failing to respond to enquiries from social media is just as bad.

Gordon says that Arriva’s team aims to respond to all enquiries within 30 minutes and the software enables response rates to be tracked on a daily basis. However, he concedes that the nine-to-five working hours of the customer services team does not cover the morning and evening peaks. Arriva’s depots can post service updates on Twitter or Facebook at any time of day or night, but they do not have the permission to respond to customer enquiries. Gordon is looking at ways to resource key periods in order to improve Arriva’s customer services offer.

Arriva is planning a formal launch of its new smartphone app in June. This app is already available to download, but from June customers will be able to use it to access real time information (this is already available for the North East region). It will be a valuable tool for customers, and it will also be useful for the customer services team.

One of the challenges that organisations are having to address is the tone of their communication via social media, which is often chirpy and informal. Arriva has trained depot staff in how it wants them to convey service updates.

“I think what you get a lot of times in depots is people who are very ingrained in the industry tend to use industry type words that aren’t necessarily recognised by our customers,” he explains. “So, in the early days we used to see a lot of RTAs [Road Traffic Accident] and other such acronyms which people genuinely didn’t understand. So we had to pull them back a bit and say ‘just be that little bit more friendly and social’. The clue is in the name – it’s social media.”

The same message has been given to the regional marketing teams, where communications sometimes sounded quite official. “Because it is still a relatively new form of communication, I think that many traditional marketeers have struggled to adapt to that different tone of voice,” says Gordon. A more open and friendly tone of communication has resulted in lots of great engagement on the group’s pages.

An example of this approach came earlier this month on April Fool’s Day. Abigail White came up with a light-hearted online hoax – informing passengers that the sensors for a new traffic light priority system for buses required them to disable their mobile phones while on board. Gordon says that the reach was strong – around six times higher than the average from general service-related comments. “Clearly people enjoy and like that kind of quirky comment,” says Gordon.

Not all the engagement is positive. There were a handful of angry responses to the April Fool’s hoax, for example. Negative, and sometimes abusive messages, are a fixture of social media, but Gordon says that Arriva isn’t shying away from them. In fact, often on Facebook Arriva will actually ‘like’ negative comments. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that we agree with what people are saying, but it means that we’re acknowledging that we’ve read it and I think that’s important,” Gordon explains. “We’re not ignoring people who are being critical of us.”

On occasions the team attempts to diffuse negative comments, and even turn them around, with friendly and light-hearted responses. “If it’s critical without being hugely abusive, and you think you can turn it round, then I think it works really well,” says Gordon. “If it’s really abusive and includes swearing, that’s a really tough judgement call.”

And sometimes other people will join the conversation on Arriva’s side. “That’s the great thing about social user-generated content.”

In addition to the one-off gripers, there are also regular and determined critics, and they can sometimes attract a large numbers of followers themselves.

“Social media hasn’t created this as a new phenomenon because you’ve always had your serial complainers, regardless of what format they’re using to voice their opinions,” says Gordon. I think the thing about social media it almost gives them minor celebrity status as it’s open for all to see.

“That’s the risk, but it’s also the benefit because it’s something which you can use to your advantage. If you can change that person’s view or diffuse a situation sufficiently for all your followers on social media to see, then that’s a huge win.”

What’s next? Arriva UK Bus is planning to launch a LinkedIn page for stakeholder and b2b audience. Meanwhile, work at the bus division is feeding into its parent group’s thinking on social media. Fiona Punchard, a communications manager at Arriva plc, has been tasked with pulling together examples of best practice from the across the Sunderland-based group’s businesses across Europe.

In terms of a national co-ordinated approach to social media, Gordon thinks that Arriva is leading the way. “We’ve got that national, integrated approach to social media with lots of different workstreams working together to the same end,” says Gordon. “We’re really proud of it and the fact that we’re getting recognised from the marketing industry as a whole, when you think about all the other potential winners, retail, big brands across the board, is a massive achievement..

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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