Are you on Facebook? In the UK, 24 million people log on every day and some transport operators are making better use of this forum than others writes Alex Warner

 

 

Do you flip? Do you toss? Do you squeeze? How would you respond to this Pancake Day-related question on TrentBarton’s Facebook page? Ahh, Facebook, don’t you just love it? Far better than Twitter, more space to moan, debate or celebrate and great fun to snoop on the private lives of friends, family and so-called mates without having to talk to them.

Bus companies make a better fist of Facebook than their stuffy-nosed colleagues in rail. The localised nature of their customer-base helps them get up close and personal in a way that a humongous intercity train company struggles with, and this is reflected in the way in which they use Facebook as a conduit to get matey and expound the minutiae of daily lives in the communities in which they reside.

Trent is probably the best. Why does it need to discuss pancake preferences on its Facebook page? After all, that’s not directly going to get folk on buses? However, it does help propagate further warm feelings about this wacky and fun-filled bus company. No wonder they have 21,000 “likes”.

Trent treats social media seriously it would seem and it doesn’t relegate it to a peripheral activity undertaken by a driver on light duties pending a disciplinary hearing or the work experience boy, like some other companies. Postings are relentless, many times a day and at weekends and not just the boring stuff about delays, but lots of promotions, free tickets for Notts County FC (poor folk), love poems on Valentine’s Day, free breakfasts and the Derby Beer Festival. The online appearances of Trent talisman Mr Mango haven’t dropped since his crazy mentor, Alex Hornby, bounced off to Blazefield.

There are other shining stars. Southern Vectis may be meticulous at its service updates but it gets all misty-eyed and romantic too, with its description of Chinese New Year at Robin Hill’s “electric woods”. The prose may well be lifted from an advertising brochure, but you can almost hear and feel general manager Matt Kitchin salivating as he taps “floating lanterns will bring magical reflections to the water and themed music will add to the ambience.. . the stunning ‘Golden Oriole’ bridge with its cascading water and the marble temple”.

Cardiff Bus is another great exponent of Facebook best practice. Little touches such as “Good morning, chilly out there wrap up warm, on line until 19:00, have a great day” are interspersed with pictures of customers being handed out pizza delivery style boxes, ram-jammed with cookies and suggestions for half-term inspiration.

Indeed, all across the UK, bus companies are doing their bit to enliven our Facebook accounts with bright and breezy stories, changing perceptions of bus companies as boring and staid. Even the big boys at Arriva, First and Stagecoach, with their less localised brands, are joining in the fun with the service disruption messages more than balanced by special offers, tit-bits and social observations.

As we all know, Facebook does come with its health warnings. There are some companies that don’t come to the party and the absence of any postings for over a year give a rather Luddite feel – either they don’t approve or just don’t know how to do it, probably the latter. Where they update irregularly or the administrator doesn’t do enough to react to negative postings from customers, frustrated loyal, pro-company employees have been known to intervene defensively in their spare time. One organisation I visited this week is providing a guidance document for all employees so that they are aware that when they do interject in a well intentioned way, they are seen as representing the company and could be putting their livelihood at risk. Not rocket science, but perhaps the answer is for those running the Facebook accounts to post in a more timely manner and not just sit back and watch customers slate them. Perhaps more should copy Arriva and incorporate a ‘live chat’ function into their Facebook page, which enables complaints to be diverted away from this public forum.

Failing to respond to comments from customers is perhaps not as heinous a crime as changing the settings so that comments cannot be viewed. The big beasts that are TOCs are chief culprits of this. Check out Virgin’s Facebook page, it is just a monologue of free advertising – so unashamedly a self-glorification publicity exercise that it defeats the object of Facebook as an engagement tool. This is where the sleek Virgin brand takes brand integrity too far and the corporate comms police have taken over. Fair play, meanwhile, to East Coast. For every happy-clappy publicity stunt on its Facebook page, there’s a grounding, dream-shattering cynical customer comment, interspersed by the odd remark that suggests some reticence about Virgin taking over.

The real benefit of Facebook for operators is the opportunity it provides in terms of destination marketing and providing the balance is right between this and general spontaneous engagement, then I’m all for it. Train companies such as Southeastern, where traditionally it has been an uphill struggle trying to get bums on seats during the off peak period, are exploiting Facebook to push the wonders of their network. Their page is ram-packed with one innovative day out idea after another, targeting almost every market segment you could imagine. There appears to be either general apathy amongst readers as comments and likes are almost non-existent apart from one advert for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park followed by a sarcastic Victor Meldrew: “Yep. It took one bus and two trains and double the time it should have… High Speed is amazing and value for money.”

A day earlier there’s a lovely picture of an elephant and his protruding trunk as we’re enticed to travel to Howletts, the Aspinall Wild Animal Park – “cutie” says one poster, the other remarks “maybe get the elephant to assist with running the trains .. at least he won’t forget that customers come first?”.

Meanwhile, there’s a cheesy picture of a loved-up couple and we’re asked to check out romantic ideas for Valentine’s Day, only to be brought down to earth by a chap who advises us of the absurdity of “Good old Southeastern Rail (sic) – promoting cheap travel ideas and romantic ideas for next weekend when there is another round of engineering works added to the chaos at London Bridge, poorly run services and exceptionally difficult experience for disabled customers”.

Credit to Southeastern for not hiding customer feedback on their Facebook page, even if the paucity on display makes one wonder whether an IT administrator at Friars Bridge Court has played a censorship role and kept a few token comments in and expletives out. If they sanitised it too much, then there would be a flurry of folk migrating to the rough and ready “I Hate Southeastern Trains” Facebook page whose purpose is for customers to “Vent your anger about Southeastern Trains. Maybe they’ll start to refund money as the result of poor service. Or maybe they’ll sort there (sic) service out, which is all we bloody want!”

As customer insight goes, there’s some interesting stuff on this site, but it soon becomes debilitating, there’s only so much ranting, raving and bitterness that can be taken. I feel sorry for my favourite TOC – despite the steep fall in the last wave of NPS scores (74% overall satisfaction), this is a well-run company, managed by experienced, enthusiastic and very customer-focused individuals who’d walk through brick walls to make customers happy. A lot of the negativity around is, in my view, attention-seekers trying to jump on the bandwagon.

That Facebook remains the biggest risk and biggest opportunity to transport marketers is an unavoidable truism. Check-out the Facebook pages of every rail or bus operator and for those that don’t hide comments, each page is a monotonous litany of customer’s referring to late services. “When’s my bus gonna turn up?” could be the strapline for every bus company Facebook page. Any turned-up nose, posh knob car driver seeing this would have all his or her misconceptions of public transport confirmed within a second. You would think, however, that any regular transport user would be wised up enough to blot out and consign to the background all the negative comments, mindful that the reality is that their service is, in the main, punctual and reliable.

For me, I’m returning to TrentBartonland – a paradisiacal, colourful, bright and well designed page, a cynicism-free setting where I’m buttered up for disruption (“Update time, you lovely lot… we are seeing delays to our nines services”) and where customers end their posts with kisses. Even in this heaven, delays still occur but customers affected ask queries in ever such a polite way, whilst the majority of others pass the time at the bus stop more pre-occupied as to whether they are going to flip, toss or squeeze on Pancake Day.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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