Social networking has taken the world by storm. Twitter first went live in 2006 and by 2007 was already seeing usage at 400,000 tweets per quarter. In just seven years that has increased over 100,000 times to a staggering 255 million active users sending 500 million tweets per day in 2014.
Facebook has a similar story: 1 million monthly users in 2004 when it was founded, growing to 1.23 billion monthly users in 2013. Figures for August 2013 showed that 24 million Britons log on to Facebook every day and, of these, 83% are using a smartphone or tablet to do so. To put that in perspective: more than a third of the UK population are accessing Facebook every day.
On my team we develop and support the software that provides passenger information at over 1500 UK railway stations. Recently we’ve been talking to our customers about how they see the future of passenger information evolving, and one strong theme has been the impact of social media. Matthew Clarke, Passenger Information Manager at London Midland, told us how Twitter has revolutionised the industry in terms of how rapidly they can now get feedback on the passenger experience:
“It’s not that many years ago that we didn’t have social media and I find it intriguing as to how much it has changed…it’s had a huge impact. One or two sentences to give you a viewpoint on how you’re making passengers feel today is priceless. Absolutely priceless.”
Of course, crucial to harnessing this near instant feedback effectively, is being able to route it rapidly to someone within the organisation who can act on it. That’s why my team is working together with UCL to research how multiple social media channels can be automatically monitored and, where appropriate, information passed on to the relevant people or systems. So, for example, if someone tweets that a hand-dryer at a station is faulty then that information can instantly be directed to facilities maintenance and automatically generate a ticket in the facilities management system.
“It has actually lifted expectations, because if somebody using social media can follow their favourite footballer or their favourite band, then the customers are saying to us I actually just want to follow the trains that I am interested in for my regular commute. So I think what it has done is raise the expectations of our customers in what we can provide in terms of real time information.”
I think we are now seeing the emergence of certain social media channels as new communications platforms. Just as the telephone emerged during the 1900s as an alternative to communication by post and telegram, we are now seeing the emergence of social media as an alternative to text messaging and email. The challenge is how we can use these new communication platforms effectively, as highlighted by this report from Passenger Focus which indicates that railway users can be reluctant to engage with train operators via social media…
“…for fear of receiving a high volume of irrelevant information or unwanted advertising and publicity materials. Twitter users are not interested unless feeds can be filtered to be specific to their own journeys.”
So personalisation is key. It isn’t just about how the information is delivered but also what information is delivered. It has to be relevant. A point that Matthew Clarke summarised well when we spoke to him:
“I would expect a very personal service of information about my train, delivered how I want it to be delivered: be it an email, be it a Twitter message or be it on my Facebook account. Whatever I like to look at – that’s how I want that message delivered to me.
Train companies should be saying “Here you go, you don’t even have to look at the screens as you go into the station, there’s all your information, grab your coffee, get on the platform and enjoy yourself”. It will be a push protocol but delivered personally based on their pull requirements.”
And surely that is where the future lies? Social media channels enabling rail users to raise issues and questions quickly and easily, and seeing action taken in a matter of minutes rather than days or weeks. Relevant information about train services being delivered to passengers when they want it and by whatever method they choose. In short: train companies driving the passenger experience by interacting with customers at Digital Speed."The Rise of the Social (Rail) Network?",