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Transit Travels to Cyberspace to Reach Riders

Posted on April 21, 2009 by Nicole Schlosser, Associate Editor - Also by this author

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[IMAGE]Marketing.jpg[/IMAGE]With millions of people consuming information through blogs, Twitter and Facebook, many transit authorities across the U.S. are hopping on board these rapidly growing social networking Websites for their versatility and cost-effective marketing aspects and adding more sophisticated Web applications.

The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) started a Twitter feed last August and has — as of April 1 — 2,867 “followers” who also share their updates. “It lets you get a pulse on what’s happening on any given day in the system,” says Melissa Jordan, senior marketing representative and Web producer.

BART also uses a Facebook page to share news headlines and blog posts with fans, and has a “developer tools” section on its Website. “We’re [also] really eager to see what other types of things third-party developers might create,” says Jordan.

For example, a local developer used BART data to create a Facebook application that customers can download to their page, enabling them to view arrival info for the next train so they can “message” friends to let them know what train they will be taking. Jordan cites this as a great example of how transit agencies, who themselves may not be in a position to create these applications, can still provide the data and partner with those who can create new, user-friendly tools.

The agency redesigned their Website last year, with the goal of making it more interactive. Riders can report observations on the “Seen and Heard on BART” Web page, and a blog has been added, designed to be more light-hearted and visual, where riders can share photographs. “We attempted to make it more engaging and build as we see what works with our customers,” says Jordan.

To get the word out about these tools, BART primarily uses email updates, Website promotions, and posters on trains and in stations. Secondarily, it uses its electronic board messaging system, when no priority messages need to run. They cycle through different announcements and short teases intended to drive people to the Twitter page, the Website and developer tools. “We have a big target audience, because they’re already in the station,” Jordan says.

She notes that a significant plus to using these tools is that it helps humanize the brand. “It’s immediate, it’s personal. You definitely have the sense that you’re giving riders information that they can use right then. I get a lot of really great feedback from people that they appreciate that.”

Like a lot of businesses, BART is trying to trim and conserve wherever possible. “[None] of these tools cost anything, they’re really easy to use, and they leverage the strengths of your community and customers in sharing content. It’s an economical way to go about producing content of interest,” says Jordan.

After having spoken at the Web 2.0 Marketing Seminar at the APTA Marketing and Communications Workshop in San Francisco in February, Jordan says the biggest concern many transit marketing department staff have is how much time it will take. “It depends on your ability to multi-task, but if you disperse it throughout your day, altogether it doesn’t take that much time. It might take 20, 30 seconds to send a short message on Twitter, and you might do that three to four times a day. Knowing what you want to say and posting it is five minutes or less.”

The transition can easily be made if media and marketing staff are interested and become advocates; often, they’re using social media in their personal life, so they’re already comfortable with the technology, Jordan says.

Timely updating key

Everett, Wash.-based Community Transit’s first foray into social media took place two years ago when they partnered with a local youth organization, the Lynnwood, Wash.-based Lynnwood Teen Advisory Group, to get help designing and spreading the word about their MySpace page.

In return for the assistance, the agency sponsored a number of activities for the group, including a skateboarding event. “We would take laptops out there, and kids would come by, log on to the MySpace page and sign up as ‘Friends,’” says Martin Munguia, public information officer. They held a contest to give away a bus pass for those who submitted suggestions on what could improve the page. With about 100 people signing up and giving ideas, the promotion was successful. “It was more authentic than some suits sitting around saying, ‘this is what we think kids will like,’” says Munguia.

Since they didn’t continue updating the page, one lesson the agency learned was “that it is sort of death for this type of medium, because people will see nothing’s changed and then they’ll lose interest, and that’s kind of what they did,” Munguia recalls.

He adds that they are moving forward, taking steps to ensure the new site on Facebook is fresh. Now, there is an appointed staff member who logs on every day, posts new information, checks for messages and ensures there’s nothing outdated on the site.

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