Sarah M. Kaufman is a researcher and Assistant Adjunct Professor at NYU's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management.
Social media networks give transportation providers access to large numbers of people simultaneously and without a fee. The NYU Rudin Center’s new report, "How Social Media Moves New York, Part 2," based on earlier findings (see "Twitter's Importance to Transportation," October 2012) recommends social media policies for transportation providers seeking to inform, engage, and motivate their customers.
The goals of social media in transportation are to inform (alert riders of a situation), motivate (to opt for an alternate route), and engage (amplify the message to their friends and neighbors). Marketing messages are also essential to inform riders about new services, and to be compelling enough to retain the follower base that will help amplify important information. Our study of tweets by transportation providers throughout the New York region during the summer of 2012 showed a wide disparity in proportions of service information, engagement and marketing posts between different agencies:
Appropriate timing of messages alters the ideal proportions, and can vastly enhance a transportation provider’s follower base—e.g., providing essential delay information during rush hour—or turn customers off entirely—e.g., over-posting marketing messages during rush hour. Based on the research in this report, the following chart shows recommended proportions of social media posts:
More generally, to communicate effectively using social media, transportation providers’ online presence must be:
- Accessible: Easily discovered through multiple channels and targeted information campaigns
- Informative: Disseminating service information at rush hour and with longer-form discussions on blogs as needed
- Engaging: Responding directly to customers, marketing new services, and building community
- Responsive: Soliciting and internalizing feedback and self-evaluating in a continuous cycle
To the last point, a large portion of responsiveness is accountability. In our analysis, we found a major discrepancy in the use of “thanks” and “sorry” in the Twitter feeds of private transportation providers (specifically, American Airlines and JetBlue) versus public agencies. Specifically, the airlines apologized far more than public transportation providers for delays and cancellations: in the two months studied, American Airlines wrote “sorry” and its synonyms 3,949 times; PATH, 62 times; Metro-North, 39 times; NJ Transit, 25 times; and the others, three or fewer times. Similarly, while customer engagement dominated both airlines’ Twitter accounts (85% on average), demonstrating their need to be constantly responsive to and direct with customers, public transportation providers communicated less directly with their customers (34%). These patterns indicate a universal orientation toward customer service throughout the private companies, which must earn and maintain customer loyalty. However, public transportation providers, which often have a monopoly on customers, likely do not feel the same need to focus on them.
In contrast, the public transportation providers accepted ‘thanks’ at a greater rate than they issued apologies (on average 17.7 “thanks” versus 12.6 “sorry”). This pattern was most pronounced in NYC Transit’s feed, which posted 26 “thanks” and variants, but only 3 “sorry” and variants, and NJ Transit, which posted 73 thanks and 25 apologies. See the chart below for all Sorry/Thanks comparisons. This diversion may result from the typically thankless work of transit management, making compliments especially meaningful.
Accountability, like accurate information and direct engagement, is essential in building trust between transportation agencies and their customers. While accessibility, information, engagement and responsiveness compose the four pillars of transportation and social media, the human facet is essential to the online presence, and displaying one requires a cultural shift from the pre-social media press releases and opaque, one-way information streams.