Monday, April 25, 2011

@SFBART vs. @metroopensdoors

@metroopensdoors, the official WMATA Twitter feed, is about the least fun feed on Twitter. It's a seemingly never-ending list of bad news, with virtually no interaction with customers. In fact, @metroopensdoors only follows four people, all beat reporters with local media. Over the past two years, since we've been following it, they've responded to customers via Twitter only a handful of times, if that. They have almost 9,400 followers. They don't even retweet the good tweets that do appear from time to time.

@SFBart, the Twitter feed for San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit, is not something you'd call extremely entertaining, but it's far from the gloom and doom of @metroopensdoors. With 12,700 followers, @SFBART engages, announces interesting facts, follows others and makes an effort to address customers' concerns.

We reached out to the PR department at BART to try to get a peek into the way they operate. They were very responsive and incredibly friendly. Here's what Melissa Jordan of the BART communications team had to say.

Do you tweet all BART disruptions?

No, we made a conscious choice and tried to educate our Twitter followers that our Twitter feed is not automated--it is run by humans, and we are here to do it during our business hours, generally daytime on the weekdays.

We put this explanation of our Twitter feed on our website, and we reinforce it with signoff messages, for example, at the start of a weekend reminding people where to go for official service advisories.

BART has existing, extremely reliable, robust channels for getting official services advisories -- through our mobile site, signups for email or SMS alerts or on-demand SMS. These are the places we want customers to go for the most reliable and timely information. They are much more stable than Twitter, even with fewer failwhales these days.

We have had some customer feedback asking for a separate, automated Twitter service advisory feed and we are looking into that right now. However, we would still want to educate customers about the limitations of that. An automated feed is not going to be the Twitter experience that many people expect -- for example, with interaction to be able to ask questions and get answers. An automated Twitter feed simply would be a mirror image of the information people already can get through our more reliable service advisory channels. It would have the same pros (doesn't sleep, doesn't take a day off) and cons (ignores you, doesn't feel your pain) of any automated feed.

How important a role is Twitter seen as having in BART's overall rider communication plans?

We have found Twitter to be very useful in communicating with riders, and have heard good feedback from riders that they like communicating with us that way. A couple of obvious areas where Twitter has been especially helpful are: 1) During rapidly changing breaking news situations, where we can post updates very quickly and easily; and 2) In the ability to quickly and easily point people with links to more in-depth sources of information that already exist on our website. One of Twitter's greatest strengths can also be a shortcoming -- the 140-character short-format message. We use it for brief bursts of information but often need to send people elsewhere for longer explanations with more context, such as our main website or our medium-format blog.

How do you add an element of fun to the stream? WMATA's feed largely consists of disruptions and links to press releases about upcoming disruptions.

We try to add an element of fun, when appropriate, by interacting with our riders and facilitating the sharing of their experiences. Public transportation is a big part of daily life for a lot of people. Transit riders are a community of people with shared experiences. There are good days and bad days. I think a lot of our people who follow us on Twitter do it because they can relate. The warm fuzzy when someone tweets about seeing a random act of kindness on the train, or shares a photo of a gorgeous sunset over a station. The "I'm not alone" feeling when someone else says they are dog-tired after a long day of work and really wish they could be home with their family right now, or cannot believe that person next to them is really clipping their fingernails on the train. We've all been there. Of course, there is nothing "fun" about a delay or a serious incident, so we have to exercise the right tone to match the particular situation at any given time.

WMATA follows only four people--all transportation beat reporters with local media. How does BART benefit from following people?

Following people has practical benefits and also seems to be a big part of bringing that humanizing element, knowing your audience and interacting with them and not just one-way broadcasting. In particular you can't exchange direct messages without mutually following, and sometimes you need to DM (direct message) -- for example, exchanging email addresses or dealing with a really specific, individual issue that not everyone wants to see. Following others creates a richer stream of public transit riders' life experiences to draw from, instead of the picture you would get if you only saw messages sent specifically to you.

What other duties do you have, and how long per day would you say that you spend on Twitter, either reading tweets, or tweeting?

I am one-half of a two-person website team that runs all of our online operations (web, mobile web, opt-in email and SMS messaging, open data, social media) and is also integrated into a communications department handling broader non-online communications duties. I probably spend about an hour each day in total on all social media including Twitter.

How much leeway are you given--for example do your tweets have to be approved before being sent?

Our tweets aren't approved by anyone else. We have probably four decades in communications experience, and we've established a record that we use good judgment.

Do you have any data/anecdotal evidence that your forays into social media are effective in bolstering BART's reputation?

By having regular, honest, timely, credible communications on Twitter, I think it supports the case that we are trying to communicate with customers in a direct and real way, overall. I don't have any hard data on that although we have many positive anecdotal remarks of the kind I sent in the screengrabs.

Our Marketing & Resesarch Department does a Customer Satisfaction Survey every two years, and it has an open-ended section where people can add comments. One of the verbatims that a customer gave was the following; it's anecdotal but nice to see:
"I follow BART on Twitter and find it really useful! It's good outreach and information. Keep it going!"
As a communications staff, how much access do you have to information within BART?

We have very good access to information within BART, in general. Usually, our customer services department is my liaison to other departments such as operations when an issue comes up, and they look into the matter so we can respond quickly and effectively to the questions that are brought up by customers.
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