If you live or work in Manchester, there's a good chance you have at least a passing familiarity with the city's infamous Metrolink tram system.
Despite the reams of Twitter abuse and queries being hurled its way over its poor operation, Transport for Greater Manchester (TFGM), the authority that oversees the service, seemed somewhat reluctant to engage with its stakeholders via the medium.
In this post, we'll investigate how one irate customer's open letter and the accompanying outpouring of support changed all that.
A Brief Recap
Local celebrity Newsmanc has been gathering an online following for a couple of years now. His acerbic articles on various aspects of Mancunian culture and institutions are scathing and insightful in equal measure, and his exasperation at Metrolink's unreliable service has been the source of a number of these.
Like many, I was first introduced to Newsmanc through a post that convincingly claimed Metrolink had been a giant social experiment, designed to test "the long-term resilience and reaction of the general public in the face of relentless adverse conditions".
The accompanying comments were nearly as good as the post itself and it serves as something of a testament to Metrolink's poor performance that some people were apparently convinced that this satire was in fact true.
An Open Letter
An especially bad weekend for Metrolink services drove Newsmanc to publish a withering open letter in response to its formal apology; taking TFGM to task over a number of issues, some serious, some whimsical.
One of the most salient points he put across was on TFGM's use of social media in communicating with stakeholders, entitled Social Media is a two-way communication tool:
"Log in to twitter. Click the '@ Connect' button. You'll see a load of things that look like this:
@officialtfgm I've been at Market Street for 20 minutes, where are the Rochdale trams?!
@officialtfgm You're as useful as a Paul Scholes' tackle.
@officialtfgm If you were a telecoms company you'd be NTL.
This is people tweeting things at you. Underneath is a link that says 'reply'. If you click this button you'll be able to communicate with people who have asked you a question, or made a comment in your general direction. You need to acknowledge people as social media is a two-way communication tool. If you don't have the skills or resources to do this then don't use it at all."
He went on to note that this situation had got so out of hand that a train company named Metrolink in California was actually fielding customer service complaints on Twitter and directing cross commuters to TFGM's official account.
A Change of Tack
Prior to the aforementioned discourse, TFGM had used its Twitter page as something of an announcement board. Activities like cycling classes were blithely announced, while the tweeted abuse of neglected passengers was for the most part ignored.
While updates on line closures, delays and other issues affecting travel in the Greater Manchester area were posted as a matter of course, @TFGM avoided connecting with its followers and answering complaints on an individual basis.
However, on the morning of 7 August, an invisible switch was flicked somewhere and TFGM's customer service team sprung into action, taking to the Twitter feed to tackle customer issues with gusto.
They cordially thanked Newsmanc for the letter, inviting him in to discuss the issues over a brew and revealed plans for further social media expansion in the future.
Ask Me Anything
In addition to this flurry of activity it was announced that Metrolink director Peter Cushing would be popping in for an hour for some livetweeting action later that very same day.
And in an epic display of how to do social media the right way, he fielded complaints, comments and queries like a pro. Cushing was transparent, candid and in no way condescending in his responses.
He addressed concerns honestly and was frank about failings. Cushing gave followers an insightful glimpse into the inner workings of Metrolink and helped disenfranchised customers to see the people and values that made up the company – rather than shouting ineffectively into the faceless void of an unresponsive social media account.
Here's a couple of our personal favourites:
For balance, however, it has to be noted that not everyone was happy with Cushing's responses. One dissatisfied commentator branded TFGM's customer service representatives as the "worst PR team ever".
Similarly, some initial queries were quickly answered but the threads of questions that led on from these were left to fester, which is something of an inevitability when you've only got an hour with which to respond to tweets.
So what can brands and businesses take away from this situation?
Social media is social: If you offer a customer-facing product or service and have a social media profile, expect customers to interact with you via the medium.
No really, you've got to be social: As TFGM demonstrated, companies don't really have a choice when it comes to social media interaction. You can try to not play the game and use Twitter et al simply as another outlet for corporate news and announcements, but if your business affects a lot of people, unaddressed complaints will one day reach critical mass.
Even if your product or service isn't as public-facing as trams; if you don't utilise social media in the way your customers or target audience want you to – it's something of a given that your engagement will suffer.
Allocate sufficient resources: Social media is a powerful marketing tool, but brands and business of all shapes and sizes are guilty of underestimating how much time, effort and resources will go into cultivating and maintaining a successful profile.
In short – it's easy to do badly but hard to do well. So as Newsmanc suggested, if you don't have sufficient resources to tackle social media in a serious way – you might be best off taking a step back from social and deploying your efforts elsewhere.
Avoid bland, corporate babble: Social media gives you the opportunity to display personality and make a personal connection with your target audience. So if you're using it as a glorified noticeboard or like the fire-and-forget tools of yesteryear, you're seriously under-utilising the medium.
Address concerns transparently: Holding statements and referring to company policy just won't cut it in the world of social. There's usually a good reason behind your company's decisions so if possible, share this. And if you do find you've made a mistake – apologise and set out the steps you'll be taking to rectify this. McDonald's in Canada recently provided a great example of this kind of engagement, so be sure to check it out.
So what are your thoughts on the use of social media in a corporate setting? Are private companies unavoidably hampered in their use of social or is it possible for any type of business to use the format to its fullest?
We're always keen to know what you think, so don't be a stranger and let us know in the comments!
And if you think your social media marketing could do with a spruce up or you simply want to learn more about using the medium for corporate communications – get in touch today.
Gez Heneghan is head of content at Roland Dransfield