As I write this, we’re just a few hours away from a significant moment in the UK’s rail industry: Day One of the new Virgin Trains East Coast operation – returning the King’s Cross to Edinburgh (and beyond) route to the private sector after several years of largely successful state control. Though a 90/10 split between Stagecoach and Virgin, the public face of the new company will be that of Virgin – a commercial move that’s a clear testament to the value of the big red brand.
In the original wave of rail privatisation, Virgin was a two-TOC player, before losing the Cross Country franchise in 2007. But now, for the first time in the social media era, one of the most recognisable presences in British commerce will again find itself at the reins of an expanded rail empire – an empire with two franchises, two headquarters, two staff teams and two sets of passengers.
Within the UK’s rail industry, Twitter is the most dominant social platform – combining a customer service function with marketing, disruption information and brand expression.
Virgin Trains is arguably held up as the poster child of how to do social media on rails. Its current main Twitter presence has a good tone of voice, a proactive approach to customer service and good response times.
But how will things work with two rail companies operating using Twitter under the one iconic brand?
It starts with a well-handled transition…
The transition from bid winner to train operator has already been dealt with well on Twitter, through the active engagement of the @askVirginEC Twitter account. But the mobilisation period is nearly over. What happens next?
As a social media consultant that works with the rail sector, here are four things I’ll be watching for:
1. Managing public perception
A popular refrain against rail communicators is that “the public just don’t understand how it all works.” This will be put to the test as the travelling public are asked to understand the situation of one powerful brand having two train companies, two routes, but one voice, look and place in the mind of the British consumer.
Will Virgin seek to make clear the difference, or will they deal diplomatically with the blur, and see things from the point of view of the customer, rather than the industry? How will the two operations be differentiated in the public eye? Will we see a rebranding of the West Coast franchise‘s social spaces, to acknowledge the arrival of a sibling?
2. Handling between accounts
A frequent issue within transport social media is the direction of public enquiries to the wrong train or bus company, as customers look to the wrong oplace for help. Good social media practice will see a courteous handover or introduction to the correct account. With two Virgin TOCs to talk to, how skilfully will I be treated when I ask the West Coast Twitter account about my trip to Edinburgh, or I complain to the East Coast account about delays through Birmingham?
Will the two companies join up their social media listening operation, so I am immediately responded to, regardless of whether I confuse my east or west? Will I be told I’ve made a mistake, or simply receive the information I seek via Twitter?
3. Dealing with objection
Even the big red blanket of the Virgin brand cannot protect a train company from complaint, dissatisfaction and objection. There are many people who disagree with the Government’s reprivatisation of the important East Coast franchise. And a vociferous movement of regular East Coast passengers are taking issue with Virgin’s move away from the East Coast system of rewards points. A key measure of social media customer service will be the way these complaints and objections are dealt with. Engage in debate, decline to comment or manage diplomatically? We shall see.
4. Championing the future
Within the period of this franchise, the IEP programme will bring new express trains to the east coast route. Though planned long ago, and commissioned not by Virgin/Stagecoach but by the Department for Transport, it will be fun to see how Virgin introduces these new trains. Virgin would be crazy not to seize the opportunity to champion the new trains, provoke public excitement and – let’s be frank – take some credit for their introduction. But how will Virgin do this? I’m expecting big things from some creative marketers.