Hear and now: social media listening for operational decision-making

This is a repost of something I originally wrote on the NixonMcInnes site during my time there, explaining the benefits of really getting stuck into social media listening, whether working in the rail industry or elsewhere. Give me a shout if you’d like to know more.


Social media listening is often spoken about. It is generally associated with the areas of customer service, reputation and research. By listening to the customer, we give ourselves the opportunity to satisfy their query, calm their anger or manage their perception. We may gather feedback on a product or service – informing improvements and developments. This we know.

But in listening there are immediate possibilities that reach beyond this. There are occasions when the right kind of listening, at precisely the right time, can make a real difference – not just to perception or satisfaction – but to actual operational functions.

And a particularly vivid example cropped up recently in the rail industry:

An official report into an incident of a broken-down train has made some recommendations around social media. At 65 pages, the report is extensive, but lists at one point the extent of the information that had been shared on Twitter and Facebook (alongside phone calls) by passengers involved in the incident:


  • passengers on [the train] had operated the passenger communication alarms
  • doors had been opened with passengers ‘spilling out onto the track’
  • information was not being received via the public address system
  • water was required on the train but none had been delivered
  • passengers could not communicate with the driver as he was now staying in his
  • passengers were requesting assistance

So important, potentially safety-critical information about the incident was being provided, unofficially, by passengers on a stuck train.

The report then acknowledges the potential offered by social media in times of severe rail disruption, the first part of which is already recognised as good practice:


The use of social media by train operators may assist them in communicating with customers during times of severe service disruption, and contribute to a two-way exchange of information; thus reducing speculation.

So far, so good, right? This is social-in-rail basics: tell people what’s going on, and answer their questions honestly. But it’s what follows that gets really interesting, and moves beyond usual expectations:

Train operators can consider the intelligence in the context of other known information to ensure a proper risk assessment and evaluation of the information takes place and suitable action is taken.


Moving away from the dry language of official rail incident reporting, what’s this saying?

Don’t just monitor social channels for information requests and people in need of reassurance. Really listen to what people are telling you. These people are on the ground, where a situation is happening. They are potentially your sensors, helping to build a picture of the operational situation, so contributing to possible solutions.

Social media listening is not a new idea. But it’s usually done in the interests of marketing, reputation, research or customer service. Here – from a serious government body – is recommendation thatorganisations could use social media listening as real data to inform and assist with operations. It’s recognition that the data shared online, in realtime, by passengers, has more value than as mere reputational currency or customer service fodder.

There are practical considerations here: if your view of social media listening involves monitoring Twitter for @ mentions and keeping watch on a Facebook page, it could be time to get more sophisticated. How much useful information is being offered that might not be formally addressed to an organisation’s Twitter or Facebook presence? Think about search terms, set up some columns on your social media management system, or consider other monitoring tools, like the free-but-basic Google Alerts, or the very sophisticated Brandwatch.

A very real illustration of the difference that can be made by ‘realtime’ listening comes in the form of this tweet, from Robin Morel, an incident response manager who co-ordinates responses and resources when something goes wrong on the rails:

“15 minutes”. That’s fifteen minutes’ gap between the time it takes to pick up news of an incident through social media, and the time that information reaches critical staff through conventional channels. And, in Robin’s world, fifteen minutes can be a long time:

Think of the customer as an ally, find the best way to listen to them, and there are times they can really help you to help them.


Photo (unconnected with the incident described) thanks to Tom Page.
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