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Featured Story | Written by Rich Shilton
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Guest Blog: Building and managing a leading online presence

During my time at Virgin Trains, one of my main responsibilities was to create, and build, their entire social media landscape and online presence.

31 Jul - 10 min read

In the beginning

I was there from the very first tweet, in August 2009, right through until September 2019. Trying to bring in social media, and educate the business what social media was, was always going to be a difficult task, and this was certainly the case, for most train operators, within the industry. From the off, our very first tweet was asking customers to email us to log a query/ complaint – although this feels very bizarre now this felt like it was the right thing to do, to promote our methods for logging a question. This was the beginning, and certainly my first learning curve.

We started the account like a radio show, signing on and off each day to entice customers to come and engage with us. This was a typical 9-5, Monday to Friday, using the existing resource from our Customer Relations team. A few follow and re-tweet competitions on Twitter soon increased our following. We very quickly started to embrace social media and look at new ways to keep our online community engaged.

First to go 24/7

Keeping our community engaged was quite a task, and soon realised customers were online outside the traditional 9-5, after all, there are trains in operation near enough 24/7, and 9-5 didn’t cover the core peak periods – it was time to meet our customers’ expectations. We had customers who were using late-night services, who needed to know where their onward transport was, or where the night bus or tube station was. We had customers asking about lost property, or how to claim for a refund and so we needed to be there, in the moment, to put things right. After trialling a variety of different shift patterns, and personnel, we were the first train operator to go 24/7 across our existing social media channels, Facebook and Twitter.

We were able to do this through up-skilling existing colleagues, teams and integrating into a more operational world, in our Control Centre. This allowed us to broadcast disruption updates, in the moment and as they happened, but also keep our Virgin charm. Where possible we would have someone take over our operational messaging, and another looking after any of our Customer Relations issues – in keeping with the brand’s tone of voice. This also broke down a lot of internal barriers, we began to engage and create relationships with our internal stakeholders – this was the start of a journey to ensure social media had an influence on a lot of internal decisions, from our marketing campaigns to our crisis communications.

The next challenge

This led us to our next challenge which was to look at the entire landscape of social media and what the entire end to end customer journey looked like, across all our digital channels. Although the team had started their journey in Customer Relations, and integrated into the control centre, which department should the team fall under in the grand scheme of things? We were an integral part of everyone’s department, within the business, sometimes without them realising it, and so, after weighing up the pro’s and con’s we moved into our Corporate Affairs team. This then gave us more of a purpose, and understanding of PR, SEO, CRM, Public Affairs, News, Media and Internal Communications. Although we felt like it was the right department for us, this doesn’t mean it’s going to be the right department for every brand.

Right people, right role

I’m a big believer in having the right people in the right roles. It’s not always about having people that understand social media (although this can help), but this can mean upskilling your people, giving them the right tools to do their job, look after job satisfaction and do what you can, within reason, to ensure your teams come to work with a smile on their face and want to work for the brand they’re representing. They’ll be looking after your customers, day in day out, with comments out in the world for everyone to see – scary at times! Ensure your team understand what part they play in the customer journey, so they know how to respond appropriately to customers, whether this is to educate the customer, offer advice, or allowing customers enough options to make their own decisions.

Building online engagement

To help us build this online engagement, and relationship with our customers, we brought in Orlo, allowing us to interact with customers in real-time, quickly and efficiently. We used streams, keywords and searches to ensure that those facing potential disruption were answered quickly and didn’t go unheard. Storm Doris, for example, we received over 8,000 tweets and post, with the best will in the world it was difficult to ensure all customers had the same social media experience. I’m pleased to say, through Orlo, we managed to reply to over 80% of customers who needed us in the first 24 hours. This was largely down to having the right people, in the right set up, with the right tools and processes to cope with such demand. Putting customers at the heart of everything you do really does work.

The next challenge, having really cemented ourselves as one of the leading brands on social, was to start to bring the personality of the brand to life and start to have fun with our content and customers, but also use social media, as it was designed, to interact with people. ‘’Poo-gate’’ is a great example. We had a guy, in his hour of need, find himself on one of our train toilets where there was no toilet roll and surprisingly took to social media to tell us…

With the team sitting amongst the Control team, we were able to call the Train Manager and get some toilet roll down to him. We’d resolved his issue and thought that was the end of the matter. Unbeknown to us, however the guy turned out to be quite an influential blogger and the story began to gain traction, and after 600 million pieces of unique content worldwide, with spoof videos being created to play out the story, Twitter used it as a case study to showcase Twitter and using it for the power of good.

Calling on our community

We also had a huge community base, which mixed with a huge football following, allowed us to play a part in discussions other than trains – always looking for new ways to be part of trending topics and conversations. A great example of this was when Manchester United was against Manchester City, a local derby. One of the players, Chris Smalling, was sent off during the match and using tongue in cheek humour, we went out with this tweet.

The importance of crisis comms

Finally, the importance of crisis communication. The world of trains is very operational, and things can go wrong. Fortunately for Virgin Trains, we were able to effectively communicate with customers in times of crisis; irrespective of the situation or the operational incident. We were on hand to go into broadcast mode, and give customers an individual response. Broadcast mode gave customers, the opportunity to engage with Virgin Trains, and our links, without actually tweeting us – enabling them to self-serve. Whereas those who tweeted us directly still go a personable response. This ensured we gave a great online experience, reached as many people as we could and maintained our response times of circa 5mins, on Twitter, and 10-15mins on Facebook.

All of these successful engagements with our Virgin Trains customers were made possible by having an experienced and reliable social media team in place, with the confidence and freedom to interact with people on a one to one basis, aided by having the right tools in place to monitor and carry out these interactions. 

Rich has over 15 years’ experience in running and managing social networks and teams, contact centres and live chat functions. Having worked in B2B and B2C businesses, both from a strategic and operational perspective, Rich has helped businesses use end to end customer journey planning, and tools, for maximum exposure.

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