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TCRP Synthesis 99: Uses Of Social Media In Public Transportation

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Social media provide transit agencies with an unparalleled opportunity to connect with their customers. These connections may take many forms, but they all can help agencies personalize what can otherwise appear like a faceless bureaucracy. “Social media,” also called social networking or Web 2.0, refers to a group of web-based applications that encourage users to interact with one another. Examples include blogs, social and professional networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, micro-blogging site Twitter, media-sharing sites such as YouTube and Flickr, and location-based sites such as Foursquare. Transit agencies have begun to adopt these networking tools, and their reasons for doing so typically fall into five broad categories.

  • Timely updates—Social media enable agencies to share real-time service information and advisories with their riders.
  • Public information—Many transit organizations use social media to provide the public with information about services, fares, and long-range planning projects.
  • Citizen engagement—Transportation organizations are taking advantage of the inter­active aspects of social media to connect with their customers in an informal way.
  • Employee recognition—Social networking can be an effective tool for recognizing current workers and recruiting new employees.
  • Entertainment—Lastly, social media can be fun. Agencies often use social media to display a personal touch and to entertain their riders through songs, videos, and contests.

This synthesis explores the use of social media among transit agencies and documents successful practices in the United States and Canada. Information was gathered through a literature review, an online survey, and case examples. Because the field of social media is still evolving, the literature review featured information from online sources, including blog posts, websites, conference presentations, and electronic journals and publications covering technology and governance. Thirty-nine transportation providers in the United States and Canada were invited to participate in an online survey. Only transit organizations known to use one or more social media platforms were asked to participate. Responses were received from 34 transit operators in the United States and Canada and one U.S. transportation management association, for a response rate of 90%. Based on survey results, six case examples were developed to describe innovative and successful practices in more detail. Case example inter­views were conducted by telephone.

Despite the stated advantages to using social networking, industry experts and survey respondents identified a series of barriers and concerns, including the following:

  • Resource requirements—Although setting up social media sites is generally free, web pages require ongoing maintenance and monitoring. Agencies responding to the survey said that staff availability was the greatest barrier to adopting social media.
  • Managing employee access—As the line between personal and professional lives con­tinues to soften, public- and private-sector organizations are taking actions to address employee use of social media.
  • Responding to online criticism—Survey respondents expressed concern that social media would expose them to criticism from frustrated riders and disgruntled employees.
  • Accessibility—Internet accessibility for people with disabilities has improved substan­tially over the past few years, but social media applications have not completely caught up. The heavy reliance on graphics, videos, and user-generated content has created accessibility challenges.
  • Security—Information technology professionals and Internet security experts are increasingly concerned that social media can increase an organization’s exposure to a range of cyber threats, from spam to malware.
  • Archiving and records retention—Industry analysts believe it is only a matter of time before social media posts become subject to the same record-keeping and disclosure rules that apply to e-mail and paper records.
  • User privacy—Although public agencies generally have privacy policies governing collection and use of personal information on their own websites, social media sites on third-party platforms are typically governed by the privacy policy of the application.
  • Changing social media landscape—Expert opinions about the future of social media vary, but all agree that interactive media are here to stay. The challenge for transit organizations is to keep track of changes in this dynamic environment and to adapt accordingly.

Although the practice is not universal, many public agencies have adopted social media policies to provide guidance for addressing some or all of these issues. Among the agencies responding to the survey, 27% had a social media policy, while more than half (58%) had one in development.

Surveyed agencies identified resource requirements as a particular concern. To gain a better understanding of resource requirements, agency responses were analyzed based on operating setting (large urban versus small urban/rural). As might be expected, large urban agencies devoted more staff resources to social media than those operating in smaller environments. More than half of the large urban agencies responding to this question allocated at least 40 hours, or the equivalent of one week per month, to social media activities; 23% reported an investment of more than 80 hours per month. Small agencies generally devoted less staff time to social media and the vast majority (86%) reported a commitment of 40 hours per month or fewer.

Surveyed agencies offered a wealth of advice and lessons learned through the online sur­vey and the follow-up case examples. Key lessons are summarized here.

  • Keep social media in perspective—For many agencies, social media users are believed to represent only a small segment of the rider population. Although this market is likely to grow in the future, agencies still stressed the importance of integrating social media with more traditional forms of rider communication.
  • Consider the organizational impacts—Several agencies emphasized the importance of obtaining the necessary internal approvals before implementing social media campaigns.
  • Identify the real costs—While social media applications are generally free, or require minimal investment, the long-term costs of maintaining the sites can be substantial in terms of staff requirements.
  • Find the right voice—The language of social media tends to be informal and conversa­tional. Agencies recommended avoiding jargon, using humor if possible, and generally sounding like a person instead of an agency. Although everyone makes mistakes, agencies also emphasized the importance of acknowledging errors and taking responsibility.
  • Listen, listen, listen—Social media can provide agencies with unfiltered customer feed­back. If they are willing to listen to their riders, agencies can learn what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong.
  • Respect the strengths of social media—Social media are not simply a new channel for traditional communications. The agencies using social media most successfully tailored their messages to take advantage of the unique strengths of each social medium platform. Twitter, for example, can be best for immediate communications, although blogs may encourage more in-depth conversations.
  • Have fun—Posting entertaining content can remind customers about the people behind the agency’s seemingly impenetrable brick wall and help the organization build stronger relationships with its community of riders and stakeholders.
  • Just get started—Agencies followed different paths to social media. Some agencies used a measured approach, and others have just jumped in. However, no matter how they got there, agencies agreed that social media were worth trying.

The synthesis study identified several gaps in knowledge or areas for additional research. These are summarized here.

  • Social media policy—Although industry experts believe that having a social media policy is critical, only one out of four transit properties participating in the survey had such guidance in place. Additional research could help to identify elements of a social media policy that are relevant to public transit agencies.
  • Social media metrics—Most of the surveyed agencies measured the effectiveness of their social media activities by using built-in metrics, such as counting “friends” or followers, and by using a third-party application such as Google Analytics. Although these metrics can provide a good overview of activity, they do not provide the information agencies may need to better understand the effectiveness of their social media activities. Additional research could provide transit agencies with the tools for estimating the costs and benefits of social media, perhaps by including sample metrics or performance indicators drawn from other industries.
  • Internet security—Industry experts consistently emphasized the vulnerability of social media applications to security threats, including viruses and malware. Additional research could help determine whether social media leave transit agencies especially vulnerable to cyber-threats and, if so, recommend appropriate actions.
  • Access for people with disabilities—While federal agencies are required to conform to Section 508 accessibility guidelines for their web applications, some analysts argue that these rules do not apply to government use of privately owned social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Additional research could help organizations identify features to improve the accessibility of social media sites and contribute to the debate about how federal accessibility rules apply to social media.
  • Multicultural issues—The characteristics of social media users are not yet well documented and questions remain about whether social media platforms can bridge the digital divide, or the perceived gap between people who have access to information technology and those who do not. Although not conclusive, research suggests that social media attract users from multiple demographic categories. Further research could pro­vide more data on the demographics of social media users and help determine whether public transportation agencies need to take additional actions to ensure that all riders can access online information and social networking sites.
  • Integration with other agency activities—Despite the growth in mobile applications and traveler and citizen information services, only a few responding agencies reported integrating social media with these programs. Additional research could quantify the potential for better coordinating social media with other platforms for providing agency information.
  • Revenue potential—Industry experts anticipate growth in several areas, including location-based technology and social-buying services. Additional research could help identify revenue opportunities associated with these applications.