How not to use social media: Virgin Trains

Many companies using Twitter have caught onto one of the quickest and easiest ways of gaining followers and increasing awareness of their brand, this being competitions.

The unwritten rule with competitions is the ‘follow and RT’ method. It basically does what it says on the tin: the brand increases their followers and new followers spread the word further, ensuring a short-term widespread message. The message is short and attractive: ‘we want to give you free stuff’, and who wouldn’t this appeal to?

The trouble begins when the brand issues the competition winner with their prize and carries on business as usual. Except now they have a considerably larger audience to tailor their content to, and this new audience needs to be kept entertained, or at least kept in the knowledge that this is a brand worthwhile space in their timeline.

The particular Twitter account that has inspired this blog post is @VirginTrains. Some time ago they offered a free train ticket to one of their followers in return for the famous follow and RT, to which I happily complied. Train tickets are insanely expensive, and the chance to travel to another city for free was a welcome one.

So tweet about that instead.

Since then their presence in my timeline has not been a positive one. Every tweet that has appeared has been an announcement of a delayed or cancelled service, and for someone like myself whose only impression of the company comes from this Twitter feed, it does not send out encouragement to use their train service.

Virgin Train’s tweets aren’t a complete misuse of social media, however. I appreciate their intention in letting their customers know of interruptions to services which may affect them, and don’t doubt this has been useful to a lot of people. The account does a lot of things right: it directly interacts with its followers, provides information for customers regarding problems, e.g. customer service phone numbers and email addresses, and replies to many people’s complaints and enquiries fairly quickly. A customer sat on a delayed train needing information, for example, knows they can tweet the VT account and will stand a chance of getting an answer to their question before their journey is complete. However useful this service may be to some people, it is also a rookie mistake in terms of Twitter use.

What Virgin Trains may or may not know, is that when you reply to an @ from an individual, your tweet starts with ‘@theirname’ and tweets that do this only appear in the timeline of others who follow both Virgin Trains and the individual who is being replied to. The decision to do this establishes the difference in available uses for Twitter: a brand can be incredibly useful to a select handful of individuals, who may then go on to recommend the service they experienced to others (though unlikely, if the number of delays and cancellations is anything to go by), or they can leave the customer relations to the customer relations department. Another Twitter feed could be set up for this purpose, including ‘customer support’ or something similar in the name to establish the difference. The main Twitter account should be active to do what social media gave us the ability to do: promote ourselves online. Sell your brand to others and encourage them to use it.

And one last thought, Virgin: It’s one thing constantly informing your followers of delays in your services, it’s quite another to tell them the reason behind one of them is because a train had hit someone. Information management, anyone?


4 thoughts on “How not to use social media: Virgin Trains”

  1. As a railway volunteer on both a steam railway and a mainline operation, I can assure you that Virgin are using social media very well. Passengers (regular ones, at least) want to know about things that will affect their journey, not repetitive slogans for the Best Fare Finder, Advance Singles or their new mobile app. This frustration can build to anger and, on occasion, violence and aggression against railway staff. Saying it’s because someone was hit by a train is a perfectly good way of dealing with the lack of info, it explains why passengers are delayed and reassures them that it is for a very good reason. (That said, one twitter user in the South East has a grudge against South West Trains and tweets rants about them being ‘unable to secure the railway’ from suicides…)

    I feel it’s worth adding at this point, that their main rivals, London Midland, have what is widely regarded as the best railway twitter feed going – passengers love it! One

    As for not using it for advertising too, well, Virgin have a monopoly on high speed intercity services on the West Coast Mainline – they are even protected by an anti-competition clause in their contract!

    If you want a brilliant use of social media, try looking at some of Virgin’s stations – for example @VTRugby or @WarringtonBQ who are pretty entertaining, as well as informative!

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