Social Media cannot be ignored by companies in the 21st century. Previously if a customer was unhappy they would tell a few friends about it. Now, with the onset of the digital generation, consumers have a much louder voice. A customers experience with a companies product or service can be expressed potentially millions of other consumers with simple ease. Consequently, massive volumes of potential customers can be gained from the impact you have on a small number of current customers.
Because of this, Social media creates new dynamics to the customer/business relationship. Interactions are far more public. With the click of a button, consumers can upload or ‘tweet’ information to hundreds of users. Tripatini is one example of how this has been capitalized on. ‘The facebook for travelers’, it provides an open floor for both businesses and customers to interact with each other. The website acts as a meeting point for travelers to post discussions, usually making queries about places to visit or stay. In response travel agencies on the website have provided direct tips and advice to travelers. Prior to the evolution of social media, it would have been very difficult for businesses to reach out to customers in this way.
Some companies, like Virgin trains have used twitter as a cost effective form of customer relations. Looking at their profile page, it is full of customer dialogue with a relaxed and positive tone. Arguably, it gives a level of personalization and credibility to the company, making it more favorable in the eyes of customers. Some companies have taken twitter a step further, Deutsche Bahn has created multiple twitter accounts whereby each provides a specific function e.g. travel information, press info and career information, using twitter as a means to manage and distribution mass information to external parties.
Social media commonly acts as a facilitator for the consumer to immerse themselves indirectly in the brand. Prior ‘experience’ before exchanging any money can now occur. Customers can learn a great deal about a company and its services before even stepping on the train. Irish Rail has done this brilliantly, using its facebook page it has set up events for popular destinations which can be reached easily by rail so that it demonstrates how its services can be used. One of JetBlue’s most innovative ideas was to set up a Flickr account and encourage its crew members to contribute pictures. This was an important factor in ‘humanizing’ the brand, which in the highly corporate airline market proved to be valuable.
One clear advantage for all companies who make use of social media tools is that they can ‘monitor’ what their customers are thinking and saying. It can provide the ultimate form of low cost market research. Alterian is one example of how this has been capitalized on, a consultancy which provides analytics across twitter, facebook, and blogs which provides a picture of what people are saying about a company or product. From this, businesses can be more effective as they have a greater ability to deliver what customers actually want.
Out of all industries, the Rail industry is one which can particularly capitalize on the phenomenon. Most products offered within the Rail industry after all are differentiated on factors such as customer service which affect the total trip experience. When making decisions on which ‘product’ to buy, consumers are going to look for the service that is superior for the particular price range. Thus, the most credible source of information for making that decision is going to be other consumers, rather than companies which have a vested interest. Web 2.0 and social media puts this information in a very accessible position for consumers. Resultantly, a lot of the power in the marketplace is increasingly being taken out of the hands of the companies, and into the traveler.
The internet is very much still a place for innovation and exploration and already it has had a profound impact on how businesses and consumers operate within the industry. Amongst such things as deregulation, the rise of social media has the potential to create a landmark change in the nature of the Rail industry.