Confessions of a social media manager: Virgin Trains on finding stories, being human and Will Ferrell's toilet seat

PRWeek's series on social media managers talks to those responsible for online customer relations at some of Britain's biggest brands and organisations. This week is the turn of Virgin Trains.

Confessions of a social media manager: Virgin Trains on finding stories, being human and Will Ferrell's toilet seat

There is no 'one size fits all' for management of brands on social – that's why Virgin Trains divides it into different workstreams, run by people with different skillsets. PRWeek persuades the transport operator's head of social media customer service and its head of social content to reveal what it's like trying to simultaneously execute a social strategy and handle customer queries. And yes, it does include the much-discussed Avocard launch...

Names & job titles: Kayla Sheik, head of social media customer service and Emma Martell, head of social content

My typical day/shift involves…

KS: There really is no ‘typical’ day in the world of social media and trains! There’s something different trending every day, and a new and random query could come through to us at any moment. My role is to make sure the day runs smoothly for my team, who are the ones directly engaging with our audience. It’s all about giving our customers the best experience possible via our social channels, whilst also informing and entertaining them with service updates and reactive content.

EM: A lot of meetings and emails. The beauty of having a small team, however, is that you can decamp to a coffee shop and bounce crazy ideas off each other. When the pressure’s on and I’m trying to crack a campaign idea, I can often be found wandering around the backstreets of Euston – I’m lucky to have a boss who understands that this is how I work best. I came up with the idea for the #Avocard (below) whilst making a cup of tea, which was our best social media campaign ever and got us more than 100 pieces of PR coverage to boot.

A lot of what we do is about finding stories within the business: the train driver who is a secret poet, the cute ‘trainspotting dog’ who hangs around one of our stations every day. So we spend a lot of time on our internal social network and try to meet as many people as possible.

Which social media channels do you manage?

KS: All the usual suspects - Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube & LinkedIn.

EM: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. We launched Instagram at the end of last year because we saw it as an opportunity to engage our younger, travel-obsessed audience.

It’s also a great place to showcase the UGC from the amazing destinations along our route. We’re just about to launch our Linkedin to reach business travellers as well as attract even more talent to our brand.

Which channels work best for the brand & why?

KS: For customer service, over 80 per cent of our incoming traffic is on Twitter, the rest on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

EM: Twitter is great for reactive content, as well as being a customer service channel; Instagram is best when it comes to inspiring our audience to explore more of the UK; Facebook is better for more interactive content and ‘good news’ stories. YouTube seems to be pretty popular with our train enthusiasts.

Do you use video/gifs in your social feeds? If so, what kind?

KS: Every day. We love to use GIFs, memes, videos, images, the lot when responding to customers. We generally use them to inject humour into our conversations and it gives a great opportunity for my team to show their personality.

EM: It’s important not to get too hung up on the medium, and just focus on how best to convey your message. Video and GIFS can be fun and attention-grabbing, but I still love a simple, text-only Tweet best.

How important is measurement for your social strategy (if at all)?

KS: Extremely. For a little context, the average number of messages we receive has doubled over the last two years. If we don’t measure growth, demand, performance, sentiment, engagement and all the rest, we can’t continuously improve what we do.

EM: Data is also essential if you want to prove your worth to the business, and get internal buy-in. Our primary focus is engagement, because we believe this is the best indicator of positive brand sentiment and awareness; anybody can pay for reach. We’d love to do more around our impact on the bottom line and are working hard with internal teams to crack this.

My brand guidelines/restrictions are…

KS: Be human, playful, witty, bold, with no slapstick or crudeness. We love to have a bit of banter with our audience, but context is key, so my team know when they need to take a query/issue seriously and when to have a bit of fun.

EM: Don’t be boring. The great thing about doing social media for a brand like Virgin Trains is that you’re empowered to test out your crazy ideas, so long as they ladder back to what our brand is all about then it’s pretty fair game.

Common issues...

KS: Anything from a trampoline on the line (you couldn’t make it up) to The Beast from the East can affect our services. During a major incident our incoming message volume can increase by over 500 per cent! This can be pretty tough for the team and it’s days like these where we all pull together, knuckle down and get through as many messages as we can.

EM: The internet is an unpredictable place. This can be a good and a bad thing, but it does mean things can escalate quickly, and you have to be able to take the pressure.

What makes a good social media manager?

KS: Someone who lives and breathes social, who understands their brand in and out, and is completely open to change. If you’re managing the customer service side of social, then you must be able to put yourself in the customers’ shoes and understand what it is that would make their experience of your brand better than it was before they interacted with you.

EM: When it comes to content, you’ve got to ask yourself: Why would our audience care? It’s easy to get caught up in your own bubble, but you should always put your audience first.

Best experience…

KS: Seeing some of the amazing things that my team can do for our customers; even more so when they can make our young fans’ dreams come true. It was a special day when we arranged a surprise cab ride for George, who really wants to be a train driver when he grows up – he was made up!

Another story that stands out was when Sam’s mum reached out to us on Facebook...

EM: Probably the time we gave away a signed Will Ferrell toilet seat to our audience, to celebrate the launch of our new toilet announcements featuring the man himself. People loved the offbeat nature of the stunt, and I loved trying to explain the idea to senior management and then dashing across London to Claridge’s with a toilet seat under my arm to the press junket.

Worst/strangest experience…

KS: Not the worst at all, but certainly a strange one! During #Avocard, it was 'avocontrol' on social. There were so very many avocado puns, gags and jokes, it was pretty hardcore.

We’re still waiting for someone to dress up as an avocado and perform the infamous avocado dance *cough cough, Emma*.

EM: Dressing as a penguin and doing a Facebook live in the middle of Birmingham New Street Station was pretty out there!

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