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When ridership is remaining steady, Twitter is gaining followers, and customer service complaints are manageable, where’s the problem? Just because things look good from the administration side doesn’t necessarily mean riders are getting all the information they need. It’s much easier to just assume communication efforts are serving their purpose. It’s essential to take a hard look at your external communications by getting out of the office and into the minds of your riders to see if the way you’re communicating really aligns with their needs. Here are three steps to help:

Step One: Perform an external communications inventory.

The best way to objectively analyze your agency’s communication is to perform a “reality check” by taking inventory of every medium you use to communicate with your riders. It’s important you have every piece of the puzzle identified and out on the table. So, what’s out there?

• Schedules
• Maps
• Google Transit
• Website
• Mobile Website
• Social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
• Real-time Information
• Printed Material

Once you are able to clearly see all of the communication mediums you’re using, it’s important to assess the way they are being used. For example, when a rider visits your website, can they easily navigate to the bus schedule? Are you using Facebook or Twitter? How many followers do you have? Is your printed material readily available for riders and is the writing clear, concise, and helpful? Asking questions like this is a great way to assess your current communication efforts and brainstorm new ways to improve.

Step Two: Put your ear to the ground.

Take off the “transit administrator” hat and look at your agency from the outside in. How do riders learn about your agency? What do they see? Is fact finding an easy process? Transit agencies are often left wondering whether or not they are getting through to riders. It seems that there is always someone who didn’t get the message.

Much of this uncertainty is due to ridership diversity. Some riders may solely rely on web-based information, while others exclusively use print resources. So, how do you reach everyone? Most marketing and outreach directors continue to rely on public meetings and annual surveys to get their riders’ perspectives. While important, these methods are also relatively impersonal. Demonstrate your agency’s dedication to rider satisfaction by getting out of the office and on to the bus. Get real, accurate information by reaching out to your riders and asking questions like:

• “Where do you get your information about us?”
• “How do you plan your trips?”
• “What mediums do you use the most? Schedules, maps, mobile apps, website, etc.?”
• “Do you find our website/social media sites easy to access and navigate? What could we do to make them even more accessible?”
• “What are some ways you want to get information that you can’t currently?”
• “What would make riding transit easier?”

Be sure to ask questions about each of the different mediums you assessed in step one. Communicating with your riders is a process that utilizes many different channels and changes over time.

Finally, remember that you are crucial to the lives of your riders; they care that you are interested in their experience. During this time the last thing you want to do is explain how your agency works, try to be quick to listen and slow to speak.

You are only going to know what riders need if you ask. Get out there!

Step three: Fill in the gaps.

Now, it’s time to see if your agency’s communication strategies complement what your riders are looking for. Look back at your external communication inventory, as well as your discussions with riders and examine how each communication piece or tool is really being used. Compare and contrast the way you disseminate information with way your riders retrieve it and look for creative solutions where things don’t match up.

For example: If you focus heavily on social media outlets to alert riders of new information, but your riders say they go to your website for news, it may be time to reevaluate and adapt. Ideas such as adding more easily accessible links to Facebook on your website or incorporating a news feed on the side of popular pages may help unite your communication with riders.

Karen Walton, General Manager at the Greater Lynchburg Transit Company discussed the way her agency has adopted social media over the past few months. This time last year they were relying solely on their website and print materials to distribute information. When last minute route changes or mechanical errors arose, they had no effective way to alert riders of the news. The agency took a step back and examined what mediums were being used by riders to gather information about their buses. In doing so, they realized that it was time to adapt their communication efforts. By developing a social media presence, (primarily Twitter) they are now able to better communicate pressing updates and important information to their riders in real time.

In short, when you find communication that works, use it!