Balancing the budget by generating more riders through word-of-mouth

This book review and discussion of The Anatomy of Buzz appears in the latest issue of More Riders Magazine, along with the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit interview. Here are some good, simple ideas for tapping into riders as a marketing force.  Online social media, if used well, may be an effective tool to support some of these strategies.

Transit agencies should run word-of-mouth ridership campaigns based largely off of Emanuel Rosen’s book The Anatomy of Buzz.

He offers a roadmap on how successful companies and causes have embraced buzz – person-to-person communications about a product or service – to generate more customers. In this article, I’ll apply these powerful principles to public transportation agencies facing the need to generate more ridership (particularly off-peak riders) to generate more revenue. My hope is that leaders of agencies will devote existing staff and resources towards the simple (and often free) steps to affirmatively generate buzz among riders and supporters that will lead to increased ridership (and increased farebox revenue).

Public transportation enjoys several attributes that make it particularly well-suited for generating buzz. It is communal in nature: people ride together. It is a visceral experience unlike, say, choosing a browser or a credit card. And agencies’ status as a government agency with regular board meetings make it very easy to generate earned media (something most private corporations very much envy).

With all these inherent advantages over private corporations in generating word-of-mouth among customers, why do so few public transportation agency leaders use buzz-generating tactics to build more riders?

Perhaps for some leaders, earning more riders is not a goal. They would prefer to manage whatever riders happen to show up and do the best job with the resources they have been provided. Hopefully you – as a reader of More Riders – have a different philosophy for public transportation based on perpetual growth instead of stagnation. For you and those like you who believe in increasing ridership, successfully employing buzz-generation tactics is likely one of the easiest and cheapest ways you can earn more riders.

I’ll share a few of the most compelling tools from the book.

First, it’s important to recognize that word-of-mouth happens about public transportation. People talk about it. Some people promote your service. Some people recommend to their friends to avoid it. These person-to-person comments – what Rosen defines as “buzz” — is one of the most powerful forces to either get a potential rider on the bus or keep them away. So how can we influence the buzz about your bus?

Maximize the number of positive comments. According to Rosen, research shows that positive comments from people who have experienced the service are most likely to bring in sales. How to do it? Ask for it! Ask your customers to tell their friends to ride with them. Explain to them that they can help strengthen public transportation by recruiting a friend of two to ride. And ask them to ride more often.

Tell Our Story. At the CTA’s Armitage stop, the mural is filled with stories of riders. Encourage your riders to share their stories with you. But even better: tell our story. Tell our story of how transit makes our city grow, how we are breaking our nation’s addiction to foreign oil, how we are improving the environment, so that every single time someone chooses to ride instead of drive, she can feel good about joining that story. And she can tell someone else and encourage him to ride instead of drive.

Inject suprise into the ride. Recruit a local celebrity (a newscaster or professional athlete) to help promote transit. And have him or her show up on the bus one day to pass out a free bus pass to everyone on that ride. Everyone on the bus will talk about that experience to almost everyone they know. And some of the people they talk to will decide to ride.

Ask for participation. Every business and institution along every route has an interest in promoting their route. Give them the tools and permission to develop their own route map that promotes their business (the timetable and your standard route map) and when some of them do develop their own route map, watch how aggressively they distribute their own route map and share what they have created.

Think of every rider as a potential salesperson for recruiting another customer, and the rest of the buzz-generating campaign will fall into place.

The Anatomy of Buzz Revisted by Emanuel Rosen is published by Doubleday.