Transit agencies need a positive image in the eyes of the community to provide better service to their customers. A variety of tactics are used alone and in combinations to meet these objectives. Many agencies have done some amazing things and four share success stories that may stir your own ideas.
WEB SITE DESIGN IMPROVES COMMUNICATION
The Web site reflects the image of the agency to your riders, it delivers information, and it provides effective communication. Doran Barnes, executive director, and Felicia Friesema, marketing and communications manager, share their recent experience of Web site redesign for Foothill Transit in West Covina, Calif.
It's not just about creating a prettier site. The Web site can provide a wealth of information for the riders, vendors, customers, media and, in return, it can provide the agency with information. The success of the Web site can be looked at as an investment in terms of improving communication with a variety of audiences. Barnes explains, "It's both a communication enhancement tool and it's a way to manage costs. Given the resource challenges we all face in the industry, we've got to be looking to do both of those things."
With resources from capital funding Foothill Transit hired a private firm to help redesign the site for the 2005 launch. It took between six and nine months of intense planning to create the more interactive site. Friesema explains, "We looked at hundreds of Web sites to look at some of the latest technologies that would make it a more interactive experience and a more accessible experience for all our customers. It wasn't so much that the content changed but how it was presented."
A key feature was the backend system that allows multiple people to update various parts of the site. "Planning has control over updating the schedules, the HR department has direct control over updating job descriptions and our community outreach coordinator has control over the calendar functions that announce local events," Friesema says. With multiple users logging in to the Web site to make the necessary changes, no one person is responsible for monitoring all of the necessary changes so information stays up-to-date.
Barnes explains how the new site has features that help both vendors and riders. "By having our vendors enter information through the Web site and identify where they can be of service to us, having that all automated really saves a lot of time in terms of the staff work that has to happen in our procurement department," he states.
"From a customer standpoint, the thing I like about it is customers can access system information 24 hours a day, seven days a week no matter where they are." Barnes adds, "It doesn't cost us anything in terms of having a staff member provide that information."
Communication, planning and involving everyone in the process were the three key strategies that proved the most benefi cial in this process. "As with any project where you are working with many people, trying to come up with a single vision of how you want something to come out, there are always communication challenges in making sure that what is actually created is what you talked about," Friesema stresses.
A good working relationship with the outside firm assured things ran smoothly. Friesema says, "They understood both the technical terminology and our laymen interpretation of that particular technology enough that when we said one thing we actually meant another."
Having all departments of the staff involved ensures better communication about the project. "It's important to make sure as you're going through the process… you bring in the people that are going to be working on it to see that it does everything that they want it to do," Friesema says.
There are bound to be challenges along the way but a good plan pulls the project through. Barnes states, "…it's really important to try and lay out the pieces of the Web site the way you want them to ultimately fi t in terms of the basic backbone. If you can be as thorough as you can at the beginning in terms of what the structure will be and what the important components are it really does help you as you get closer to completion."
Going forward, Foothill Transit is planning for more changes. "Industry standards usually state that it's a good idea to reexamine your full Web site every three to four years which would put our reexamination stage around 2008." Friesema continues, "New tools come up all the time so we are looking ahead and trying to say OK, would these things be useful to us? So we're already looking at the next redesign."
With a Web site it's easy to track usage, you know if changes enhanced the usability. Friesema affi rms, "Prior to the redesign we were averaging about 250,000 hits per month, at current rates we're going at about a million and a half per month. It was a dramatic change from the time that we relaunched. You could see it instantly."
NOVEL APPROACH NOVEL APPROACH DELIVERS MESSAGE
Community Transit had a new vision and mission statement and needed to get the staff on board. Employees often see many operational policies and procedures and it's hard to get the attention of everyone and to get them excited about changes. As Tom Pearce says, "Rolling out this new message to our internal audience required a unique, fun approach which communicated its scope and importance."
The way the agency decided to go was with a "Coming Soon" movie theme complete with a red-carpet premiere. Full-color stylized posters were displayed throughout the agency. At the "premiere" movie popcorn boxes were handed out. The boxes were "bursting with piping hot core values" and contained laminated core values cards, informational support pieces and even microwave popcorn.
As Pearce says the results were overwhelming. "The unique posters and popcorn boxes created a buzz and added a sense of fun to a very important message." He adds, "Continuing the success of the roll-out, nomination stations throughout the agency feature individual core values posters and employees are encouraged to nominate co-workers who demonstrate that particular value." Keeping with the theme, the entry boxes are large popcorn tubs. Pearce says the agency has received steadily increasing nominations.
Pearce explains how a creative approach, where appropriate, can benefit a variety of messages, policies or statements. "Communicating with a creative twist guarantees awareness and invites acceptance on a personal rather than a corporate level."
BRANDING SETS THE TONE
Branding differentiates the agency, it delivers the message and it can create strong user loyalty. Your brand is your mark - your image in the community. Developing a brand involves an array of marketing techniques and a lot of creativity.
The marketing department for Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) had a long haul ahead of itself. It all started in 1983 when it began planning the new rail. Sue Bauman, vice president of marketing and communications, shares the agency's experience with the branding of the DART rail.
The focus of the branding effort was to combat any negative association with the project. "Between 1983 and 1996, when we opened, we were in a constant battle for our rail system," Bauman stresses. "Most of the public, their only real knowledge of the light rail was the political controversy that they read about every single day in their newspapers." She emphasizes, "We needed to brand the light rail system so that when it began it began fresh and with a great start."
The marketing was not focused on the negative - that was left to the political staff and board members to work with. The marketing team focused on the excitement of a new public project. "We approached it from the standpoint, isn't it great, you're going to love it and it's exciting," Bauman explains. Establishing a fun, positive image was the objective, making it happen would take a long year of planning and implementation.
The marketing programs would not have been possible without the help of the sponsors. For $25,000 or above sponsorship, the corporate logo and name went on the front door of the front cab car. As Bauman explains, "That is the only thing we have ever done advertising wise on our cars and we haven't done it since."
The year leading up to the opening was busy with a myriad of educational programs, promotions and events to educate the community and get the message out there. There was a lot of community involvement which entailed working with the media, the art community, the business community and the schools. Teachers, students and the PTA learned about what was coming through safety programs, the business community was kept informed of the construction process, the art community was involved in the look of the stations and the media worked with DART on a variety of marketing items.
With the art program, members of the community developed artistic value statements about their station, what the area means to their community. Using that statement, the artist would develop an art program or art project that has unique community sentiment. DART kept the program quiet to create an additional "happy" surprise for the communities when the train opened. Bauman shares, "People didn't realize we had this wonderful art program. We have an art on the line self-guided tour and people are so impressed when they see it because it's a community-based art project. They were so excited when they saw the stations with the art."
A great partnership with the media resulted in a 100-day countdown to build excitement and anticipation. It started with an event in the yard where the cars are kept. School children were all holding up little signs they would flip over-100, 99, 98 and so on. "We had them all lined up, the television cameras were there," Bauman explains.
The newspaper had an interesting edition that started on the same day Bauman explains. "The Dallas Morning News ran a banner on the bottom of the inside of its Metro section. It was a banner at the bottom and it started off with a teaser - 'something's coming' and a '100' on there. The next day it was 99, then 98 and you began to see the nose of the car starting to peak out and so people really started to look at this. They didn't know what that was going to be. "As the countdown became lower, the train was scooting out a little more and a little more so finally, by the day before the railcar was out and exposed, people began to know that was going to be the big day of the opening."
The official opening was an event in and of itself. Bauman explains, "We had the official event where the train came into Union Station. We had our senators and the Secretary of Transportation. "Super Saturday was where we had the public come down and ride free. We had people lining up on both sides of the mall, people were so excited about the train." Of course they incorporated other activities into the day that the media would have fun with. Bauman says with a laugh, "We had television and radio stations come down and time whether they could get their cars where they were going faster than the train."
To pull off these fun projects it took a lot of people and a lot of work. "We had a team that met every single week and we met for hours and it was cross-departmental," Bauman asserts. "It was an agency-wide project that worked on this, it wasn't just us." She adds, "It was so much work, the staff was exhausted."
All the hard work paid off for DART. "We've done market research and they've told us, 80-something percent of the people in our 700-square-mile area in 13 cities absolutely have high awareness of DART," Bauman shares. Even the color has become infamous. "This particular shade of yellow, they think of as DART when they see it."
The success from DART has lead to plans for the future as they are now gearing up to double the system. With the $700 million federal funding grant, they will be adding the next 42 miles.
As Bauman sums it up, "As the train ran through downtown people were waving and cheering…that's what this is all about."
PROGRAM INCREASES PROGRAM INCREASES RIDERSHIP AND IMPROVES IMAGE
A successful program not only increases ridership, it can improve the agency's community image as well. The Vancity U-Pass at TransLink is one example of that. The Vancity U-Pass is a partnership between TransLink, the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (Vancity). Between the two universities, there is a student population base of 58,000.
Collaboration was key to making this program a success. TransLink committed the additional service, which included more than 50,000 additional hours, 35 buses and major upgrades to several routes. As Drew Snider, media relations for TransLink, explains, BRT routes are in service throughout the day, not just in peak periods.
A mandatory student fee entitles students at each university to purchase a transit pass at half price. Sinder states, "These mandatory student fees make up the discrepancy between the reduced rate the students pay and the actual cost of each trip, so that the project is revenue neutral for TransLink."
Vancity provides fi nancial support for administrative costs in return for access to the student market. The program helps Vancity in other ways as well, Snider says. "Vancity has a longstanding commitment to environmental sustainability and the Vancity U-Pass program helps the credit union fulfill that."
Snider describes the program as a success from the beginning. "Transit ridership jumped by 39 percent at SFU and 53 percent at UBC. Car traffi c to the campuses is down and so is parking demand - by as much as 15 percent."
He explains that it has helped Trans- Link in another way, as well. "The two universities are at opposite ends of "business" commuter routes into downtown Vancouver. UBC is situated on the westernmost point of Vancouver's peninsula and commuter traffic in the past has fl owed eastward, toward downtown, in the morning and westward in the afternoon.
"SFU is at the eastern end of the city of Burnaby, which borders Vancouver on the east. Most commuter traffic has tended to go towards downtown in the morning and back in the afternoon. Buses would have much reduced ridership on the return trips. Vancity U-Pass gives these buses 'reverse peak' ridership."
Snider also mentions that the Vancity U-Pass won the Innovation award from CUTA and it received the National Sustainable Community Award from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the environmental and infrastructure systems firm, CH2M HILL Canada in 2005.
As these four agencies illustrate, good planning and creativity can go a long way. They all also pointed out that the return on their investment of time and money was well worth the outcomes - increased ridership, better communication, a better image and more excitement.
The success of each piece of the marketing puzzle creates a shining moment to build the positive image of the agency among the employees and the members of the community.