At TransLink, tweeting is a full-time job (and that’s a good thing)

How Vancouver’s beleaguered transit authority became a Twitter star

Last summer, when Metro Vancouver’s SkyTrain system shut down not once but twice for hours on end—leaving thousands of passengers stranded several metres in the air—at least one arm of Greater Vancouver’s transit authority was prepared for the crisis: its social media team.

“It was all hands on deck,” says Robert Willis, senior communications advisor for TransLink and the guy in charge of the company’s social media strategy. “In those kinds of situations, our main channel for service and customer relations is our @TransLink Twitter handle.” For TransLink, which has roughly 70,000 Twitter followers, Twitter has become the main way to handle customer service queries—questions like “which bus should I take?” or “why the hell isn’t the SkyTrain moving?”

“We’re mentioned on Twitter around 900 times a day,” Willis says, and “we want to reply to as many people as possible.” That has meant a team dedicated to Twitter. While Willis and one other staffer operate the transit authority’s various social media accounts—posting on Facebook, Instagram and a blog, as well as handling the more politically sensitive tweets—TransLink has a Twitter team of roughly 15 staffers, with shifts rotating between 6:30 a.m. and 11 p.m., 365 days a year. “There’s always one person watching Twitter, if not two people when it’s busy,” Willis says. “We call it the bullpen: two computers in the middle of the call centre for Twitter.”

Rewind five years, to 2010. While the Olympics resulted in many lasting transportation legacies—the Canada Line, the Sea-to-Sky highway—the Games also encouraged TransLink to try something new on social. “We needed to find a way to communicate with a bunch of people coming to the Lower Mainland who didn’t have any knowledge of media here but needed to know how to get to places on transit. We thought, Let’s use our Twitter account.” After a successful pilot project, TransLink decided to staff Twitter full-time.

That strategy earned TransLink an A+ score this past February in a ranking of Twitter use among 10 North American transit authorities, with the Journal of the American Planning Association giving TransLink first place. According to Willis, similar organizations, such as the City of Vancouver, are now following TransLink’s lead and manning their Twitter feed “almost 24 hours a day.”

Something to keep in mind the next time your train breaks down at 10:30 on a Sunday night.

For more from The BCBusiness Guide to Social Media, go here >>