Have you ever been able to travel for free on a bus all day, no strings attached? This year we pulled out all the stops to show some love to our customers in Gillingham.
Over the last 12 months or so, it is safe to say that we had some challenging times at our Gillingham depot. Concerns about timetabling had led to some dissatisfaction amongst both our customers and the drivers, and morale had slumped amongst everyone concerned. These kind of issues face us frequently in the bus industry, but whilst it’s not always easy to find the right balance, we do learn from these experiences and strive to improve for the good of both our passengers, employees and networks elsewhere across the business.
In this instance, we needed to win back the trust of customers who had been adversely affected, and in turn show them we appreciate them sticking by us. This is what led to an idea to run our buses free for a whole day, yes you read that correctly, completely free. I was given the task of designing, running and analysing the campaign to support it. And, as far as I am aware this is the first time we have committed to doing this kind of thing, so it was a bit like delving into the unknown for me.
I must admit, at first I was a little bit stumped as to how I would undertake this work whilst maintaining positive spin on what had been a difficult situation. How do I not only to reward our loyal customers, who may already have a ticket valid for the date, but also to try and encourage new customers to give the bus a go?
After some thought I decided I should use the Valentines weekend as a news hook for the activity, and made the ‘free day’ on Saturday 13th February. I could then sell it as an opportunity to ‘take your loved ones’ (be it family or partners) out for the day, for free. I then sought the help of Visit Kent, with whom we already had a great partnership, and who were able add a little something special to the pot in the form free tickets to visit Rochester Castle, which followed the romantic theme, and would make a great prize-draw incentive.
This is when I began to get really excited about the promotion. I felt we had a really good reward for our regular customers, but also an attractive proposition for someone to trial bus travel. The next question was: “How I am going to get this message out there to both our passengers and the general public in Medway?”
To be honest that was the easy bit. The hard part was the relatively small budget that we had to spend on getting it done, so I needed to be quite savvy. I decided to use our social media pages, as this was the best way to talk to our current passengers and with a £500 promotional spend on Facebook posts I could also send it out to all ages who live in the Medway area. This would be where I ran the competition to win the Rochester Castle tickets.
This really worked well during the week leading up to Saturday with 2,128 likes, comments and shares which is significantly higher than usual. It is amazing what a “never before” campaign can do. I backed this up with usual PR and on-bus posters, but I also spoke to regional newspaper group, the KM Group, about a new digital advertising mechanism, which allowed me to post our message on its mobile website with a link to our page. This enabled us to reach other people outside our customer base. To add to this, we could also set it up so that anyone that clicked on the link had the option of adding the date as a calendar entry on their phone so that they wouldn’t forget to get involved. We have never been able to do that and for just an additional £500 it was an easy decision to go ahead and trial it.
After all this, I bet you are wondering how the day went? Well, I’m pleased to say that we were all pleasantly surprised. Compared to an average Saturday this year, we generated a 50% increase in patronage which is really satisfying, particularly in an area where there had been such significant challenges.
However, this triumph did highlight one thing – that we clearly have plenty of capacity on our buses during the weekends which we could be filling. So now I’m left with another question: “How do we follow this up to keep the numbers high?” There is of course no simple answer for that, but with this success under our belts, we are excited to start building on the lessons we have learned from Valentines Day to deliver a future bus network that people will want to use. Time to get cracking!