Understanding the use (and abuse) of social media in transportation


Like many, I am following the US presidential campaign with increasing interest. As with every presidential race, big data firms are trying to predict who’s in the lead. However, unlike past elections, not even a few hours go by without some full-blown coverage about a candidate’s latest comment or tweet – and we are still more than 14 months from the big day!

Even more intriguing is that this media coverage is often created by consumers, not actual news companies. In a recent poll, Deez Nuts, a fictitious candidate created by a 15-year-old as a practical joke, had higher poll numbers than the other well-known candidates. This was all driven by the immediacy of social media. So who’s really driving today’s conversations? Is it really that easy to shift consumer behavior with a smartphone app? I recently had a conversation with a company that specializes in the use of social media to drive political issues. They remarked how easy it is to make a dozen activists look like a large majority. With one highly targeted social media campaign, they stopped the construction of a highway that was, in reality, opposed by only a few local residents.

Today’s consumers have constant access to social media and advertising all designed to shape their opinions, reactions, needs and wants. With a simple click, my entire network knows how I feel about a topic and, in response, their opinions form instantaneously. Less than a decade ago, the general public had strong opinions about a few issues that form public policy. Today, there are countless issues, with new ones hitting the airwaves instantly. These ‘instant issues’ are changing public opinion with ‘immediate reaction’ rather than deliberate consideration.

Historically the tolling industry has focused on government and B2B relationships. We stay in contact with customers to collect their money, but we should be broadening our services beyond account maintenance. Are we providing information to customers in a manner they want? And are we listening to what they say? While it’s scary to put ourselves out there, the far greater risk is being taken down by a movement or company that promotes the consumer-first approach. Say a tech company decides it wants to be a player in the transportation payments business. The media campaign begins: it advertises innovative technology, then markets it to a specific political audience that looks like thousands of supporters. Without really having any proof points or product, they’ve already embedded the concept and won market share.

Can toll operators really become players in the social media arena with the challenges of exorbitant costs and mandated procurement processes – without being accused of ignoring consumers, crony capitalism or corruption? We need to use the bandwidth we’re providing, to listen and not just to talk. We must master these new avenues of communication to service our existing customers and sell new concepts to the public. Equally important, we must use it to counter opposing views – as instantaneously as a presidential candidate’s tweet!

J J Eden is the director of tolling at Aecom. james.eden@aecom.com

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