Hardly a day goes by that something isn’t going wrong with Metro: track fires, train delays, questionable inspection reports and chillers not chilling. At least it can seem as if something’s always going wrong, especially when the bad news is amplified by social media.
So why, if Metro is burning (sometimes literally), is Washington’s financially strapped yet heavily subsidized agency paying millions to outside ad firms?
Why, as riders desert the capital’s transit agency for Uber and Lyft, is Metro busy selling Metro-branded Foggy Bottom yoga pants?
We decided to ask Lynn Bowersox, the assistant general manager for customer service, communications and marketing at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).
Her duties include overseeing information basics, such as producing bus schedules, rail maps and how-to-ride guides, both online and in print, in as many as 26 languages. Her staff updates the public on service changes, fare adjustments, policy decisions and job openings. They handle federally subsidized campaigns promoting safety, such as the “See Something, Say Something.” Her team also works to shape the agency’s image, so that riders, other members of the public and its regional stakeholders understand its major initiatives and programs.
On a day when the headlines about Metro were about newly discovered defective concrete panels on the Silver Line extension, Bowersox sat down for a lengthy interview about Metro’s marketing. She was quick to point out that the defective concrete panels were not Metro’s problem. She said responsibility lay with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which is the agency extending the Silver Line — a distinction, one might add, that is lost on the many Washingtonians who just want to get to work on time and in one piece.
Bowersox also told us why she has a poster from the London Underground in her office, how much money the agency’s new Metro swag store has hauled in, and why Metro’s Twitter followers may be fierce but also less influential than they might think. She fielded questions that have been raised by a host of skeptical riders, tweeps and others, such as:
What do all those people in Metro’s marketing department — approximately 76, by her count — do?
Why has Metro spent nearly $40,000 to partner with Greater Greater Washington when the advocacy group already gives the agency plenty of friendly coverage on its blog?
Why spend on marketing at all when there’s so much daily news coverage in the region and even periodic national attention?
Who in the world came up with Metro’s recent slogan, Back2Good?
The following are Bowersox’s remarks, which have been edited for space and organization and placed into a Q&A format:
Q: Thanks for talking with us. Tell us about your work for Metro, please.
My portfolio is really about all the channels that we use to communicate internally and externally to our customers, not just marketing. We create a very high level of awareness, we hope, of Metro service changes and policy decisions whether that’s changes to bus routes, new rail stations, adjusting fares or recruiting for jobs that are open.
Q: You mentioned that you often use your own channels — such as the distribution systems on platforms and inside trains and your social media accounts. Why isn’t that enough PR?
Those information channels alone don’t get us the level of awareness that we need to ensure that the work we are doing to improve the system is clearly and frequently communicated, to restore rider and stakeholder confidence. That’s probably when you see campaigns like Back2Good, what you think of in that category.
Q: You mentioned that you have approximately 76 people on your staff, including 56 people for customer service and social media, 10 people who run the presses in the print shop and 10 assigned to other duties. What would you say to those who think this sounds like a lot?
You sometimes see big numbers out there associated with my group. Those [56 people] are the people who answer the phones on a two-shift, seven-day-a-week basis. Customers call and say, ‘Where’s my bus?’ or ‘Can I switch trains here to get to the Smithsonian?’ — where they’re doing that in real-time on chat. Those are the people who talk to customers directly about the service.
Q: What about the others?
In our marketing shop, we’re really geared toward two things: revenue generation and grass-roots community outreach. This staff [includes] a director and four people who support SmartBenefits accounts.
Q: You mean the program that allows employers, including the federal government, to provide tax-free fare money for their employers or give employees a tax break on fares. This program is particularly important for Washington’s mass transit, correct?
WMATA is unique in that about a third of our commuters are federal government employees or contractors, and so they rely on SmartBenefits through their employer to subsidize their commute.
[SmartBenefits alone accounted for about $270 million in revenues last year.*]
Q: What about the others?
Then, there is also one person who is a contract administrator, who manages an outside firm that sells advertising in Metro, such as orange juice ads.
[Outside advertising produces about $20 million a year — and occasional controversies, such the legal battle over the agency ‘s rejection of a religious-themed ad from the Archdiocese of Washington last year.]
Q: You also mentioned that your staff handles community outreach and tour groups?
There are four people who develop outreach and community events, such as Capital Pride festival in June. [These staff members also] assemble hundreds of packages every month for tour groups — church groups, schools and journalists [who attended the] Destination DC convention.
[These employees also conduct community outreach with D.C. public schools, residents of affordable housing and other groups that may need extra assistance navigating the system, she said.]
Q: Metro recently put out a request for bids to hire an outside advertising firm. The contract will pay $7 million over three years. Why, in addition to all the above, is it necessary for Metro to hire outside ad firms with that kind of money?
Contracting out for marketing help is pretty common. NJ Transit has spent about $2 million a year on outside ad firms. New York’s MTA is spending at least $7 million or more. The Port Authority of New York-New Jersey, which also has PATH and airports, spends $4 to 5 million with an outside firm. Chicago just recently finished a $5 million, two-year campaign — just so you see the order of magnitude for some of the bigger transit systems.
Q: Are you satisfied with White64, the boutique agency based in Tysons, that has the current contract?
They’ve done an excellent job, in my opinion.
Q: How much was their contract for?
Our average annual spend with White64 has been $1.9 million and was a bit lower — but then we had SafeTrack, and obviously there was a lot to communicate around SafeTrack. So it was a little higher in those years, and raised the average overall.
I would point out that what we spend is about a fraction of 1 percent of WMATA’s $1.8 billion operating budget.
Q: Why switch if you’ve been happy with them?
We work hard to spend our ad dollars wisely and efficiently. And obviously, one of the ways that we do that is to re-compete the work every few years.
Q: The perception among some riders is that White64’s campaign, Back2Good, was underwhelming. Where did the idea for this campaign come from?
Back2Good was inspired by customers in focus groups, and White64 put the campaign together.
[Customers] told us in focus groups that we at Metro have to prove that we can be good before we can aim any higher than that.
Q: Do you think it’s been a good campaign?
We know from our customers, from the research that we do, that there’s about a 70 percent awareness of Back2Good, and that the majority of our customers in surveys have told us that the Back2Good message tells them that WMATA is on the right track, in terms of restoring public confidence in the service.
So those are the kind of metrics that I use to say, ‘Is that a good campaign? Is it believable? Is it telling them what they need to know about the work that we’re doing here at Metro?’ Our research shows that is in fact the case. [C]ustomers find it authentic.
Q: Why does Metro need to promote itself when, in some ways, it’s the only mass transit in town?
We don’t consider ourselves a monopoly. We do have competition in this market. We have individual automobiles. We have ride-sharing, via Lyft and Uber. We have scooters and bikes — Capital Bikeshare. We have other bus carriers.
People have choices in this marketplace. They have choices about how they commute every day. They have choices about how they make trips out to sporting events, and to nightlife, and to school. And we have to — in order to have them consider Metro as a choice — we have to get them information to make an informed decision about how safe and reliable we are, and how cost-effective we are for them — and that takes some investment as well.
[Disclosure: Bowersox said a quarter of Metro’s ad spending last year was with The Washington Post, both online and in the Express, whose print editions are distributed free at Metro stations.]
Q: You mentioned that Metro needed to advertise the new Rush Hour Promise, a program rolled out in January that gives riders refunds if their rush-hour trains are delayed by 15 minutes or more, despite receiving some press coverage. Why?
After 30 days we went back out to the riders to figure out how many people were aware of it, and the number wasn’t has high was we wanted. So we started doing a lot of digital advertising. And today I can tell you that 60 percent of our customer base is aware of the Rush Hour Promise. So that means 40 percent still is not. So we’re still marketing the information.
Q: That seems surprising, no?
I often have board members that say, ‘How is this possible because everybody is looking at Twitter every day?’ You put the numbers out, and people [on Twitter] talk about if they got a credit or they didn’t get a credit, etc.
But the truth is that zero to 5 percent of our customers are on Twitter. They tell us that that’s one of the least regular sources of information they have. They are much more likely to get information about Metro either on our system, while they’re traveling, or through the news organizations — and the three that they talk to us about the most frequently are The Washington Post, Channel 4 and WTOP.
Q: Why has Metro also paid organizations such as Greater Greater Washington, given the generally friendly support the advocacy group already gives the agency?
They basically gave us an opportunity to crowdsource, using their readership. So we gave them money to put together a program for us that said, ‘Hey, among your readers who are sort of thoughtful advocates about transit and are experts in their own fields, what do you think would be a good [fare]-pass program that would incentivize more ridership and more trip-making on the system?’
And so they produced that for us as a way to give us input into thinking about what we’re doing about new pass products. [These fare products are still in development after testing in customer focus groups, a Metro spokeswoman said.]
Q: And the prior year?
The prior year we did a similar thing with them, where we sponsored a competition and their readers gave us suggestions for improvements to the customer experience on the system. The winner was a compass rose [that] the teacher from Northern Virginia came up with, and we implemented that. So those are good partnerships.
[The contract for the competition cost $12,000, a Metro spokeswoman said.]
Every April we do sexual harassment prevention month with them. We do some ridership research that they can then publish, which talks about the level of awareness and reporting of sexual harassment on the system. They then use that with transit properties, actually around the world, to help build awareness for public space harassment issues.
The campaign that we have is one that we’re very proud of it. It’s very inclusive. It features lots of different kinds of customers — women wearing Muslim headdress, transgender people and others who are often reporting that they are victims on the public transit system. The latest research shows that awareness is up on the system and reporting has increased, so those are effective communications as well.
Q: We’re told that the M Store, which riders seemed either to love or hate, has sold about $25,000 worth of merchandise at the store and online. What do you think about that?
It’s a good start. It’s only a start, and tourism season is just getting kicked off. The two biggest sellers at the store were the yoga pants and the rail map tote bags, both of which sold out for a time.
Q: Why did Metro open the store?
New York City has its own transit merchandise store and online sales. The one that inspired me, however, is the London Underground.
When I was on vacation there a couple years ago, I bought a poster and hung it in my office. You know the London Underground makes about 2.5 million pounds a year on their merchandise — and that’s over $3 million. And 35 percent of its market are visitors. I keep that poster on my wall to remind me of the economic value of a transit brand and what it can be.
I know that our rail map has that kind of iconic brand power for WMATA. And it’s an asset that we can leverage as confidence builds in our system, to generate revenue. And of course, that revenue goes right back into improving service for our customers.
Q: What do you say to those who think it’s premature, if not downright frivolous, to be focusing on merchandise and PR when Metro faces challenges providing basic service?
When you talk about systems that are challenged with problems, that’s certainly been true for New York, but they’ve continued to get information out about their services and what they’re trying to do to improve things. That’s true of London, when they have challenges. It’s true of Chicago. It’s true of every major transit property.
You have to continue to make things better while communicating everything you’re doing with your customers and your stakeholders. That’s an obligation. It’s a responsibility that we take very seriously. It’s not an option. It’s not an add-on. And to get that information frequent, accurate and consistent, takes some investment.
Q: Do you ever feel personally beleaguered when Metro spends so much time and money on its image and then another problem or mishap appears?
I don’t feel beleaguered about it. I think that every day we have an opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. I think it’s a privilege to do that.
I started out in public service; I’ve always worked in public service. And I try very hard to make sure that we are doing the best we can for our customers every day. I have a terrific team of folks here who get up every morning and do what they can do as professional communicators. And I think we continue to overcome those challenges a little at a time.
*All text bracketed and in italics is a paraphrase of remarks from Bowersox or information provided by Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly.