In this episode of Zipcast, we’re talking with Craig Davison, Executive Director of Communications at Sound Transit. We’ll dive into the unique customer communication challenges the organization faces and uncover the solutions they’ve adopted to overcome them. Learn why texting has become a unique and vital function of their transit communication strategy, and how other companies can follow suit.

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How Sound Transit effectively communicates to people on 70,000 rides per day
  • Why they chose not to build a dedicated Sound Transit app, and instead send alerts via text
  • How their transit security text line works and why it’s so important for the community
  • The creative ways in which they promote their texting capabilities
  • How Seattle’s transit infrastructure differs from other big cities and how its rider base has evolved over the past few years
  • How government agencies and other organizations can learn from Sound Transit’s example and securely connect with their customers

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Craig Davison Quote about Sound Transit Texting Communication Strategy with Zipwhip


Scott Heimes: Welcome to the Zipcast where we talk about the latest trends in texting for business, customer communication strategies and technology. I’m your host, Scott Heimes, Chief Marketing Officer at Zipwhip. And thanks for tuning in.

Well, welcome to the Zipcast, Craig.

Craig Davison: Well, good morning Scott. Thanks for having me.

Scott Heimes: So tell us about your role at Sound Transit.

Craig Davison: Yeah, I’m the Executive Director of Communications, so I’m responsible for everything from marketing to community outreach to graphic design, brand integration, media relations, the whole swath of communication functions.

Scott Heimes: Got it. Big role. And how about Sound Transit itself? So that’s the transit infrastructure for Seattle?

Craig Davison: Yes. Sound Transit’s best probably associated with one of the three modes that we are building out. And that is Link light rail. So Sound Transit is in the process of a major expansion. The biggest one in the country actually of our light rail and our heavy rail for those who you Sounder. And we actually have buses on freeways as well. It’s called Sound Transit Express. So we are in the process of working hard to get the Seattle metropolitan area and the broader region up to speed with a lot of other cities across the planet.

Scott Heimes: Yeah. And how does Seattle compare to other big cities like San Francisco for example, or New York in terms of the transit infrastructure?

Craig Davison: Yeah, that’s a great question. In terms of transit infrastructure, there is no argument, relative to other big cities that we’re behind. As you’ve probably heard in the past, there were a number of opportunities for regional voters to move forward with light rail. And the timing just wasn’t right. But we’re at a time and place now where everything is coming together. We’ve got exploding population, we’ve got a geography that really encourages density. And we’ve got issues around housing and affordability. So the time is right to give folks an alternative to being in their car stuck in traffic. And that’s why the public has put so much importance behind us building out our transit infrastructure, including Link light rail.

Scott Heimes: Got it. And so when you think about your customer base, it’s the rider of your system, right? How many are there?

Craig Davison: Let’s talk about customers for a second. So one of the biggest paradigm shifts I had coming from private sector, and I’ve been at Sound Transit now five years, was who is our customer is far more of a difficult conversation than it is in the private sector. You know, in private sector. And at Microsoft. Before we set out on building a product, we would have a lot of debates in strategic discussions about who the customer actually was. In the public sector, everybody’s your customer. So you’ve got the public who is paying you through their tax dollars, you’ve got stakeholder organizations, you’ve got communities that live adjacent to the infrastructure like light rail stations. And then you’ve got the actual passengers who use your trains and buses.

So today I think for the purposes of this conversation we’ll talk about our passengers. And we have thousands. Every one of our modes is almost at full capacity. Demographically we reflect the state and the local region as well. The majority of our customers are in the millennial set, followed by Gen-Xer’s, followed by Boomers. So we are basically seeing a broad swath across all walks and economic levels using Sound Transit services.

Scott Heimes: I mean, the scale must be pretty large. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of users, riders?

Craig Davison: Oh absolutely. On Link light rail alone, we’re serving up 70,000 rides every day. So when you add in our Express fleet, which is over a hundred thousand, and then you can add on another 20 to 30,000 for our Sounder a rail program, you’ll see even more. As we build out the system, you’ll see even more folks jumping on.

We’re opening and expanding to Northgate in 2021. And then when we open to Mercer island, Bellevue and Redmond in 2023, you’re going to see a significant increase in ridership.

Scott Heimes: That’s really exciting. And as someone who lives in Ballard, I’m really excited about that Northgate line.

Craig Davison: I bet you are. So am I.

Scott Heimes: So how do you communicate with all those customers? What are some of the key channels that you use?

Craig Davison: Well, another one of the biggest challenges is as everyone knows in this field, is that there’s no magic way and no magic channel to communicate with folks, anymore. That said, I was astonished when I got there and I saw that we had an email program and that email program had open rates north of 40%. Which in the private sector we would have killed for. And I quickly realized that the reason we have that is because we do have a platform. People want and need the information we’re communicating.

And what that means as a communicator is that you have to treat that with respect. You don’t want to spam it and you don’t want to send out information that isn’t relevant. So we’re very, very careful about the channels we use and how we curate.

That said, we’ve seen text messaging explode. When we opened to the University of Washington in 2016, we expanded the alerts you could sign up for. And we have alerts for every bus route, every train, every Sounder and Link light rail. And we saw our light rail numbers explode. And overwhelmingly the majority of folks said they were opting in to text messages versus emails. So email, text messaging, social media of course, the web. And then we’ll use paid channels too, when we need to get the word out. On other channels, they’re a little more traditional. But we will also communicate physically on board our vehicles and outside of them.

And, we’re old school. We’ll pick up the phone and call members of the public as well. And we’ll actually go doorbell when we need to talk to members of the community.

Scott Heimes: Got It. That’s really interesting. So how about an app? Have you guys explored building your own app and chosen not to do that, because texting is so much more popular?

Craig Davison: You know, a lot of the information that folks need is available on several apps. We have a mobile website where we see that the overwhelming majority of our visitors, or sorry we have a responsive website, and the overwhelming majority of our visitors are coming from mobile. So we can see that. And we also are the host for a popular app called One Bus Away, which gives you real time information on where your Link train is or where your bus is.

We’re continually looking at how we can support any kind of navigation needs for the public. But typically folks very simply want to know how to get from point A to B. So we have a trip planner on our mobile website, on our responsive website. And there are other apps out there including Google Maps that provide this data. So just ensuring that customers have access to that information is one of the most important things we can do.

Scott Heimes: Got It. One of the things you’ve done is text enable your security line?

Craig Davison: Yes.

Scott Heimes: Is that right?

Craig Davison: Yeah.

Scott Heimes: So how did that come about and how’s it working?

Craig Davison: Well, the system, it’s incredibly safe. And what we saw was that more and more people were using email, and we thought, well, given the trends we’re seeing, and more of our customers actually opting in to alerts via text, what if we were able to turn on this functionality?

What if we were able to have customers who can report on a number of issues while they’re on the train, have that capability instead of either phoning us or using email. So we had that curiosity. We know that’s where the majority of our customers were. We know they wanted a tech solution. So we thought we would check it out and put out an RFP.

Scott Heimes: And that’s how it came about?

Craig Davison: That’s how we got here. Yes. Working with Zipwhip.

Scott Heimes: Well we’re really proud to have you as a customer, so thank you.

Craig Davison: You Bet.

Scott Heimes: Were there any other specific challenges that came about from text enabling the line? I mean, there’s some of the benefits, obviously if you’re experiencing a security issue on the train itself, it’s much easier to text the security line versus trying to call the security line, where you maybe observed making a phone call or something like that.

Well, being able to text is an incredible benefit. And as you know, if you’re a Seattle native, there are places in the world where confrontations are frowned upon. We are certainly not a confrontational culture here. So being able to report an issue or a concern, and you know, we’re talking the gamut. We’re talking everything from spilled coffee on a seat to someone having a medical emergency, to some other type of disruption. And giving customers the ability to actually report on that and notify us was something that we really wanted to do.

We also looked at other systems across the world and other transit systems offer this capability too. So we had many reasons to pursue this.

Scott Heimes: And how many you get a day? Do you get a lot of usage on the security?

Craig Davison: I don’t know the daily rate, but right now we are at 500 a month and I think we’ve already surpassed 150 for the month of February.

Scott Heimes: Fascinating.

Craig Davison: Yeah. So it’s definitely a success.

Scott Heimes: And who mans the software back at home? At the home office there?

Craig Davison: Yeah. And that’s the key, right? You need to have staff that’s trained on how to use this. And we do. We have a security operations center, 24/7. So we have folks who are actively monitoring incoming texts. If the question or concern is more of a customer service nature, like how do I transfer from Link light rail to a bus route? They’ll basically try to get that information from our customer service reps and then come back with a response that points people to that information. But it’s our security operation center.

Scott Heimes: Any good stories of stuff coming in over the text line that you’ve been able to address or-

Craig Davison: Well, I thought what was initially very interesting when we turned on the Zipwhip solution, we immediately saw a back flood of people who had been trying to text this hotline for a while.

Craig Davison: So, clearly there was an expectation that you could communicate via text. So that was nice to see. And then when we saw the continued engagement, that was also encouraging. You know, the themes again, are across the board. We’ve seen medical emergencies, we’ve seen people playing music too loud. We’ve seen, hey this ticket vending machine isn’t working, to a concern about security. So, I actually tested it out the other night coming back from SEATAC airport. There was a gentleman playing some really, really, really loud bluegrass music, if you can imagine on one of the cars. He was clearly annoying people. So I texted the hotline and I said, we’re northbound, here’s the train number, here’s the issue. And there was an immediate auto response followed by a response from a human within 30 seconds. And then a minute later we will be sending someone to intercept the train at the next station. Thank you so much for your text. And sure enough, someone came on and very politely ask the gentleman to turn the music down and he accommodated.

So I was astonished.

Scott Heimes: Sounds like it works. So how do you make sure people know about this texting option? How do you promote it?

Craig Davison: Great question. So we use all those channels I talked about before. You know, being in public sector, it’s very interesting because your call to action isn’t, buy our product, most of the time. We certainly do ridership acquisition campaigns where we’re encouraging people to take light rail. But we also embark on a lot of behavioral change messaging. Like, Hey, take your backpack off before you get on the train. Don’t put it on a seat. Or stand to the right when you’re on an escalator and you’re not moving.

So in this case, we use some of the same channels that we use for our behavioral change communications. We use on board. So you’ll see posters on the trains themselves informing folks about this. You’ll see it in our text messages that we send for rider alerts. You’ll see it in our email and you’ll see it on our social media channels as well as our website, that most of our customers visit.

In fact we’ve correlated our website traffic to ridership. So when we have busy ridership, we see a perfect correlation on our website. So we know where folks are and we know where they’re getting their information. And this is one of the places we’ve embarked upon doing that. We’re very gentle. Our tone and our creative to encourage people to use this functionality is very Pacific northwest. It’s, hey, did you know that you have this benefit?

Craig Davison: And we try to be creative so that we can maximize engagement on it. As opposed to trying to be forceful or dictatorial about a behavior we’re trying to encourage.

Scott Heimes: Well, certainly it sounds like you operate a pretty impressive communication strategy there. So, I applaud. So you were at Microsoft before you came to Sound Transit

Craig Davison: Yeah.

Scott Heimes: So what a shift. So what’s it like communicating to this broad array of public sector sort of customers, the general public versus technology employees or technology companies at Microsoft?

Craig Davison: Yeah, it is quite a difference. Like I said, I think one of the biggest shifts when I first got to Sound Transit after I left Microsoft was really honing in on who the customer was. And realizing that it’s not just the folks who use our service. And realizing that as stewards of public funds, because, our revenue sources include taxes, they include federal grants and they include the actual ticket sales for people who use our service.

When you realize you have all of those sources and you have to be absolutely clear, you have a duty to inform the public about what you’re doing as a government entity. It changes your media mix, it changes your communication priorities. You are trying to focus as much as you can on getting information out, but also realizing that people are overwhelmed and inundated. And what messages are you trying to land? And what channels are you using to do that? So you have to learn, you have to kind of start over. You look at your channel mix, you make sure the message is appropriate for it. You ensure that you have the right staff. You ensure that you have strategy, so you don’t get stuck in a reactive cycle, which is very easy to do in public, because there’s always something to react to.

And you attempt to align all of those needs to more of a performance based methodology. And when I say performance based, I mean actually looking at data, not just listening to feedback. But looking at what people are actually doing, where you can. In pivoting the team to focus on that. So it’s been an incredible shift. And I would just go back to my opening statement, which was, you know, it’s about more than the people who use your service, it’s about the folks who live adjacent to your system, and who are paying their tax dollars to you to get the mission accomplished.

Scott Heimes: Right. And I suppose the media mix is quite different, as you mentioned. I mean, texting is not a relevant tool potentially for communicating inside of Microsoft. Right? But it’s hugely relevant in this public transit scenario.

Craig Davison: Yeah, that’s a great point. I don’t recall us heavily weighing on text messaging. They might be now, it’s been five years since I was there in the Xbox division. Texting is absolutely essential for us. And like I said before, we know the majority of our customers rely on it. And this is important information. So when you get a text from us, it typically pertains to, you know, your transportation being interrupted or disrupted or we’re telling you in advance about a new service that’s available or a route change.

So we have an audience. I don’t want to say captive. We have an audience that’s highly, highly engaged. So again, we just have to be careful how we use those channels. But text is growing and we’re seeing more and more uptake and we encourage folks to use texts because it’s a super convenient way for us to get in touch with the information they need in the moment.

Scott Heimes: It’s really their preferred medium in most cases. Right? It’s short, high priority. It’s the medium that you use to communicate with your most important people in your life and most important vendor partners and other things, and it’s always on your body.

Craig Davison: Yes.

Scott Heimes: And SMS is universal. It’s on every smartphone in the universe. Right? And so all those factors really contribute to making it such a powerful tool.

Craig Davison: Totally agree.

Scott Heimes: Any ways that you see other government institutions or public sector folks being able to use business texting like you are?

Craig Davison: Oh wow. I think transit is an absolute must because, as we all know, the mobile phone is now ubiquitous. Everyone’s got it on ’em all the time. It’s the best way to reach anyone when you have information they absolutely need to know.

I think almost every government agency that has a need to connect with the public or its customers with urgent information would totally pursue this. From an electrical company, to local transportation authorities. If you have the need to connect with your customers with important information, then I wouldn’t be surprised if all of them aren’t pursuing a tech strategy. So no reason why I wouldn’t see other government entities pursuing this.

Scott Heimes: Yeah, I totally agree. Well, thank you for being a customer.

Craig Davison: Absolutely.

Scott Heimes: And thanks so much for joining the Zipcast, Craig.

Craig Davison: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Scott Heimes: Thanks for joining us. Make sure you subscribe to the Zipcast on apple podcasts or wherever you listen, so you get the latest episodes. And feel free to text us with topics you’d like to hear about or other feedback for the show. Just text 2065823740 anytime of the day.

Scott Heimes: Until next time.

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