Captive audience: could railway companies learn from the media industry?

Rail companies have access to huge audiences every day, so should they be thinking more like the media and implementing similar strategies in order to grow and develop? Exterion Media Group development director Jason Cotterrell believes that key lessons could be adapted to enhance the customer experience, and that similar advancement in data and technology could unlock future potential.


The transport sector – the rail industry, in particular – is facing some very real business challenges, from unlocking much-needed revenue and improving its service to customers, to innovating passenger-focused experiences from start to finish.

With these challenges come fresh opportunities to think in new ways; to truly look at how the industry can innovate.

Looking at another sector that has gone through a sustained period of real change – the media – there are some pertinent lessons. The growth of online and new personal technology, along with the rise of social media, has changed the way the media sector reaches its customers. The industry has had no choice but to react to – and even pre-empt – evolving customer demands, to develop new products and services, and fight for relevance and its place in the lives of customers.

Serving an engaged, and huge, audience

Every rail company is a valuable media brand in its own right. Currently, companies aren’t really referring to themselves in this language. But they should be.

Around 1.7 billion passenger journeys were made by rail in 2016-2017, the highest recorded figure since the 1950s, according to data from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR). Rail companies are interacting with more people each day than most media brands, yet they often don’t think of themselves in this context.

London Underground, for example, has almost five million passengers that use the network each day; this is more than those that watched the latest – and much publicised – series of ITV’s Love Island, and almost three times as many people that buy The Sun each day.

Rail operators are big media companies; they have a powerful customer environment that is a fundamental part of everyday life. The audience, the context and the environment is an opportunity.

They need to take advantage of the footfall they see every day in their stations and learn more about their customers’ movements and expectations – using data and insight partnerships, just like a media company would, to create more ambient and engaging environments for passengers.

Focus on the customer

The rail industry must focus on what media companies in the digital age would call the ‘audience experience’, putting customers at the absolute heart of everything they do – and then looking at new commercial opportunities to engage them.

As media businesses will attest to, this involves being as useful, engaging and enjoyable as possible. Just as with online media, customers want what they want to be at their fingertips, and so station layouts are the physical representation of this user experience. Travellers, commuters or, properly defined, customers arrive at a station for a reason; they don’t want to be simply processed, though they are looking for the best possible experience from their time there.

The Independent Transport Commission’s (ITC) report in April this year, lauded the fact that “many passengers now value their time travelling more highly, and expect as standard access to communications systems for business, or to social media to connect digitally with people as well as entertainment systems for leisure”.

A customer-centric approach to the ‘media environment’ of the station and the carriage will enhance the passenger experience and unlock new revenue opportunities with retailers, commercial partners and advertisers.

The use of new technology – from new entertainment services such as Virgin Trains’ entertainment service BEAM, and the new high-impact digital screen being installed on London Underground – improve the ambience and the passenger, and commercial, value of the environment.

Connecting the ‘whole journey’ experience

Just as the media, and other industries, seeks the ‘whole customer view’, so too does the rail industry when it comes to the ‘journey experience’.

The advent of online, and the vast amounts of data that can be gleaned from it, means that user experience is now at the heart of any digital media service. If media now aims to make any online and digital experience as seamless as possible, then the same principle should be applied to a journey experience.

The journey experience is therefore the physical representation of the online user experience. Everything from booking and the station environment, through to the on-journey experience and arrival at the destination – the whole thing needs to be connected and frictionless in the delivery of communications, customer service and commercial partnerships.

The media industry has debated endlessly on whether ‘content is king’ or ‘distribution is queen’, but ultimately it boils down to the fact that people want their media – whether that is entertainment or advertising – when they want it, and how they want it.

A key part of the desired ‘whole journey’ experience must be to understand that nothing puts customers off more than unwarranted or intrusive attention or information. Positive engagement needs to be a two-way relationship with the customer.

When we consider the journey as a ‘media environment’, there needs to be a fundamental consideration of how the customer wants to receive information, entertainment, services and amenities.

The right partnerships

Using data partnerships, you can understand passenger movements and how they engage with, and interact with, the station and journey environment and various logistical and media touchpoints.

Exterion Media Group has a partnership with Telefónica as part of its commercial partnership with Transport for London, Hello London, which uses anonymised data from customers – along with third party data – to better understand commuters and create a more relevant media experience.

Rail companies must also look at how they can treat their own physical estates as viable media assets. Look at the Emirates Air Line cable car and the Santander Cycles in London – great sponsorship opportunities born out of treating transport links as a powerful media and communication tool.

Ultimately, the rail industry needs to realise the ‘media’ potential of its proposition – both to customers and to potential partners. Rail companies have a valuable and wide-ranging audience, who rely on their service and use their environments every day. By learning from the media industry, rail companies have the potential to transform both the customer experience and the commercial performance of the estates already at their fingertips.