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Reconnecting with the passenger through WhatsApp

With its messaging numbers now soaring into the millions each month, UK rail has fundamentally changed the way transport operators engage with passengers, to the benefit of all.
March 7, 2023

Last summer, Meta highlighted business messaging as a core commercial priority and has since called WhatsApp the “next chapter” in the company’s history when it comes to so-called conversational commerce. It is undoubtedly the future for customer engagement, a new way to connect with consumers. Customer messaging on Meta channels is however a path that the UK railway has been forging since 2018, leaving the rest of the transport worldnow to adapt quickly and catch up.  With its messaging numbers now soaring into the millions each month, UK rail has fundamentally changed the way transport operators engage with passengers, to the benefit of all.

In 2018, National Rail Enquiries launched the ‘Alert Me’ live journey update service via Messenger, following this up with WhatsApp in 2021, all delivered by our patent-pending personalised messaging technology. It was a global first, enabling rail passengers to receive real-time information on their journeys, including journey planning, disruption alerts and alternative routing, through messaging channels that the audience already use daily. The success of the ‘Alert Me’ service, and other similar information services offered by forward-thinking rail operators such as East Midlands Rail (EMR) and LNER is notable. It has made the UK railway one of the largest global users of Meta’s business messaging channels, towering above other transport brands such as AirFrance.

Powering these services for the railway, Zipabout now sends more than two million messages to passengers per month on channels including Messenger and WhatsApp, an increase of 600% in a year. We saw an increase of nearly 900% in WhatsApp users throughout 2022. Over the last quarter, on WhatsApp alone, we’ve delivered around 2.3million messages, peaking at nearly 60,000 messages on somedays at our busiest.

With passengers experiencing significant disruption at the moment caused by strikes and bad weather, these personalised journey updates are vital. Gone are the days of mass Twitter broadcasts, with passengers needing to scroll through hundreds of updates about irrelevant services. On the way out too, it seems, are the ubiquitous transport apps with their retention rates of less than 25%.

According to Meta itself,

“convenience is powerful, but ultimately, people want to get stuff done. And the combination of speed, quality of advice and personal care that people can experience when messaging is making it an irresistibly effective medium.”

For rail operators, personalised messaging for passengers is a sustainable and scalable route to improving network efficiency and lowering costs. Using Messenger, WhatsApp and SMS to deliver the right information to the passenger at the right time takes the load off customer service staff and frees up busy customer call centres. It is also a revolutionary new path to customer loyalty which bypasses the closed-loop proprietary information and ticketing apps which have maintained such a stranglehold on the rail passenger audience for years. With more than 75% of users consistently re-engaging with the ‘Alert Me’ and other operator messaging services each quarter, rail operators are now able to open up adirect and long-lasting two-way dialogue with their own passengers. They can send incentives to reward passengers for making the sustainable travel choice, creating strong loyalty programmes and behavioural change statistics that are hard to beat. In trials with National Rail Enquiries and WHSmith, up to 40% of passengers were incentivised to choose a less busy train after receiving personalised retail discounts tailored to their journey.

Alongside National Rail Enquiries, train operators such as EMR and LNER have seized the opportunity that personalised messaging offers, with others following close behind. EMR now provides bespoke QR codes at rural stations, providing a seamless way to opt in to live journey information via Messenger and WhatsApp for passengers who would otherwise struggle to access updates about their trains. LNER offers platform zoning information sent in advance via Messenger as well as their own LNER Assistant, showing passengers where to stand on the platform for their reserved seats. It is these seemingly simple things which enable operators to meet the needs of their passengers efficiently, reconnecting to provide a far better journey experience.