I attended a social media conference last week, where I heard some very wise words from one of the speakers, David Ferguson. I’m paraphrasing here, but David warned delegates that although they can, of course, choose whether or not they engage with the conversations happening about their brands in social spaces, the reality is that those conversations are happening anyway, and brands that aren’t at the very least paying attention will be left behind.

South West Trains (SWT) is a good example of the problems brands can face when they come late to the social media table. As an individual who spends remarkable percentages of her life on South West trains, I’ve been following their social journey (gettit?) for some time.

One would assume that social media would be a brilliant communications tool for a train operator; what better way to provide real time updates and engagement to thousands of passengers than via Twitter? Yet until 29 September, there was no official SWT account. Yes, there’s been @NRE_SWT, but it only churns out travel updates – better than nothing but not engaging and not a source I fully trusted since that time a few years back when a SWT employee chastised me for visitingnationalrail.co.uk for travel updates, as it’s only updated after SWT updates its own site (yes, really).

Just like nature, social media abhors a vacuum, so for a long time, commuters have been using #swt as a tag to share information. Passengers provide updates about where trains are stuck, how fast (or slow) the journey is going, warnings to fellow commuters to avoid certain stations…we’ve created our own customer information service. The problem for SWT is that in amongst the helpful tweets were bitter and often vitriolic complaints about the operator.

A member of staff who’s social media savvy does his or her best to keep passengers informed anonymously via @askSWT. This is someone who cares about the business and has been a real help in the absence of an official channel, engaging in all kinds of ways, from the practical to the very specific – not to mention putting the more unreasonable complainers in their place.

Other unofficial accounts exist with information spread by train drivers and guards and these tweeters have done a good job, but from a ‘good brand behaviour’ perspective, it’s terrible that SWT has remained silent until so recently.  The new team in place seem reasonably responsive and engaging, however my colleague Martin discovered their limitations very quickly last week; after a nightmare journey back from London, his tweets to them about the experience were quickly and sympathetically responded to, however he was then directed to lodge his complaint formally via the website, because they seemed in no position to take the matter further. Not exactly joined up, then.

Yes, we should applaud SWT for getting its Twitter act together but there’s still much work for them to do. Just like my fellow passengers, I don’t have much choice about whether or not I use their trains to get to work, but the single biggest cause of frustration is feeling like we’re not being heard; just ask Martin.