Social media has changed modern society significantly in its short existence. It's no longer just an element of people's personal lives, but an integral component of doing business. Its reach has infiltrated nearly every industry, including transportation.
Saskatoon Transit in Saskatchewan, Canada, is taking an innovative approach to combining social media with transportation promotion in a way that few — if any — North American transit agencies have tried. It issued a request for proposals (RFP) for an Instagram social media influencer campaign and recently chose a company to oversee that campaign.
Social media influencers are users already on a certain platform — typically Instagram — who have built a reputation as an expert on a certain topic. They endorse or feature certain products and services in their social media feed and engage with their followers about the product or service. The marketing tactic is gaining popularity among brands because it's considered a more natural way to reach targeted audiences.
"Micro-influencers" are endorsers who are everyday people, not celebrities, and might not have a huge follower base, but followers trust their advice and recommendations. Social media research indicates engagement — liking, sharing and commenting on posts — on Instagram is notably higher than on other social media platforms, and it tends to drop for influencers with large followings. Thus, more brands are turning to Instagram micro-influencers to foster greater engagement about their products and services. That's the tactic Saskatoon Transit is taking as well.
Enlisting social media influencers frequently is considered a less expensive marketing strategy than launching a traditional marketing campaign. Saskatoon Transit will dedicate up to $100,000 to its influencer campaign.
Smart Cities Dive spoke with Colleen McKee, the City of Saskatoon's communications and marketing manager assisting the Transportation and Construction Department, about the program.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
SMART CITIES DIVE: We understand the company you selected will oversee a campaign that involves numerous social media influencers.
COLLEEN MCKEE: Yes, that's the case. In a campaign like this, the biggest point is that we use micro-influencers. Micro-influencers are the people present in our local markets, so other people in our local market can relate to them... We're looking to use a number of influencers for a number of events... for about the next nine months or so. The key here is they will be able to generate authentic content for our channel and the follower base they currently have.
The idea with influencers is they're storytellers. So as they're attending events and taking transit, they're telling stories. Instagram Stories is one of the best channels that allows you to do that. These influencers will use their own Instagram accounts. But it does allow us to take whatever they're posting on Instagram and share it across... our city social media channels. We can, in turn, use it for our traditional advertising if we feel like that's the right way to go.
Is there a cap on how many influencers you will work with?
MCKEE: In the RFP we sent out, we hadn't given specifics of what we were looking for because that's what we were looking for the market to do based on best practices [and] based on their professional knowledge of this type of business. We're looking to them to provide direction. We didn't have in mind a cap of how many would be appropriate. It depends on the strategy the firms propose. In this situation, we plan to run about six different events, whether those are events that already exist in Saskatoon or events we generate for content so the influencers have an opportunity to talk about Saskatoon Transit. At each one of those events we plan to use about three influencers.
Why did the transit agency decide to go in this direction as opposed to a traditional marketing campaign?
MCKEE: One thing we talked about initially is that this is a new way of doing business... That's quite intriguing to us. This is the way the market is going. People are looking to influencers because they're more likely to trust the people around them, the people they know.
These [influencers] have a follower base... so it allows us an opportunity to create content for Saskatoon Transit. In the more traditional style you would go to an agency and look to that agency to come up with new ideas, new content, new ads. But this is a way to do it that's interesting and [new] to the market... and probably a less expensive way than the more traditional style.
Do influencers get money or other compensation in exchange for their endorsements?
MCKEE: It's hard to say what pay would be for an influencer because it depends on so many things. If we're looking at micro-influencers, they have a quite a bit smaller following than your typical influencer would have. So it depends on a lot of factors as to what they would be paid — what their following is, how available they are, a multitude of things... When we're working with influencers on attending these events, we do provide promo items to them to encourage them to work with us and... take transit to these local events. I consider it more of an honorarium than a salary situation.
Is this model being used in other departments within the city government, or just transit?
MCKEE: I would like to say we're cutting edge in transit in doing this. I wouldn't say this is something we've done widely across the city. This is new for us and for the city so we're excited to see it roll out to the market.
How do you plan to measure success with this program?
MCKEE: Transit in Saskatoon over the past number of years has actually seen quite a lot of success. We've recently reported an 8.4% increase in ridership. And we've got lots of new programs and products to highlight, such as we've got high-frequency corridors, we've got real-time trip planning, GPS services... we've got a 100% accessible fleet. We've had a lot of recent success so we want to keep building on that success.
We'd like to see over the next couple of years a further increase in ridership. By doing things like this we set ourselves up for a gain in ridership by making [transit] more known to the market. And specific to the campaign, a thing that we look at is the awareness. As these influencers post to their accounts we want to understand the amount of impressions they're making on people — the amount of people who are aware of Saskatoon Transit and that the influencers are taking Saskatoon Transit. And then obvious things like "likes" and engagement with their post. And the amount of coverage we get through the media.
Those are campaign-specific metrics, but in general, Saskatoon Transit would love to see increased ridership from campaigns like this and get more people aware that Saskatoon Transit is a viable option to get from place to place... whether it's to get from point A to point B or to build in transit as a part of their trip. It doesn't have to be a [daily] service that they use, but they can use it here and there for whatever suits their needs.
We're hoping through this campaign that our influencers achieve relatable moments so as they're taking and talking about transit... their follower base can relate to them and see themselves in that situation and how transit can fit into their lives. It's an opportunity to work with influencers... and let them inspire us, and let them also inspire people of Saskatoon to move around the city differently.