Mar 26, 2009

The Voice of BART

Ever wonder who's behind the robotic voices on BART?

Doors are closing… Please stand clear of the doors. 

Six car train for Richmond in two minutes. 

That's "George" and "Gracie," two computerized voices that are part of an automated announcement system that BART started using about ten years ago.

Photo of BART riders, taken by a BART rider. BART posts many photos from riders on its blog.
Photo of BART riders, taken by a BART rider. BART posts many photos from riders on its blog.

But there’s another voice of BART that you may have heard recently, that of Melissa Jordan. She’s BART’s senior web producer, and like a community manager, she's charged with overseeing BART's social media. She’s the person behind the BART blog (where you can read all about George and Gracie), the BART Facebook page, and the sfbart Twitter stream. (Hot Studio designed the current BART site.)

Melissa spends her days communicating with BART riders over the mundane (Elevator closed at Ashby station), the sublime (“Good Samaritan” sightings), the disgusting (Opossum stuck in track switching mechanism), the promotional (Wifi Rail Inc. to provide wifi service on BART), and the curious (Second BART rooster sighting this week!). When an important issue comes up, like budget cuts, Melissa tries to educate riders about the choices that BART faces, and encourage them to join the conversation.

Although she has 2,716 followers on Twitter and 311 fans on Facebook, most people have never heard her name.

“I’m just ‘BART’ online,” says Melissa. “But if people ask who I am, I tell them.”

Melissa doesn't focus the BART Twitter feed on her own personal interests, because she is always aware that she is representing the BART brand and not herself as an individual. There's a risk if a company identifies its business profile too closely with any one individual, she says, because personnel and roles within a company can change.

This is one of the conundrums of being a community manager for a large organization: Should you be BART or Melissa Jordan or something in between? We value transparency and openness on the web. We want to talk to real people, not George and Gracie. Which means Melissa-as-BART has to be personable. When a rider complains about noise in the tunnel, Melissa-as-BART might say, “I know, I don’t like it either.” When a new rider tweets that she was happy the train was on time, Melissa-as-BART might reply, “Glad you enjoyed your ride!” She isn’t limiting her communications to robotic talking points. Although she manages to avoid it most of the time, occasionally she uses the first person.

Melissa visited us at our office recently as part of our ongoing research about social media. Below are some of the highlights from our conversation:

Journalists are naturals for social media 

Melissa spent more than a decade working in newspapers. Her last job before she joined BART was with the San Jose Mercury News. Melissa says it was an easy career switch for her.

“There’s a sense of urgency that is inherent to journalists,” she says. “You can’t let anything just sit for a day.”

She said that being naturally curious and open-minded is another quality that makes journalists prime candidates as community managers. “You don’t shut down debate just because you don’t agree with what someone says.”

Know your audience

Her journalism training also shaped Melissa's commitment to representing diversity. She says that she can’t follow every single person who follows her, so she tries to find people who might represent a different worldview so she can understand them better.

In her case, that means following sports fans, people of other races, and people of different religious and political beliefs. It’s not hard to do since BART riders represent every type of person who lives or works in the Bay Area—she says sfbart’s followers on Twitter include evangelical ministers and people working in the porn industry.

Are there any governance policies that dictate what you can post?

“They trust me. If I’m not sure if I should post something, then the answer’s ‘no.’”

Where does 'community manager' sit within the BART organization? 

BART doesn't have a 'community manager' position; however, the senior web producer fullfills that type of work along with other website and marketing department responsibilities. BART has a two-person web team that is part of the overall 15-person marketing and research group.

Do you use any social media tools?

Just the free ones: FeedBurner, TweetDeck, TwitterBerry, BackTweet, BackType (to measure blog comments about BART), Posterous.

Any advice for dot govs that want to get involved in social media? 

There's no downside to jumping in. The web is a great democratization of media. But you do need to ask yourself what outcome you want. Engagement with the brand? Event promotion? Contests? Fundraising? Communication? Once you know what your goals are, you can focus your efforts.

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