Digital & Social Media

A World Where Writers Ride Free

A World Where Writers Ride Free
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Campaign: U.S. rail company Amtrak is offering writers residencies on its trains. The initiative came about when Amtrak noticed a conversation on social media extolling the virtues of trains as creative spaces.

It started with an interview with the author Alexander Chee, in literary culture blog Pen America, in which Chee revealed how much he enjoyed writing on trains and said how he wished “Amtrak had residencies for writers.”

Slate writer Jessica Gross responded to Chee [TRUE: via a retweet from Quartz editor Zach Seward] on Twitter, saying that writing on a train “would allow for uninterrupted creativity and window gazing.”

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Having been included on the tweet, Amtrak stepped in and paid for Gross to take a 44-hour round trip between New York and Chicago, with Gross writing up her experience on board the sleeper train for The Paris Review.

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Chee is also set to take a trip from New York City to Portland, Oregon, at Amtrak’s expense in May, according to published reports, and Julia Quinn, Amtrak’s social media director, has said that the company wants to “engage with writers several times a month.”

The writer residencies follow on from a social media effort Amtrak launched in October 2013 which offered people free train tickets in return for sharing their favorite moments on board Amtrak trains using the #AmtrakStories hashtag. The brand continues to share the stories on a dedicated section on its website and on its Twitter stream, where it has nearly 70,000 followers.

Contagious, FleishmanHillard’s Armato Weigh In

Contagious: Amtrak’s initiative demonstrates the benefits of monitoring social media platforms and constructively using the information that you find there, not only in connecting directly with potential customers, but in terms of positive PR; the initiative has been covered by the New Yorker, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times and Gawker among others.

Amtrak trains, along with Greyhound buses, are often regarded as the grimy alternative to flying or driving in the U.S. If Amtrak can address this image problem, it could potentially attract a new breed of customers who actively choose train travel over other modes of transport.

Here, for the cost of a few complimentary train tickets, Amtrak’s effort helps to invoke a sense of romance around train travel for anyone who hears of the story—positioning Amtrak trains as a place for writers to create masterpieces, not mere public transport. We’ve seen both Virgin Trains and Eurostar employ this tactic: in fact, in a similar effort to Amtrak in terms of aligning train travel with creativity, Eurostar invited photographers and bloggers to contribute to its Stories Are Waiting platform in 2013.

John Armato: This is about the power of affirmation. The Contagious folks are right (except about Amtrak being either like Greyhound or grimy)—as far as they go. Amtrak’s romancing of writers on the rails does demonstrate the benefits of a good social media listening habit. It can help potentially attract new customers. And even if not, it’s an inexpensive way to help reposition the brand and generate positive content. No quibble with that.

But there’s a simpler truth at work: People love to know they’ve been heard.

The chasm Amtrak crossed the moment it said  (brilliantly in my opinion) “You two up for a trip to Chicago and back?” is profound. It crossed over from the facile chitter-chatter of typical brand Twitter patter to something that was remarkably real and—honestly—even moving.

Without the utterly acceptable but completely unsatisfying “Hey that’s a fun idea. We’ll run it by management!” Without any pretense of grand promises, Amtrak simply said, “let’s try it.” Can you imagine the double take that must have caused on the other end?

We heard you, and we think it’s cool, too. C’mon, let’s try this out together. That is affirmation. That tells people they’ve been heard. Quite possibly the most remarkable gift you can give to your consumer is your genuine attention and interest in them.

I love that Amtrak didn’t pause to turn this into some massive campaign or program before making the offer. [A program was eventually put together in February.] When random acts of kindness are no longer random the more likely we are to question their kindness. Programs may be said to be the enemy of authenticity.

I’m not naïve. This wasn’t altruism. But I do think it was the best of the social media promise: It was a conversation that moved engagement from online to offline. It did something real, and it brought value to all involved with a minimum of marketing machinations. Keeping the simplicity and purity of the brand’s gesture on track as an ongoing effort will be a challenge. But I’m a writer too, and I like the idea. I hope Amtrak responds to that challenge with the same affability—and affirmation—with which it responded to the original opportunity.

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About the author

This article was syndicated from Contagious Feed, an indispensable resource to the marketing communications industry focusing on competitive intelligence, best practices, new technology and consumer behavior. In addition to the flagship quarterly publication, app and Feed, Contagious has developed a consultancy and a series of world-class conferences, including its annual Most Contagious event.

John Armato sits in FleishmanHillard's Sacramento office, providing clients from a wide range of industries, from consumer goods to food, tourism to healthcare. With 20 years in communications, and a lifetime of creative pursuits as a musician, graphic designer, and freelance writer, he brings an eclectic perspective to his work. He also is author of the blog "Think Inside the Box."