Amtrak is collecting content from both professional "Amtrak Residency" writers and its customers to create a large enough inventory of stories and visuals to show the scale of the rail line's national network.
Amtrak launched its first new brand campaign in 15 years last month to remind people that the rail service network extends across America and not just the popular Northeast U.S. corridor.
We’re not exactly sure why the rail company is perceived by so many people as a regional transportation company operating only in the Northeast. It could be because Amtrak carried more riders between Washington, D.C. and Boston in 2014 than all of the airlines combined.
However, Amtrak operates 15 long-distance routes to over 500 destinations spanning the country from Seattle to Miami to San Diego, ranging in length from 764 to 2,438 miles. Those trains are typically either two-level Superliner or one-level Viewliner trains, which both include sleeper cars in various configurations and upscale dining cars.
Amtrak feels most travelers in America don’t know that. Previous campaigns have highlighted special deals or new services, but it was time for a new brandwide promotion focusing on the travel and destination experience.
From a digital user experience perspective, Amtrak designed the online component of the new “500 Destinations. Infinite Stories.” campaign as basically one big blog. Professional writers and Amtrak staff create independent and branded travel-themed content, supplemented with Amtrak customer user-generated content, which ends with a link to Amtrak’s booking engine.
The Infinite Stories content strategy emphasizes as much storytelling and social media engagement as possible to show the variety of the Amtrak experience across the entire scope of America. The more people who see Amtrak trains traveling in Portland, Tucson, New Orleans and Memphis, the more people will be aware that Amtrak isn’t just for day commuters hopping trains around the Tri-state area.
“We want people to think: ‘Where can the train take me?’” says Darlene Abubakar, director of national advertising for Amtrak. “That’s the real key message here.”
The emphasis on digital content to complement the national advertising campaign took on an additional layer in December 2013 when novelist Alexander Chee said in a PEN interview that his favorite place to write was on trains. He said he wished that Amtrak had a writer residency program, which other writers then started sharing on Twitter to get Amtrak’s attention.
Amtrak was game, so they tested it out by sending New York writer Jessica Gross on a roundtrip journey to Chicago, who published her story in The Paris Review. Based on the success of that, Amtrak then asked for submissions from professional writers from around the country to vie for one of 24 writer residency slots. Over 16,000 writers applied and these 24 were chosen to travel cross-country and write about train travel.
NBC Sports baseball blogger and ex-lawyer Craig Calcaterra writes about how it’s easier to work on a train than a plane, before enjoying a steak dinner enroute to Milwaukee with a couple from Manchester and an ornithologist from Montana.
Former CIA officer Lindsay Moran describes an afternoon in a Beverly Hills cafe sipping Venezuelan hot chocolate, while imagining Colin Farrell approaching her to inquire about her Amtrak Residency.
Sensing they were onto something as curators of train travel writing, Amtrak started asking social media influencers to hop aboard. Floral designer Amy Merrick, for example, traveled up the West Coast to share her experiences with 134,000 Instagram buddies. Then she did a Q&A interview for the Amtrak blog to describe her favorite moments and offer train travel tips.
Amtrak is also interviewing local travel bloggers to develop destination content for the main rail hubs around the country. For example, the three sisters behind the Dallas fashion blog, ThePerennialStyle.com, dish on the best places to shop and eat in Dallas.
Passengers as well can submit their own blog posts and photography from within the content portal directly to Amtrak for review.
Meanwhile, many of the more than 84,000 people who rode the 300 Amtrak trains nationwide in 2014 hashtagged their Instagram photos and videos with #amtrak. There are now over a quarter million Instagram visuals of people working and relaxing on trains that Amtrak can crowdsource for all of its other social media channels.
So, Amtrak really does have an almost infinite amount of individual stories to share, each with an authentic context because they were created while traveling on a train.
“A lot of people love the Amtrak experience because it’s so unique, so they want to share those experiences,” says Abubakar. “And we want them to share those experiences.”
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Photo credit: The landing page for the newly refreshed Amtrak blog. Amtrak