Emma Martell is Head of Social Content at Virgin Trains, and is due to speak at next month’s Festival of Marketing on ‘Harnessing the Power of Weird on Social’.

Ahead of her appearance at the Festival, we caught up with her to find out about her day-to-day work, how Virgin Trains came to develop its quirky brand voice, and her favourite social campaign – which involves an avocado.

Can you tell us a little bit about what your role at Virgin Trains involves?

Emma Martell: My role is all about building brand love and engagement on social. We sit within the PR team, so our budgets are small compared to other social teams who often sit in the marketing department. This means we have to get creative to get our message heard. So, no matter how busy we are, we always try to get away from our desks to let our minds wander and come up with ideas.

We’re a small in-house team, so everyone mucks in to get the job done. For example, in my first month in the role I hand delivered a toilet seat to Claridge’s. A couple of months later I was hosting a Facebook Live dressed as a penguin. Last Christmas I pulled some all-nighters at our stations helping to paint the entire script of It’s A Wonderful Life onto the platforms. It makes my role really varied and means I’m not stuck behind a desk or in meetings all day.

What went into the decision to develop the brand voice behind Virgin Trains – given that “quirky humour” wouldn’t be most people’s first thought for a train company?

Emma Martell: Virgin is famous for disrupting industries and challenging the status quo. It sounds cheesy, but this ethos influences everything we do at Virgin Trains, including our brand voice.

For me, it means constantly questioning whether there’s a better way to do things and looking outside our own industry for inspiration. Who says a train company shouldn’t make people laugh? Why can’t we cut the jargon and talk to our customers like humans? I’ve learnt that working in an ‘unsexy’ industry can be an advantage: when you get it right, it’s even more effective because it’s unexpected.

The strong brand identity and tone of voice was one of the biggest draws for me when I was offered my job at Virgin Trains: it makes defining a strategy and coming up with ideas easy.

What kind of response have you seen to the audition for the voice of Virgin Trains’ talking toilets? Any good material?

Emma Martell: When our PR agency, The Romans, pitched this idea to us we loved it, but worried nobody would enter. I mean, who wants to be the voice of a train toilet? In the end over five thousand people auditioned. As part of the campaign we also created some GIFs of Dean Gaffney, which have been viewed 19 million times to date. So now we know what makes our audience tick: toilets and Dean Gaffney!

Was there any good material? I remember laughing a lot during the shortlisting process, but that might have been down to being locked in a cupboard for hours listening to the same two sentences on repeat.

I loved working on this campaign. Not only did we get to film with Dean Gaffney on Valentine’s Day, but it was also my first ever Facebook bot. I learnt that the tech is surprisingly simple; the hard bit is nailing the content. Luckily, we have a brilliant and very funny social media agency called Cubaka and the bot has even been shortlisted for some awards.

Which social campaign from your time at Virgin are you most proud of?

Emma Martell: If I had to pick just one, it would be our Avocard campaign. On the day the government launched its 26-30 railcard, things didn’t quite go to plan: the website crashed, the cards sold out and millennials across the UK went online to complain.

I saw it trending on Twitter, and decided we should launch our own railcard to give people the same discount until things were fixed. To make it more shareable, our temporary railcard was an actual avocado; a cheeky nod to my generation’s obsession with the fruit. But rather than a symbol of supposed fiscal excess, it saves millennials money and you can even eat it after you’ve travelled.

The reason I’m so proud of this campaign is that it was conceived in-house and launched within four hours on a shoestring budget. I’m also proud we managed to get such a strange idea through senior management – you can read more about that here. Avocard ended up being our most engaged social media campaign ever, got picked up by traditional media and ultimately won us some awards including a Drum Social Buzz and PR Week Award.

How does Virgin Trains track the return from its social content? What are your metrics for success?

Emma Martell: You can’t measure social content the same way as PPC or SEO, but unfortunately too many companies still do. If you base your social content strategy on driving immediate sales, your content is likely to be pretty annoying and spammy.

I’ve been lucky to work for companies that value brand and understand the relationship between the different channels; they know that by engaging with your audience on a regular basis, not only when they’re ready to make a purchase, you can improve the performance of all your channels.

When it comes to measurement, I think the most important thing is to be clear with the business about the purpose of a campaign before you launch, and work with other channel owners where necessary to achieve broader commercial objectives.

For me, the metrics for success are usually engagement and reach, as my job is mostly about raising broad awareness and driving brand love. Occasionally, we’re able to show real world impact, such as an uplift in brand sentiment or increase in sales of food and drink onboard, but this is usually only possible when no other channels are active at the same time.

What is the toughest thing about being a social content manager in 2019?

Emma Martell: Not every tweet you write is going to go viral. In fact, sometimes your ideas will bomb – usually the ones you worked hardest on. Even when you get amazing results, there will always be negative comments too. That’s social media.

Once you accept that, the job becomes a lot easier. After a few years in the industry, you learn not to put too much pressure on one campaign because you know there will be others. And I try to look at the overall results rather than reading too much into individual comments; even the Sistine Chapel has some bad reviews on Tripadvisor!

To hear from Emma Martell and a host of other great speakers on the cutting edge of digital marketing, book your ticket for the Festival of Marketing 2019, October 10-11 at Tobacco Dock, London.