Communicate better


Articles, opinions and case studies. For students’ unions with big ideas.

Teardown: Virgin Trains' social media


Teardown : an occasional series of case studies, looking at real-life examples of good or bad communications. I reverse-engineer them to understand how their strategy or communications plan have led to an excellent bit of work - or a terrible one.

Virgin Trains' social media: clever, cringe, meta, or all three?

Yes, yes, everyone knows that good social media is about engaging your followers, not just broadcasting to them. But there's more to successful social media than that.

I stumbled across Virgin Trains' Twitter account recently, and it got me thinking.

Are SUs handling their tones-of-voice right?

Tone-of-voice (TOV) is an underappreciated facet of effective communications. It's easy enough for anyone to grasp TOV when thinking about a person - it's their usual accent, selection of words, manner of speaking, level of politeness, brevity, etc.

There are clear differences in tone between, say, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Danny Dyer. Their TOVs are closely tied up to their personalities, their background, the messages they are trying to convey, even - to an extent - their politics and beliefs.

People use their TOV to get what they want - usually without even realising.

In a work environment, think of how you might speak in a formal HR meeting, compared with how you might talk to colleagues at a social occasion. Your TOV changes to fit the mood - but it will still be, undeniably, you.

OK - what's that got to do with Virgin Trains?

💡 TOV is just as important for organisations as it is for individual people.

The TOV that companies and charities use across their communications - including their social media - is fundamental in how they are perceived, trusted, distrusted, noticed, ignored, hated or even beloved by their audiences.

Big companies and charities will have dedicated guides that set out their tone of voice. They will distil their channels, values and understanding of their audience into one single guide. Usually it's not for public use - but Monzo are one of a few companies that openly share their TOV. 🔗

Virgin Trains certainly has a distinctive TOV on Twitter:


Reverse-engineering Virgin Trains' tone of voice.

Virgin Trains are a train company. They want people to buy train tickets.

But people don't really choose between train companies. They have a place they need to be, and they don't have a choice who gets them there. If you need to go from Manchester to London Euston by train, you'll travel with Virgin Trains and that's that.

So what's thepoint of social media if they will get their customers anyway?

My opinion? It's part of an effort to be slightly less hated than other train companies.

No one is going to write a love song to Virgin Trains. No one shed a tear for Virgin Trains East Coast when it shuffled off the scene. When Virgin lose the West Coast Main Line contract just three months from now, don't expect a national outburst of emotion.

Virgin Train's TOV is built on the acknowledgement they are already unpopular.

People don't buy train tickets on Twitter. They go to Twitter to complain. So the task of the VT comms team is to minimise how much they annoy people who are most likely already upset.

Every day, they are dealing with people who are in the fifth hour of their 90-minute train journey, for which they paid more than their last flight to the Mediterranean. It's a Sisyphean task. People won't leave completely happy.


Their TOV is designed to minimise frustration, create positive reactions, and defuse tension.

So they develop a TOV and wider social media presence that tries to erode or upend the negative preconceptions that their customers already have when they encounter their social media presence.

They don't even try to directly counter common complaints about trains, as they know that will just remind readers about frustrating experiences.

Instead they go for laughs and absurdity. Even the briefest of looks through the Virgin Trains twitter feed allows you to dissect their TOV:

It's full of memes

They recognise that much of the Twitter audience is younger, literate in online culture. So they set the tone of all interactions by going for a laugh straight away, puncturing and subverting the frustration of their audience.

But it's also self-parodying

Their Twitter bio is "We’re not a regular train company, we’re a cool train company". There's few things more awkward than a company or celebrity trying and failing to be cool. Virgin Train's solution is to fail on purpose - again, subverting expected criticisms.

It puts a high premium on relatability

At least 50% of the content is playing on anxiety and British awkwardness - inviting the reader to identify with them. This is a clever bit of sleight-of-hand, giving a relatable personality to a privately-owned corporation with 3,400 staff and £1.1bn in annual income.

It's a good approach that plays up to Virgin'sstrengths, while completely avoiding its critical weaknesses. Their TOV is playful, relatable, and unpredictable.

Lessons for students' unions:

💡 All organisations need consistent TOVs that reinforce their narratives and key messages

💡 Use TOV and personality to relate to your audience

💡 Your comms plans need to acknowledge your flaws just as much as your strengths

What tone of voice does your SU have?

Andrew Keenan