At Amtran's most recent board meeting, General Manager Eric Wolf praised the Altoona Police Department's Facebook website, which has nabbed more "friends" than any other department of its size in the country, after an enthusiastic officer took responsibility for maintaining the site.
Amtran, likewise, is getting friends on-board after hiring digital strategy firm The VML Group of State College to run its page.
"Since October, we've gone from 60 to 1,453 likes," Wolf recently said.
VML has employed a double-decker strategy.
It began with a contest that called for riders to take a smart-phone "selfie" photo to submit with a caption telling of their best Amtran experience.
That is over until a reprise in the fall or next year, but the firm arranged the resulting 25 photos in a "Faces of Amtran" mosaic that emulates "Faces of Facebook."
The contest was a VML team idea, while the mosaic - which will continue unabated, with additions welcome, and not necessarily connected to selfie contests, was his idea, said company digital strategist Eric Zimmett, who made a presentation on the project to the board recently.
The randomly selected contest winner - who chose a $300 Visa gift card over an iPad Mini - was "Sierra," whose selfie included two young children.
VML wanted to create "awareness, a little buzz and fun," Zimmett said.
"We wanted to get their stories," he said.
Most of the captions, which can be accessed by hovering with a mouse over the contest pictures on the Amtran Facebook page, praise the bus drivers.
Two speak of ongoing relationships launched on Amtran buses - busses from buses - one written by the male, one by the female.
The female wrote: "My best experience was the day I got on the Greenwood bus [Deb was driving] and saw my fiance, James [shown in pic with me], for the very first time. It was love at first sight. ..."
The male wrote: "This is currently my fourth semester riding with the Amtran busing system. Fortunately, during my first semester, I was lucky enough to meet Alexa one bus ride home. We've been together ever since."
The $499-a-month arrangement with VML was a pilot.
The key has been continual fresh content, as well as the contest and the picture mosaic, according to Wolf.
Amtran plans to put a social media assistance proposal out for competitive bids in July.
It's hard to tell the effect on ridership, Wolf said.
But it could help ensure local funding, which is key to leveraging higher-government funding, he said.
"When I can show the stories of people who depend on us, it connects with elected officials," Wolf said. "Better than statistics."
It's also more efficient for riders themselves to share their stories than for staff to interview them and translate what they say to the Amtran newsletter, according to Wolf.
"It resonates more," Wolf said.
Green-lighting VML's strategy "was a no-brainer," he said.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.