Bangalore: When officials of the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) googled their organization about two years ago, they found something odd. For one, KSRTC’s website was low on the search results page. Ironically, the search-results page was displaying ads from private bus operators and travel agents.
“When we investigated this further,” says Channabasappa Herur, chief marketing officer at KSRTC, “we realized that they (the private operators) had bid for the KSRTC keyword”. KSRTC sent show-cause notices to these operators and the practice stopped.
The state bus operator also began to realize it was not making use of an effective marketing tool and began to bid for keywords with Google’s Adwords programme. And the results have been pretty good.
From 960,000 bookings on the KSRTC website in 2009-10, reservations rose by more than three times to 3.2 million in 2011-12.
Herur says that before the Google Adwords campaign, they had around 5,000 bookings a day on the website. This has gone up to 10,000 a day.
Today, KSRTC spends nearly Rs.10 lakh a month advertising on nearly 15,000 keywords. Besides KSRTC, the organization bids for popular routes and destinations such as Chennai, Mysore, Hyderabad, Goa and Mumbai.
Showing the analytics page on KSRTC’s Google Adwords page, Herur points out that in one day nearly 70,000 people saw their ads while performing a search, of which 8,500 clicked on the ads. In the past year, there have been around 380,000 so-called click-throughs to the KSRTC website.
For a government-affiliated organization that is more used to traditional means of marketing—print, radio or billboards—the online marketing campaign is unique. “I think we are the only ones doing it (among other state-run bus operators),” says Herur.
KSRTC’s digital initiative has been short-listed for the Manthan Awards hosted by Digital Empowerment Foundation, with which Mint has a strategic partnership.
The other benefit of the emphasis on digital marketing has been that the share of Internet bookings has increased compared with reservations from franchisees. This improves profits as the margins on Internet bookings are higher than those from franchisees.
For KSRTC, the focus on online marketing made complete sense as they have one of the largest fleets of buses in the luxury and premium bus segment.
Herur estimates that KSRTC has nearly 500 Volvo and Mercedes buses in their fleet serving customers who want to travel to cities such as Chennai, Hyderabad and Mumbai.
The KSRTC service has established brands such as the Airavat line of buses that has hi-tech, low-floor, air-conditioned Volvo buses, or the Ambaari line that provides air-conditioned sleeper berths for long-distance travel. Recently, the transport corporation launched two new Volvo buses with toilets, in-built pantry, live TV and Wi-Fi facility.
KSRTC’s focus on improving service and revenues has had the intended effect on its profits. In 2010-11, the corporation was the most profitable public bus service in the country with a profit of Rs.65 crore. Bangalore’s bus service was a close second with a profit of Rs.50.35 crore. Overall, only six public bus services in the country are profitable, according to a 2011 Urban ministry study.
These moves were part of a series of steps undertaken by KSRTC since Karnataka’s bus transport services were reorganized in 1997. The state’s services were divided into four subsidiary corporations for four regions—Bangalore, South Karnataka, North-West Karnataka, and North-East Karnataka. This was accompanied with complete autonomy concerning recruitment, emoluments, seniority, and transfers.
While these initiatives took off, the corporation realized that there was a problem with its in-house booking system.
Though computerized, bookings at the counters were restricted to buses that departed only from that bus stand. This was when they decided to go for an Internet-based booking system called AWATAR (Any Where Any Time Advance Reservation System). This system was the result of a long process of design by a committee consisting of experts from the Indian Institute of Science, Indian Space Research Organization, Bangalore University and Bangalore’s City Corporation.
KSRTC has other tricks up its sleeve—it launched a loyalty programme called Prayanothsava, rewarding frequent commuters by offering a 30% discount on the fourth ticket.
A 24x7 call centre was also launched where customers could enquire about reservations, and register complaints.
A map-based search engine was also created to allow booking tickets. KSRTC also launched campaigns on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and email.
Herur says the bus corporation also began to perform search engine optimization to improve its ranking on Google search.
All these efforts resulted in the number of registered users rising from 800,000 to 2.3 million in the last two years.
Other states have begun following in KSRTC’s footsteps. Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra have begun to make use of Internet-based bookings with the assistance of KSRTC’s information technology department.
While competition from private bus operators and bus service aggregators such as Redbus have intensified over the past few years, Herur believes the organization will continue to do well with its unique service and branding among customers.