When train service at New York City's Penn Station was disrupted one night five years ago, Josh Crandall got an idea the next morning. "I was standing on the [train] platform in Montclair, New Jersey, where I live and saw people I knew peering into their BlackBerry checking the morning mail. Where were these people last night when we could have helped each other?" he wondered. If another commuter had given him a heads-up, Crandall could have taken a bus or another rail line home or stayed at the office.
"We were connected through technology but not connected to each other," Crandall observed. So he devised a service that enables commuters who register using an email address to send and receive alerts about train schedule disruptions.
Communications among commuters are changing, thanks to the same technology trends affecting the rest of the world: access to social networks, mobile devices, and other wireless services. What's more, rail or bus commuters who have one foot in the suburbs where they live and one in the city where they work comprise a unique demographic, typically one with lots of buying power and lots of spare time during commutes that range from 20 to 90 minutes.
As a 15-year commuter on Metro-North Railroad's New Haven line, I have witnessed how that ecosystem has evolved. Not that long ago, connections were largely based on what train you took to and from New York City. Social commuters met up in bar cars and others grabbed opposite-facing bench seats (aka four- and five-seaters) to play setback, poker, hearts - or footsie. Commuters had communicated via emails sent from desktops before dashing out of the office ("I'll meet you in the fourth car from the front") as well as via BlackBerry text and email messages.
That's still happening. But today, in addition to chatting face-to-face with commuting buddies, passengers are striking up conversations in loosely connected communities on Facebook and Twitter. These discussions range from exchanges with rail enthusiasts (known as foamers), debates over hot button issues such as fare increases, and the delivery of service alerts - well before a rail line operator sends out warnings.
Consider one Friday in July when passengers were stranded on two separate trains that died in Connecticut with no air conditioning during an oppressive heat wave; another 100 trains were delayed because of sagging overhead electrical, damaged track switches, and other equipment failures.
On the Metro-North Railroad Commuter Council's Facebook page, Mike Cordelli weighed in: "Don't let everybody get on the train in 100 plus degree heat at Grand Central without letting them know they will be an hour late on their 45 minute trip, maybe hit the bathroom first, get another beer or water, etc." Interestingly, commuters reading Cordelli's posts appeared to have access to more information about the rail line's crisis than the conductor on my train that evening.
Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, a state-appointed group that serves as advocates for commuters, acknowledged that Facebook, Twitter, and other services have emerged as a way to facilitate conversations and information-sharing among commuters.
"Entrepreneurs are filling the important information gap between what riders really need to know now and the tardy and incomplete information they are receiving from Metro-North [Railroad]," he said. "Disintermediation is possible through technology." And that disintermediation brings opportunities for businesses, both local merchants and national brands, to reach commuters beyond the printed 33-inch x 21-inch car card advertisements found inside the train cars.
Crowdsourcing Bad News
One such entrepreneur is Crandall. He devised Clever Commute to enable commuters to send and receive alerts about service disruptions. Like Twitter, messages must be kept short; in this case, they must fit into the subject line. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, the author of a message is not disclosed to the rest of the community.
While the initial service was created for New Jersey Transit commuters, Crandall has extended the free offering to commuters on Metro-North Railroad in New York and Connecticut, Long Island Rail Road in New York, as well as transit systems in Boston, Portland, OR, and Denver. Trials are underway to launch in other commuting hubs such as Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, DC, and London. To date, Clever Commute has 20,000 subscribers, twice the number it had last year - though still modest considering there are 55,000 daily train commuters in Connecticut alone.
To control message quality, Clever Commute permits community members to rate messages: "Was this helpful? Yes | No | Report abuse." Plus, new community members must wait 30 days before they are permitted to send an alert.
Clever Commute has two revenue sources: advertising sponsorships ($15 CPM) and licensing deals to sell a data feed of service disruption alerts to news organizations.
Advertisers range from local businesses to regional and national brands such as Ann Taylor, the New York Knicks, and Carnegie Hall. Crandall does not have a sales staff; instead, many advertising clients are commuters. He's also running Groupon ads/offers to subscribers.
In the New York City metropolitan area, rail commuters are an attractive demographic with lots of spare time - traveling from 15 to 90 minutes to get from the suburbs to the city. (Some, though not all, manage to sleep.) The median household income for a Metro-North commuter, for instance, was $150,000 in 2008, according to data that CBS Outdoor shared with potential advertisers. A 2009 survey of Clever Commute subscribers found the average household income totaled $178,000 in 2009; 95 percent were homeowners.
Creating Smart Signs
Other entrepreneurs, Kenyon Weiss and Charles Marrelli, launched StopTips, a service that publishes the status of train service and provides commuting tips on digital signs located in coffee shops and other small businesses near train stations in Connecticut's Fairfield County.
The company provides screens free to its host cafes; it makes money by selling ads on the screens. Advertisers include David Harvey Jewelers, real estate firm Higgins Group, and Milo's Methods, a gym.
To date, six businesses host StopTips digital signs. Weiss is aiming for a total of 25 by year's end - in time for the winter when commuters frequently wait outside in frigid conditions on train platforms, not always knowing if a train is on time or not. "We're more interested in being in the shelter like a coffee shop [than on the train platform]. If you know your train is delayed by nine minutes, you can do all kinds of things during that time - like have a bagel," he said.
Weiss brings solid digital marketing chops to this venture. He's founder of Westport, CT-based Brand Studios and former group creative director at Publicis Modem. With StopTips, he sees the ability to provide consumers with valuable information - and gain their trust. "We believe the consumer has gained the ability to ignore banner ads and publicity that's not relevant. The more contextually and relevant and timely you are, the more likely you will get a consumer's attention," he said.
Are you aware of other new ad-supported tools that help other niche communities stay connected? Please share your examples, below, in the comments.
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Anna Maria Virzi, ClickZ's executive editor from 2007 until 2012, covered Internet business and technology since 1996. She was on the launch team for Ziff Davis Media's Baseline and also worked at Forbes.com, Web Week, Internet World, and the Connecticut Post.
March 19, 2014