Public Transportation: An Untapped (so to Speak) Mobile Marketing Venue

Much of the attention and research into smartphone and tablet usage today has justifiably focused on consumers in multiscreen (e.g., mobile plus TV) mode. However, other moments in the day are also important in terms of mobile media consumption. Among those key media moments, reaching consumers on public transportation stands out as an opportunity worth serious consideration.

The IAB touched on mobile use on public transit as a part of “Mobile’s Role in a Consumer’s Media Day: Smartphones and Tablets Enable Seamless Digital Lives,” a report commissioned from ABI Research and released in July. According to the latest Census Bureau data, in 2010 about 6.8 million U.S. workers commuted via public transportation. That was only about 5 percent of the workforce – the vast majority of Americans commute by car. As a result, the ABI study found only a relatively small 22 percent of smartphone data users and 23 percent of tablet data users said they made use of their devices on public transportation. However, those who have devices on public transit use them intensively.

The transit environment makes consumers receptive to advertising as well. Again referencing the ABI study, 32 percent of smartphone owners and 52 percent of tablet owners who use their devices on public transportation rated themselves “very likely” to engage with ads on their device in that venue. This was by far the highest willingness to interact with mobile ads of any out-of-home venue ABI investigated. This makes sense. Referring back to the Census Bureau dataset, in 2010 the mean commute time to get to work by public transit was 47.4 minutes – which certainly makes me less prone to grumble about my own daily journey. While some use that time to catch up on email (or edit a ClickZ column), many people consider it personal time. Personal time in the public sphere with few other things to occupy a person’s attention add up to an interesting advertising opportunity – with a major connectivity-related caveat.

It’s exciting to see even the limited rollouts of in-station Wi-Fi currently underway in the New York City subway system, but those of us who commute underground in the U.S. are generally cut off from wireless networks. Workers who take bus and commuter rail services are much better positioned to connect in transit. Even there, connections will mostly be via unpredictable wide-area networks. Given the media interest and ad receptivity of the transit audience, media companies and marketers alike should encourage the deployment of transit system wireless connectivity – or even consider opportunities to sponsor it. Absent connectivity, the media people view on public transit is necessarily offline. Even so, mobile advertising opportunities remain: many offline apps include ads. However, offline apps limit advertisers’ ability to reach desired audience segments in real time, as well as the audience’s ability to “tap through” and respond to the ads they see.

Some common sense tips for marketers thinking about the mobile transit audience:

  • Focus on time, not location. Daypart is key for now, though it’s interesting to think about direction-based advertising as a future option (e.g., “I want to reach people on MARTA headed into central Atlanta from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.”).
  • Include offline apps in the media plan. Publishers and advertisers are still trying to unlock and understand the value of ad impressions delivered to an offline device. For the public transit audience, this is vital.
  • Experiment with mobile activation. If network access exists. Using a QR code or other mobile call to action as part of a transit-based campaign is smart. But nothing’s sadder than a great ad with a great “scan here” call to action when you’ve got no reception.

Above all, this captive, moving audience deserves further examination. Yes, a larger number of Americans are on their mobiles during primetime TV hours, but the public transit commuter audience is less distracted, you can infer more about them, and even at 7 a.m. they are likely thinking ahead to a lunchtime or evening plan, or daydreaming about the weekend. Mobile media plans for marketers from dining, entertainment, and travel to grocery and DIY all stand to benefit from targeting this particular moment in the mobile day.

Train in Subway Station image on home page via Shutterstock.

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