So this session is, at its core, a place to discuss how we can get better at communicating that people have transportation options besides their own drive-alone car. It’s a badly needed discussion. One that needs to happen all day every day.
We’re getting our lunch handed to us. We have been for decades. We have to face that we are fringe players and we want to become mainstream. And it’s not getting any easier. While we hear so many great stories about bikeshare systems and tech use and Uber for easier trips, the fact remains that people are buying cars more than ever. And while we are all transportation experts at TransportationCamp, every single American is a transportation enthusiast, and almost all of them have cars. Most of them love their cars.
Where our opening is is that so many people hate driving.
We’re a car country: 53% of Americans want more spending on roads and 40% want more spending on transit. That stat actually seems pretty generous to transit.
But I don’t think we should make this a road vs. transit thing. We should learn from cars. From the auto industry. The Super Bowl is filled with car ads, but driving is rarely like this. Do the car companies care? No, they’ve got a product, a lifestyle, to sell. And they do it well. Where are the Super Bowl ads about public transportation? Where are our ads about freedom, winding coastal roads, patriotism? Transit communications needs to catch up, and hopefully we can generate some ideas in this session to move forward with doing so.
You all are gonna talk most of this hour we have. I’m just going to lead it off. My thought is that we need to do it more like the car companies. We want people to ride transit, we need to do it with simple, powerful, consistent, and, most importantly, POSITIVE messages about the experience.
We know transit can be productive, better for your health, cleaner for the environment. But nobody cares because they think of trains and buses and bikes as dirty, disgusting, communal in all the wrong ways. And we don’t do a lot to dissuade them. In fact, it’s hard because even the people in this room know Metro is a friggin’ mess.
Car companies don’t lead with: “Watch out, if you park here, your car is going to get keyed” or “Don’t drive through these neighborhoods because then your experience won’t be like what we promised you inour commercials.” No. They show the utopian drive. Where are our utopian transit trips?
I hate a message like this, probably the most well-known transit ad in existence: NYMTA’s “If You See Something, Say Something.” Its take-home message for people is disproportionate to the fact that Pew recently came out with a study finding that riding public transportation is 10 times safer than driving your own vehicle. Let’s work that into some advertising and messaging.
This is one transit ad example that does better at potentially generating curiosity about trying transit.
A little plug about why Mobility Lab is talking about all this. We have made a commitment to improving communications for the TDM industry. And we hope our strategy can rub off on the rest of the wider public-transportation industry.
We think journalistic storytelling and content will be a long-term path to better overall health of the industry. We are trying to sell the services, but we are hyper-focused on selling the lifestyle. We recognized that transportation reporters rarely exist in local markets and that we could become the news source. We are telling the stories and then, one of our main tactics, is to then try to get the mainstream press to take notice of transit trends.
It’s similar to what FamiliesUSA did. They are pioneers of the non-profit storytelling world, even if they more or less stumbled upon the amazing effectiveness of storytelling for advocacy and creating real policy and democratic change. FamiliesUSA built a story bank for people to write in to on issues that are sweeping the mainstream news. The organization then feeds those personal stories to the media and that is one of the reasons we see so many personal faces on our national news stories.
We also break up our stories into topical buckets: tech, health, environment, business, city planning, pop culture. With the idea that our cause becomes more powerful if we can get others, not just the transportation experts, to spread the message about why they need to support transportation options.
Other advantage we have is that we’re embedded into Arlington County’s commuter program and we have a research team that does independent analysis of TDM in the county and region.
This not only gives us news to report when we have original findings and it makes us a serious player in many policy and business discussions.
We truly need more organizations effectively communicating how inexpensive non-car solutions can be for our country.
Industries, sectors, and businesses that get this storytelling strategy are winning. My favorite example is Red Bull, the energy drink company, which publishes the Red Bulletin Magazine. It has more subscribers than Sports Illustrated!
It tells stories about the adventurous lifestyle. Maybe back at the very end, it might have a Red Bull energy drink ad. But the magazine is about telling the story of the lifestyle. The company knows that if you buy into that lifestyle, there’s a chance you’ll drink its product. It’s brilliant!
The list is quickly getting long of the industries that are doing content marketing (storytelling) right, and their creativity is reflected in their profits and popularity: AirBnB has Pineapple, Uber has Momentum, Intel has IQ, Coca-Cola has Journey, American Express has Open Forum. You get the idea. Most of these organizations are pumping out more content than Time Magazine did in its heyday.
Because … if you want someone to buy your product or lifestyle, you don’t immediately start screaming at them to buy, buy, buy the moment they approach you. You try to nurture them and a long-lasting relationship. You do that by telling them great stories and then telling them more great stories.
I’ll end with my roadmap for agencies and organizations and even individuals, on how to tell better stories. The thing is: this stuff won’t break the bank.
Build compelling websites that go beyond selling customer fares and sell a lifestyle.
Pick your social networks and devote yourselves to them, and remember they might not be around tomorrow or might change their rules.
Engage with the public, there are free contributors who would love to get published.
Hold events or hackathons to solicit ideas for your public agency to consider, like Mobility Lab’s Transportation Techies.
Engage thought leaders to trumpet your cause of TDM. Once they get it, others will start to.
Leverage research from other places if you can’t do your own.
Create messages and talking points that are relevant to your community. Alameda interested in environmental and green causes, so they create messages about reducing carbon strategies. In my hometown of Edwardsville, Illinois, there are amazing trails to every corner of town and beyond. Nobody ever rides to get to work or to go out and socialize. They are either families or Spandex racers on those trails. There is an opportunity to educate and improve traffic, which can even be pretty rough there in the 30,000-person suburb.
It can be really difficult to find photos of people happy on transit. That’s the first problem we need to take care of in every city. Work diligently to find great photos of people using public transportation.
Calls to action. You have to get people involved.
Hire a journalist, their passion and perspective might actually be the brand journalism you can do from your organization.