Market Focus: Targeting Harried Commuters

For an average urban commuter, a day in the work-life might play out something like this: Wake up around 5:45 a.m. to the strains of a local radio station, gaze sleepily at the TV while glancing at the newspaper and downing some cereal. Catch a few more minutes of radio in the car while dropping the kids off at school on the way to the train or bus. Endure the commute and then, finally, hit the office and spend the next nine hours or more extinguishing flare-ups of varying intensity. By all accounts, commuters' lives during the work week don't leave a lot of room for improvisation.

Within that routine, there would seem to be a single oasis where urban commuters have a few minutes to exhale - not to mention fall under the sway of out-of-home media: The time they are captive on the train or bus, or at a station. (Thus, it's no surprise that marketers have unleashed a new wave of advertising in these environments, and are using existing options in creative ways.)

The Vendors "Out-of-home is being forced to re-invent itself," notes Gayla Price, director of sales for TransitAd, which handles the transit authority advertising for three North Carolina cities. "Companies are trying to be more creative. They're changing what's been static for so long."

Norm Chait, vice president, director of out-of-home services at MediaVest, agrees: "What's sort of amazing is that it didn't happen earlier. Think about it - potentially you can have a message in front of [commuters] twice a day for however long a campaign runs, and you can get more of a message across. It's not like it is with billboards, where some of the time you're zipping by at 60 miles per hour."

None of this suggests that advertisers are only now opening their eyes to the glut of consumer touchpoints available in the commuter environment. For years, they've saturated trains with placards, covered buses inside and out with ads, and blanketed every available inch of rail and bus stations. But the commuter space has recently enjoyed an influx of new media ideas, many of which would have been dismissed as impractical as recently as three or four years ago.

The Players Marketers are trying to "wrap" anything and everything. For example, buildings: Microsoft and other tech companies routinely blanket convention hotels and venues to tout their presence. HBO wrapped the inside of a New York subway car to look like a western saloon, promoting the second season of its series "Deadwood." "There is a move on to sponsor just about anything that moves," quips Kathy Koblinski, president of Silent Partner Advertising.

Along these lines, many marketers have shifted their out-of-home strategies in the commuter environment from moderate presence to "station domination," according to Chris Klopp, senior vice president, brand media director at Deutsch. "There's a real opportunity to surround and delight," he explains. "You can tell more of a serial type of story." So instead of a few posters here and there, an advertiser might buy up every available inch of real estate in a given environment, then possibly reinforce the program by tapping street teams to hand out samples of an advertised product.

Also making their presence felt among commuters in urban centers are freebie newspapers. While stressing that hard data about their performance is not yet available, Newspaper Association of America Senior Vice President John Kimball believes that publications like Express in Washington, D.C., Metro in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, and A.M. New York offer a different and breezier read than do most larger newspapers. Owing to that, he says, this category seem to have caught on among commuters who don't ordinarily read newspapers.

"This is as unscientific as any piece of information I could give you, because the phenomenon is still pretty new," he notes. "But what we've heard from groups is, 'I feel smarter and maybe I've got something extra to talk about if I've spent just a little bit of time with a newspaper on the way to work.'"

And then there's the enabling effect of technology, which can already be seen in the form of so-called "dynamic" digital signage in subway stations. Many media executives and marketers believe that wireless technology will revolutionize out-of-home advertising in the urban commuter environment before too long. Take Nike, which set up a 20-story-high electronic billboard on the Reuters building in New York's Times Square. From that space, the footwear giant offers passersby the opportunity to customize and purchase sneakers via a mobile phone interface. Adcentric wireless technology, however, remains in its infancy.

Outlook

Another advance recently came to life in Atlanta, where The Rail Network implemented the first TV and radio network in a U.S. transit system. In each car, commuters can gaze upon multiple flat-screen monitors that air a continuously updated loop of the local ABC affiliate's news broadcast. The system offers seven audio channels wirelessly delivered to FM radios, (three music stations, the news broadcast in three different languages, and a "transit channel" through which service and related information can be relayed), as well as closed captioning across the bottom of each screen.

"On a train, obviously commuters are limited in what they can do and where they can go," notes David Lane, CEO of The Rail Network. "Our goal is to deliver messages in a way that won't disrupt the passenger's personal space." Critics cite two potential issues with the Rail Network model: advertisers can't get the exclusivity many of them desire in the commuter environment, and many transit systems face noise and clarity issues. Nonetheless, Lane says initial response to the concept has been strong. "Static images can only take you so far," he says.