Beep-Beep, Click-Click: Driving Commuters To Political Action

Americans are spending more and more of their hyper-stressed days commuting. And, according to a 2012 study by three political scientists, commuting deters political participation, especially among lower-income citizens. They found that “time spent commuting involves a higher degree of depletion of psychological resources and incurrence of negative emotions than time spent on the job.” 

I detect a political marketing challenge.

The challenge does not involve reaching people in transit. Americans encaged in our transportation system have been served ads for years. But now mobile gives commuters and other travelers the capacity to respond directly to ads while on the go, although preferably not while driving. And geo-targeting gives advertisers the opportunity to reach them according to where they happen to be at the moment. The challenge, then, is how to make the most of the digital technology and disgruntled mentality. 

As talk radio hosts well know, communicating to audiences caught in traffic can batten off the premise that many of them are angry. Anger can spur political action. Carpoolers, train goers, and bus riders stalled this summer while Congress stalls yet again to find a way to repair and expand the nation’s transportation infrastructure seem to me to be a great target for engagement.

In the next few weeks, the “I’m Stuck” app could provide a test for my thesis. Sponsored by the Building America’s Future Education Fund, recently augmented by a partnership with the U.S. Travel Association, “I’m Stuck” conveys messages from mobile users to their Congressional delegations. It makes it easy for them to register their opinions and also notify their personal networks via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

“I’m Stuck” is a bright idea not taken far enough. Launched a year ago, the app has attracted only 13,000 downloads and given rise to just 6,200 emails to Congress. The advocacy campaign has relied mainly on earned media to date, with no radio buys since the rollout and limited ads on commuter-popular sites such as Geo-targeting has been talked about but not deployed yet, according to a spokesperson for the two organizations. Keegan Goudiss, a partner at the marketing and social media agency Revolution Messaging, told me that “I’m Stuck” ads could be geo-targeted via GPS to commuter stations, HOV lanes, and other spots on our transportation grids where tempers are wont to be as hot as the summer pavement.

Going after commuters is one of the lesser-known digital politics tactic which the Obama campaign used successfully. Journalist Sasha Issenberg has recounted how in 2007 the Obama team encouraged bus riders to vote early by placing placards on buses that ran on certain routes in 10 cities, including Akron,Ohio; Denver; Flint, Mich.; Miami, and Philadelphia. The campaign knew via data analytics that these battleground-state metro areas were flush with citizens likely to support the Democratic nominee, but unlikely to register and vote without cues. The placards included contact information to engage those sitting, standing, and, perhaps, stressed. 

Now that rich media mobile is more available, geotargeted calls to action should become standard practice in political campaigning, whatever the issue or candidate.

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