As the Route 31 bus made its way down 23rd Street Northwest last Tuesday, “Stop requested” announcements periodically came over the bus’s public address system, said with such monotony that they fit the mood of a vehicle crawling along in afternoon traffic.
But suddenly a cheery voice appeared with a jolt. "Don’t miss Mom’s home cooking this holiday season,” it said. "Book your ticket with megabus.com and you’ll be home in time for turkey. Happy Holidays!”
There are still some who lament the soft jazz being piped into some Metro stations. Now comes this for your listening pleasure: With Metro needing to make more money, the agency has begun playing ads on buses.
The 15-second Megabus ad is the only one to air since the program’s Nov. 1 soft launch. But more advertisers are expected to follow.
Eventually, Metro rail riders could hear ads too, said Russ Gottesman, founder of CommuterAds, the Dayton, Ohio-based company that has contracted with Metro to provide the ads.
Metro says the contract guarantees the cash-strapped agency will get at least $250,000 a year in ad revenue, and Gottesman says new technology that plays ads based on the location of a bus will provide ads that riders will actually want to hear, such as ads for deals at nearby stores. But among riders last week, the immediate reaction wasn’t positive.
As Alan Shan got off the 31 bus carrying bags of groceries, he complained that he sees ads whenever he turns on his TV. He hears ads when he turns on the radio. And now he has to hear ads while sitting on the bus.
“When I’m on the bus, I want to be in my head,” he said. “There’s enough advertising all over America.”
But in Cleveland and Atlanta, where Gottesman’s company has already been running ads on buses (in Cleveland, they’re also appearing on trains), officials say riders grumbled a bit at first but eventually got used to them.
The Megabus ad is being played on nearly all Metro buses at 7:18 a.m. and 5:18 p.m. each day, regardless of where the buses are. But the company is also using CommuterAds' geolocation software, which Gottesman said allows advertisers to strategically target “a captive audience."
The ad plays in buses on the 31, 32 and 36 routes whenever they reach 23rd and G streets Northwest, near George Washington University. It also plays in the route D1, D2 and D6 buses at Q and 35th streets Northwest, near Georgetown University.
Megabus didn’t return an email seeking comment, but Gottesman said locations near the universities were chosen because the company wants to target college students trying to find a cheap way to get home for the holidays.
As advertisers decide they want to reach riders at other locations, other routes will get ads. Next year, CommuterAds plans to let businesses go online and schedule ads to play on buses as they pass by their stores.
The idea is similar to how advertisers are increasingly sending advertising to cellphones based on where your phone’s GPS says you are, said Donna L. Hoffman, a George Washington University marketing professor and co-director of its Center for the Connected Consumer, which studies how consumers interact with smart devices connected to the internet.
Brick-and-mortar stores trying to compete with online retailers like Amazon, for example, are sending ads reminding targeted consumers who’ve opted in that they happen to be near one of their stores and what the day’s deals are. Even when they’re inside the stores, customers will get ads — including aisle by aisle — pointing out things they might want to grab, she said.
“Why not remind the frequent coffee drinker that the Starbucks is just around the corner and if they stop in within the next 30 minutes they can get a discount on that pumpkin Frappuccino?” Hoffman said.
But as NPR reported in May, that has led to excesses. Personal injury lawyers are even using the technology to send ads to people waiting in Philadelphia emergency rooms.
Gottesman said the bus ads will allow advertisers to send messages to riders right when they might find them useful. For example, riders with many of the 14 transit agencies already working with CommuterAds are hearing about morning coffee deals as their bus approaches one of the advertisers' stores.
In largely Somali neighborhoods of Champaign, Ill., buses play ads in Somali for the University of Illinois-Champaign, which wants to reach out to people in the ethnic group.
Gottesman said he got the idea for the business while taking a train home after a Chicago White Sox game. Realizing he was packed in with thousands of hungry fans, he saw an opportunity for restaurants along the route. “When they call out the Chinatown stop, why not have an advertisement for dim sum?" he said.
But do riders really want to be subjected to advertising when they’re just trying to get home?
“The volume doesn’t blare,” said Steve Bitto, marketing director for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. “It’s not like you jump out of your seat because all of a sudden there’s an ad for McDonald’s,” he said.
It helps that many of the ads offer riders a deal, said Jennifer Jinadu-Wright, marketing director for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, which runs ads on buses. The timing of the ads is also spaced out so that riders aren’t bombarded.
“They’re still able to relax, read their e-books and listen to their headphones,” she said.
In the D.C.-area, Gottesman said that for every 45-minute bus ride, ads will play for about 90 to 120 seconds. “We’ll have a good cadence and rhythm,” he said.
As with the other transit agencies it works with, the company will also record and play announcements for Metro about service changes. Such announcements, Jinadu-Wright said, are more effective than handing out fliers, “which can just become litter.”
For Metro, though, a significant draw is the money the ads can raise while using the buses' existing equipment. Though Metro’s share of ad sales is guaranteed to be at least $250,000 a year, Gottesman said he expects sales to be high enough that Metro’s share “will far exceed that.”
The money, to be sure, will barely make a dent in the $20 million annually the District, Maryland and Virginia would have to agree to pony up, on top of a capped 3 percent annual subsidy increase next year, to pay for improvements Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld is proposing. The extra money would go for things like expanding rush-hour service and running more 10-car trains, which Wiedefeld hopes will reverse Metro’s declining ridership.
Bitto describes the Cleveland transit agency’s take from the ads as “a hair-thin line on a revenue pie chart." But Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said every bit helps.
“At a time when Metro wants to improve and expand service for customers but is limited by a 3 percent cap on operating subsidy growth, and facing the very real potential of a sharp increase in lost revenue from fare evasion decriminalization in the District, we are working to create new streams of revenue — one of which is geo-targeted audio ads aboard buses,” he said in an emailed statement.
Based on two rides on Route 31 buses, though, kinks are still being worked out. On one trip, the ad played so softly it was barely audible. On both trips, the bus largely emptied when it reached the Foggy Bottom Metro station.
By the time the ad played two stops later, there was almost no one on board to hear it. Neither the elderly woman on one trip nor the seemingly homeless man lugging a black bag full of his belongings on the other trip seemed interested in taking a Megabus to have “Mom’s home cooking."
Rider Jennifer Rhorer heard the Megabus ad Tuesday morning on a Route 16C bus from Pentagon City to D.C., prompting her to tweet her dismay.
“Wtf why am I hearing ads on the bus? When did this bulls--- start,” her tweet said.
“Not a fan of hearing ads when you can’t escape them,” she told us later in a Twitter direct message.
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