Five Observations on Marketing to TTC Riders

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Every week in the GTA there are over 1.5 million people who take the TTC, most of whom going back and forth to work.  When I’m not riding my bike to work, I’m usually one of them. 

I take it for a number of reasons; it’s cost-efficient, it’s environmentally friendly. And I take it because I’m an obsessive watcher of people who draws great pleasure from trying to glean insight into human behaviour, especially human behaviour relating to people’s interactions with marketing. 

Based on my years of being a watchful, marketing-obsessed rider, I will argue that the TTC is a great way to communicate marketing messages to GTA residents, as long as you understand rider behaviour.

To help marketers understand some of the do’s and don’ts of TTC marketing (especially if you are not one of us regular riders) I offer the following five marketing-related observations.

Observation 1.  TTC Riders fall into several behavioural “categories”.   

I would argue that there are 3 main categories of subway riders and then a few outliers.  They are:

  • The Electronics:  those riders defined by their propensity to play with electronic devices while on or waiting for the TTC, most commonly:  music players, blackberries, video devices and game consoles.
  • The Readers:  those riders defined by their propensity to read things while on or waiting for the TTC, most commonly:  free dailies, newspapers, books and work documents.
  • The Zoners:  those riders defined by their propensity to zone out while on or waiting for the TTC, most commonly:  staring blankly straight ahead, at the ground or sleeping. 

It differs at different times of day, but I would say during rush hours, almost 90 percent of riders will be in these main categories and it breaks down equally across these categories. 

The last 10% is made up of what I’ll call The Outliers, which I would argue are the talkers (usually later in the day and on trains with fewer people), the crazies (completely random behaviour of all sorts) and people like myself, the people watchers. 

Observation 2.  The overwhelming majority of the readers are reading the free dailies, like Metro.

This is really an interesting phenomenon for me and a relatively recent one.  Clearly “Free” works, as does “Location”.  I’ve noticed that the boxes containing the free dailies right by the subway entrances are always empty by  8:30am (if they were smart, they would re-fill them). 

Noticing how many people read them, I’ve started picking them up as well.  They are perfectly written with their target market in mind.  No story is longer than a few paragraphs and there are lots of colourful pictures for people reading over your shoulder to see. 

Also, unlike the big papers, they are small enough in size to not be a nuisance to other riders (yes, I’m talking to you, Globe-in-my-face-guy).  If you wanted to target these riders, advertising here has potential.

Observation 3.  Subway ads are definitely being looked at, often longer than most other types of ads.

Here’s what I’ve noticed, the electronics, the readers and the zoners are all likely to look at the ads on the TTC platform and the TTC itself at some point in their journey.  Even a jaded marketing type like me looks. 

Why? To a certain degree, it’s just natural.  I’m either standing around waiting for a train, out of cell range with very little else to look at or I’m standing in a crowded train for 20-30 minutes trying to avoid eye contact with the guy 2 inches in front of me. 

Unlike many other forms of advertising (like TV and radio ads), this type of advertising is not interruptive, but rather a semi-interesting distraction from a mundane or uncomfortable journey.

Observation 4.  It is surprising how few TTC ads (if any) are actually customized to the nuances of that medium.

Marketing 101 says to speak to your audience in a voice they can relate to.  Here are a set of the most common mistakes I’ve noticed in TTC advertising:

  • Not enough information (remember, people are looking longer so you can give them more information)
  • Tiny fonts and too many words (don’t make me squint to read your poster, there are three others alternatives right beside it)
  • Most importantly, the ad doesn’t speak to the situation I’m in (I’m on a subway jammed with people, stuck in someone’s arm pit, late for work again and trying not to make eye contact with anyone – there is LOTS there to relate with me around).  You have my attention marketers! Use it!

Observation 5.  Innovative marketing works but NOT if it interrupts traffic flow in any way. 

I’ve noticed a set of innovative marketing tactics which catch people attention in a positive way like: total station take-overs, turnstile branding, free samples across the street from the station, etc. 

I’ve also noticed some tactics which have the opposite effect and really make people angry.  This includes all tactics which create bottlenecks in traffic flow. 

Remember, there is nothing more important than keeping traffic moving on the TTC.  Don’t set up booths of any kind in the main traffic areas in the station itself, don’t put ads in places where I’m looking for information and don’t stop traffic flow to hand something out.

Let’s face it, Torontonians are an impatient lot at the best of times and this is especially true during rush hours – interrupt flow at your peril.

Photo credit: In the subway by urbanwild

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