Mind The Gap: Why Advertising On The MetroCard Is A Bright Idea

AWSC,Observations October 19, 2012 10:05 am


On October 7th, some of the NYC MetroCards didn’t look like, well, MetroCards. A blue background and GAP messaging replaced the traditional yellow cards, marking the first time that the MetroCard has displayed advertising on both the front and back.

Advertising was first introduced on the backs of Metrocards in 1995, as a way for the MTA to generate additional revenue – and the decision to add a front-of-card ad option gives brands the opportunity to “own” the space.

GAP has even sweetened the deal for riders by giving anyone who brings the card into the new flagship store a 20% discount.

GREAT FOR THE MTA, GREAT FOR RIDERS, BUT AN EVEN GREATER OPPORTUNITY FOR BRANDS.

The concept of advertising on a MetroCard is similar to direct mail – but it has the opportunity to be much more effective.

Think about it:

Instead of mailing consumers an advertisement in the form of an extra – and often unwanted – piece of paper, brands can place their advertising message on an essential card for daily New York subway riders (all 8.5 million of them).

And as a consumer of both direct mail and the NY subway card, I know firsthand that while it’s easy to discard a piece of direct mail without even looking at it, it’s nearly impossible to ignore your subway card.

Especially when you shell out over $100 for a monthly card – I’m keeping a death grip on that thing at all times!

Besides being an essential piece of paper to New Yorkers’ lives, the placement of an ad on a subway card is also much more visible than on a piece of direct mail. Direct mail is something that you pick up generally at the end of the work day; you either shuffle through the pieces immediately to weed out desirables, or you place everything on a table to peruse at a later time. A subway card, on the other hand, is something that you typically keep in a wallet or pocket.

The same place you keep your credit cards and cash – and the place you look when you’re about to make a purchase.

For a brand, it’s a much better place to be than on a dining room table.

The consumer is much more likely to notice the branded metro card – that doubles as a discount card for them – at point of purchase, because they’re already trying to find their credit card.

ADVERTISING ON THE METROCARD ALSO GIVES BRANDS THE OPPORTUNITY TO EFFECTIVELY TARGET POTENTIAL CUSTOMERS.

According to the MTA website, there are 468 subway stations across the five boroughs. By default, each subway station falls within a zip code – which allows for hyperlocal targeting based on census data, which the MTA seems to be, um, vaguely aware of:

Target up to 10 stations for distribution at station booths, vending machines and retail outlets to meet your needs. Depending on the number of cards printed, we can target stations with the greatest ridership, by borough, etc.

Beyond looking at greatest ridership, etc., zip code data also gives brands valuable demographic information like average age, income, education levels, and professions in the area. Brands can also target based on existing or future store locations – like GAP, promoting a new flagship store – which, of course, is nothing different than direct mail.

But using the MetroCard does offer additional targeting opportunities:

The magnetic stripe on the card tracks ridership – how else would the MTA know which stations are busiest? – and I’m assuming that it can track traffic patterns.

What station did the rider originate from?

How far away was the store that they used the card for the discount?

Are people using the card close to home or further out?

Also – in stations that get the branded MetroCards – is it worth placing complementing outdoor advertisements around the stations?

THERE IS A TREASURE TROVE OF DATA WAITING FOR THE ABLE MARKETER BY USING METROCARDS FOR ADVERTISING.

THERE IS ALSO A POTENTIAL COST-SAVING AND ENVIRONMENTAL-SAVING COMPONENT.

To be sure:

As long as the MetroCard is a paper product, there will always be unnecessary waste; as long as there is direct mail, there will always be unnecessary waste.

So what if, instead of sending direct mail to one million households, a brand, instead, just advertised on the MetroCard?

No more postal fees.

The same messaging that often gets lost in a sea of direct mail, literally in the hands of potential consumers.

I, for one, can’t wait to get a GAP MetroCard – it’s a store that I already shop at, so why not get a 20% discount? It’ll be a nice “bonus” when I have to buy a new monthly pass.

Why not feel like you’re getting something in return from a service you use every day? If I were a brand, then I’d want that positive association!

*Originally appeared on the Advertising Week blog!

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