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How Marketers Can Use Commuter Crowd Data to Boost Mobile ROI

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While crowded public transportation may be a commuter’s nightmare, research shows that it could also be a mobile direct-response marketer’s dream. Social scientists at New York University’s Stern School of Business, Temple University and Sichuan University recently came together to publish a study on how crowdedness can affect subway riders’ mobile purchase behavior.

In the study, “Mobile Crowdsensing,” researchers suggest that when the rush hour crush reduces people’s physical personal space, they psychologically cope by escaping into the virtual space of their smartphones— increasing their engagement with mobile ads, and in turn making them more likely to convert. Specifically, the study found that mobile conversion rate averaged 2.1 percent when rider density was two people per square meter, versus 4.3 percent when rider density was five people per square meter.

Given the average public transportation commute for Americans is 96 minutes roundtrip – equivalent to over half the time consumers spend online with their smartphones – and the prediction that consumers’ time spent online with mobile devices is expected to exceed time spent online on desktops and laptops by 30 percent in 2014 (source: eMarketer), the targeting of rush hour commuters on public transportation is a sizeable opportunity for marketers looking to maximize mobile conversion rates and squeeze additional productivity out of mobile ads.

Underground cellular coverage and user privacy protections differ between China and the U.S., making it harder to target ads to consumers on crowded trains and buses in America.  Fortunately U.S. Census data and new RFID technology can offer marketers alternative solutions to reaching these valuable audiences.

Census Bureau data shows that use of public transportation in the U.S. is highly-concentrated among a handful of metropolitan areas.  For example, nearly 40% of all people who use public transportation to get to and from work live in the Tristate Area. Since peak rush hour times are predictable, setting mobile bid multipliers by DMA and time-of-day would provide some degree of targeting with minimal effort. This targeting wouldn’t explicitly exclude car commuters, but presumably they would be focused on driving rather than on clicking mobile ads.

RFID Beacon technology offers a much more precise way to locate smartphone users, measuring mobile device proximity in centimeters. Installing a network of Beacons in subway systems and buses would create a hyper-targeted digital ad network. However, municipalities should properly vet such initiatives in a public forum to avoid the kind of backlash that recently compelled New York City to order the removal of 500 Beacons installed by Titan360, a transit advertising company.

Further research is required to confirm that commuter behavior in China generalizes to other countries, and that purchasing behavior on subway trains generalizes to other forms of mass transit. But, the “Mobile Crowdsensing” study findings are encouraging and should prompt marketers to think creatively about targeting crowds for maximum mobile ad performance.

Cover photo via Flickr