Taking Content to the Streets

Just after we crossed into New York from Brooklyn on the Manhattan Bridge this weekend, my husband and I found ourselves at a dead stop on Canal Street in traffic of legendary proportions. Canal is always packed; you simply have no expectation of seeing sidewalk on Canal and woe to ye who would stop the flow of humanity lest ye be trampled. But on this day, the traffic actually seemed to stretch infinitely off into the Hudson River without a break in sight. From the comfort of our car, we sat still, bumper-to-bumper, awed by the endless line of cars before us. As we edged forward, I asked my husband if he'd ever had the urge to desert the car where it stood and walk. Sure, he said, but pointed at the crammed sidewalk and said it didn't look like we'd make much better time as pedestrians. Finally, we reached an intersection and lo and behold, a streetlight was out. In fact, all of lower Manhattan was blacked-out due to an explosion at a transformer station and resulting fire.

So, with shops pulling down shutters all around us, we headed north. Certainly easier said than done. But, having endured a few New York blackouts in the past, we stuck to our vehicle and tried to view the whole thing as an adventure. At least, we said, we weren't tourists at the mercy of cabs (blackouts also mean no subways), with little idea how best to find a café that still had benefit of cooked food, much less the July in New York-mandated air conditioning.

But, my friends, the information age is upon us. In fact, it is upon the very taxicabs tourists everywhere are trying to hail at this very moment. In Manhattan, some taxis feature Clear Channel Smart Tops, which offer sports scores and headlines directly from the Web right on top of the cab where traditional advertising usually sits. In Boston, Vert Inc. has taken it a step further, with a GPS-enhanced version, where the cab that passes you by could flash an ad for a coffee shop on the same block (small comfort, perhaps, but handy if you aren't from around there).

And in Toronto, Canada, if you can get one of the cabs to stop, when you take your seat, you might well find location-specific content displayed on a small LCD screen in front of you. Now this is not merely Canadian- or even Toronto-specific content, but in fact, GPS-enabled location-targeted advertising touting the very business whose storefronts pass your window.

While video screens in the back of taxicabs aren't exactly new—Las Vegas, London, and Singapore all have them—this Canadian company's cabs are the first enhanced with a GPS system. Embedded in the headrest of the cab's front passenger seat, thin-touch screens offer taxi riders streaming MP3 audio, events listings, and soon, wireless news delivery. Toronto's toMarket has allowed advertisers to use GPS to provide location-sensitive advertising: as the cabs cruise past participating businesses, promotions for their services pop up. While the idea of location-specific ads on cabs is interesting, there's a good deal to be said for reaching a captive audience with nothing else to do other than, perhaps, grip the armrest in terror. Passengers do have the option of tuning out the ads or switching off the screens to better focus on the cabby's driving skills.

ToMarket's strategy, like much of the Web and wireless content industry, is to capture a consumer's attention with content like music, news, and events and then to target the advertising so that it is perceived as useful, in this case specifically, given the likelihood that a taxicab passenger will be unfamiliar with the neighborhood they are passing through. The screen is split into four sections with the advertisers contact information in the upper left, a video ad in the lower left, a current map (accurate up to five meters) on the right, and links to other content in the lower right. The sales pitch? "The rider is free from distraction, isolated from the outside world, and looking for something to occupy their attention."

It can do more than just push neighborhood products, though—there's a universal example found in their block-specific business model. These taxicab content delivery networks offer the opportunity to deliver content exactly when and where it is needed. Stuck in traffic, riders can access news reports about traffic issues and view accurate maps as their cab weaves through city streets so they could even suggest an alternate route to the cab driver. And hey, if you want to get out of a cab at any given time, you can. This way, blackout notwithstanding, you can also find out if there's something of interest nearby and wait out the traffic jam.