Thursday, June 16, 2005

Marketing: Influencing the Trigger Points of Joining

When we first started Carsharing Portland in 1998, I thought that we had such a great idea that lots of people would immediately sell their cars to join CSP. I thought our competition was "car ownership" and that if we could just show people all the advantages of carsharing, we'd win, easy. As I, and many people before and after me have learned, this is not the case.

But we're not simply up against the benefits of "car ownership", we're also up against the habitual use of a car for all sorts of trips that it's not necessarily all that appropriate for. This where trigger points comes in. The trigger point is when the habitual behavior has been interrupted, or at least, is open for consideration.

As Sylvia Harms, in Switzerland, and others have demonstrated, people are most likely to join because of "trigger events" in their lives that force them to reconsider their transportation/mobility habits. Two common trigger points are:
• Existing vehicle needs major repairs, fail smog test or is totalled in an accident
• Moving to a new residence, especially moving to a new city, where one's habits and familiarity are not as ingrained,
Other trigger points include changes in marital status, and change financial where-with-all. Sylvia Harms research, described in detail in her book Besitzen or Teilen ("Ownership or Sharing") indicates that people who have never owned a vehicle, or haven't owned one for at least six months, are much more ready to join carsharing than others. Why? Because their transportation habits are no longer centered on auto-mobility.

But some new ideas are adopted faster than others. So the central question I keep pondering is what we can do to speed up the joining process. As Marketing 101 reminds us, the first step is to make people aware of your service in advance of when they're faced with having to make a decision. And while we can rightfully pat ourselves on the back that there's usually a very high level of awareness about carsharing after a remarkably short time, it's clear that not everyone has the right idea about what we're offering. (If so, they'll certainly never consider us as an option when they're at their trigger point.) I can't tell you how many "employer transportation fairs" I've been at where people breezed by my table saying, "No thanks, I don't need carsharing, I take the bus!" (And a surprising number of transit agencies have a similar notion, as well.)

Once we've laid the groundwork of awareness, then we can try to figure out how to influence people's perception of these "trigger points". So, it seems to me that our marketing should
• Get people to realize they may not use their cars as much as they think they do; and so they're really wasting a lot of money for this convenience - whether a new car or clunker - considering there's such a cool alternative available to them
• Remind people of the hassle factor of owning a car - buying gas, the cost of gas, the cost of insurance, taking time out for oil changes, the hassle of cleaning the inside of the car
• Show them how simple it is to use our cars (your procedures are simple, aren't they?)
• Remind them of the environmental benefits of carsharing and especially of getting rid of clunkers

So, let's get on with breaking people's transportation habits and increasing their awareness of trigger points, shall we?

You can download a PDF of a short summary of Sylvia Harms' analysis of trigger points and carsharing here.