Interview with Derek Hofbauer

Derek Hofbauer has been working on individualised marketing for the past six years and was instrumental in implementing the concept in Portland for promoting regional travel options. He is seen here posing for his band, Sugarcane, for which he plays the Mandolin as well as lends his vocals.

Derek Hofbauer came to Metro with years of experience at Socialdata, the pioneers of a new innovative tool called individualised marketing that encourages people to choose sustainable modes of transport. Well, the tool isn’t that new; it has been deployed successfully across Europe for over 40 years now! But other parts of the world, including Portland, are still getting familiar with it.

When Derek helped kick start the project in Portland six years ago, the City of Portland was treading unfamiliar ground. However, with limited investments leading to phenomenal returns in terms of changing travel behaviour, the city is now getting ready for renewing it’s individualised marketing efforts (see following post on the SmartTrips Programme).

With its proven track record, Indian cities have the opportunity to learn and adapt these techniques to manage a ballooning demand for single-occupancy car travel. In this candid interview, Derek explains the nuances of individualised marketing, citing experiences from Portland, Australia and Europe to make an irrefutable case for this method. Read on to gain more insights into a novel yet simple concept.

What is individualized marketing?

The concept of individualised marketing was pioneered by Germany-based company Socialdata in the 1970s. The concept was developed primarily to meet the needs of public transportation agencies in Europe who wanted to know how they could achieve increased ridership. A series of research concluded that often people are just unaware of what their transport options are, such as a convenient frequent service bus running near their house, or a safe bike route somewhere near. Hence, encouraging people to use transportation modes other than their car requires targeting their knowledge base, because people are not going to take the time to do this research. Through individualised marketing, you are just helping them out with this information.

Hence, individualized marketing is an approach to provide information to people about transportation options, particularly those available within their neighbourhood. It differs from traditional marketing in various ways. One of the unique aspects of this approach is that you can actually measure successes of the marketing efforts. This is done through a series of before and after surveys. A survey would be launched prior to implementing the actual marketing project, which will be followed up with another survey after the conclusion of the project. In the case of transportation, the surveys can measure the level of travel behaviour change that comes from the marketing in terms of reductions in vehicle miles travelled, percentage increases in biking, walking and transit ridership, as well as decreases in car ridership.

Individualized marketing also differs from traditional marketing in the way you can segment the population using different techniques. Often for a large-scale project covering a large neighbourhood of say, 14,000 households, there is contact phase in which all households are initially contacted to determine where they lie in the spectrum of using non-car transportation — not-interested, interested, or regular users of alternate modes of transport (bike, walk, transit). Typically, about 50 per cent of the group is interested, another 10 per cent are regular users, and 40 per cent are just not interested in getting out of their cars. By segmenting the population in this way, the actual marketing project can focus on the regular users and interested households instead of focusing all the resources upfront and sending everybody in the neighbourhood all the information, because people that are not interested are the least likely to change their behaviour.

Interestingly, individualised marketing demands continuous contact with each individual household, because of which the approach is also referred to as dialogue marketing. We engage the household in a conversation about their travel options. Normally they are contacted to do the survey, and are contacted again when the marketing project begins as well as at the end. In this way, the households are engaged throughout the year. Notably, each time you call them or talk to them, it triggers something in their minds about travel behaviour. After a while, these gentle reminders about travel options get embedded into their mentality.

A key thing to remember with individualised marketing is that you do not want to tell people to get rid of their cars. It is better to set targets such as making at least two trips a week by public transport or bike. The goal is for individual households to make small changes, so that with a lot of small changes, over time that is a large cumulative effect. Hopefully, the behavioral change would also trickle down to children’s behavior so that it becomes a sustainable generational thing. For instance, when parents start biking, their kids also travel on bikes. If they have a good experience, they will be more likely to bike later in life.

We have in fact been trying to measure this sustainability effect and come to the conclusion that behavioral changes continue up to at least three years after the marketing project is first implemented. The reductions in car use probably continue for an even longer period, but we have never taken surveys across the same panel group for more than three years (for various reasons such as people getting tired of filling the same surveys or moving to a different neighbourhood). Even this limited sampling, however, has given encouraging results about the long-term impacts of a one-time individualised marketing initiative in any area.

What areas besides transportation can individualised marketing be used for?

Individualised marketing has been used for areas that involve more sustainable living and require a behavioral change amongst users. In Australia, they do living smart projects, under which they include diverse areas such as transportation, water conservation, recycling, energy conservation, etc. Water conversation is really important for Australia because of the prevalence of droughts. Through their individualised marketing project, it is possible to measure the decrease in water consumption after individualised marketing strategies. It is a lot easier to measure reductions in energy and water consumption because it involves a simple comparison of bills, unlike transportation which requires families to record daily travel diaries. So yes, there are a lot of possible areas that can be impacted with this kind of strategy.

Why and when did the concept of individualised marketing first get implemented in Portland?

Portland launched its individualised marketing programme for transportation in 2002. A staff member at the City of Portland had heard a presentation from an Australian representative about how they were implementing the individualised marketing model, where the before-after surveys showed a 10 per cent reduction in single occupancy vehicle miles travelled (VMT). He returned to Portland and talked about implementing a similar programme here. That is how the SmartTrips Program took shape.

What are the tools and resources required for individualised marketing in the transportation realm?

The first task is sending out order forms to the indentified segments of people. The order forms indicate a variety of material that the recipients can get by checking the boxes to show their interest. If someone is not interested in biking at all, we will not send them biking material such as bike maps. This is the reason it is called individualised marketing; it is customized to individual preferences. The nice thing is that there is no cost to the households for ordering material on the order form. There have been instances of me going to a house with free materials and the owner trying to write me a cheque. When I tell them that the materials are free and it is their tax dollars at work, they are surprised.

Another resource we include in the packages that we send out to households are stop-related time tables based on the address of the recipient, with helpful details such as stops near their house, the routes that run on them and their timings. So instead of a thick timetable that they would never want to use, we give them a small user-friendly card with only relevant information.

We are also trying to encourage people to do their grocery shopping using bikes or on foot. We inform them of the things they need to equip their bike with such as panniers or baskets, and other options such as using a cart with transit. So there is a lot of useful information to give to people.

We would also provide incentive items such as a free neighbourhood map, which was kind of the crux of the programme. The map would show the neighbourhood in detail, displaying stores, schools, bike routes, transit lines, etc. It was a really good way for people to discover stops and stores in their own neighbourhood instead of driving 10 miles to the big store. In addition, it would help in keeping investments within a neighbourhood with people spending their money on local businesses as opposed to big box stores. Hence, we would offer coupons for local businesses, such as a free drink at the local brewery to bike riders who come with their helmets. Bike stores would also participate and offer a 10-15 % discount coupon as well as free on-the-spot bike maintenance and repair. This proves to be a great community business booster.

A particular incentive (used in Australia) is encouraging competitions between neighbourhoods by giving updates to households about their performance as compared to other neighbourhoods. This made the programme a little bit more exciting and effective.

To complement free informational resources, City of Portland also organises events as part of its individualised marketing efforts. They organise programmes like Women on Bikes, Senior strolls, guided walks, etc. These events are publicized in the same order forms that are sent to households with information on resources they can order. Typically these events are organised in the summer months when the weather is better, keeping in mind that it takes about three months from the time the people first get the information to the time they actually make changes in their travel behavior based on the material they receive; and that people would most probably try out these modes in fair weather.

All residents are targeted under individualised marketing, including apartment complexes and residential homes. So you are targeting a diverse group. We also have materials in Spanish. In Canada, we were required to use six different languages to reach out to all people. So there is an effort to reach out to everyone. In particular low-income people really benefit with this free information delivered to their door, because it is so difficult to own a car these days.

All these methods are quite inexpensive compared to building a number of miles of bike lanes — you invest in some maps and other informational resources, a few before and after surveys, some people to put them together etc. — all this generally amounts to between 10 and 20 dollars per person. Additional resources might be required to develop neighbourhood maps, but City of Portland already has neighbourhood maps; so it is just a matter of getting existing resources more involved. In general, most transportation agencies have a lot of resources available, such as brochures on bike commuting, information on walking for your health, brochures on the cost of driving telling people how much it costs to operate a vehicle over the year, etc.

In addition to providing information about travel options, there is also an education component to individualised marketing. Therefore, we usually have an additional section in order forms besides a list of materials that recipients of the order form can order by ticking check boxes. This section is called further services that asks questions such as ‘do you need help using transit?’; ‘do you need help bicycling or walking more?’ etc. If their answer to any of these questions is yes, then we set up an appointment and do home visits. We would go to the house, help the kids understand how to wear their helmets properly, give them little blinker lights to motivate them to bike, and ride with them to show them safe routes to go to school and other destinations. For transit-related questions, sometimes we would invite bus drivers have come to the house and give the household a free 30-day bus pass so they can try out transit with no cost. The one big barrier for people to use transit is that they have never done it before. So just to get them to that first step where they feel comfortable is an effective approach, especially with seniors. Once they see how a trip is made and what the transfers are, they can then make the trip on their own and would usually continue using transit if they have a positive experience the first time round.

This is what individualised marketing is really about; a way for us to hold their hands, get them out of their house and away from their cars, and show them that alternate modes of transport are possible, in the process giving them information and making them feel good about it. We give them motivation and encouragement through small gifts like a pedometer, a little leg bad for their bike or a water bottle. It is these little things that we do to motivate and inspire. It is a very helpful and useful approach and does not take that much money to affect a lot of people.

I usually try to deliver all materials by bicycle whenever possible as this is a good way to deliver the information as well as engage with people and ask them if they have any questions. I did a lot of deliveries on bike myself and people were just amazed that a project like this even existed. It was really exciting to see their reactions first-hand; to see the look on kids’ faces when they get really excited with just a couple of little cheap free things. When they see this information, and they see you on a bike with this huge trailer pulling 500 bags, they get encouraged and think that ferrying their groceries on their bikes is not really such a big deal.

How are results from individualised marketing surveys used?

Useful analysis of the results requires a research and surveying process intensive in the use of time and labour resources for following up with the recipients of marketing material. The Socialdata approach was a little heavier on the research so that almost two-thirds of our budgeting was for surveying. This was just because it was a new technique and we did not know how well it worked here in the US. Skeptics would say that the US is not like Europe and one would never achieve such decreases in car driving here. However, we are seeing that the success of individualised marketing strategies is very similar worldwide. It is probably a little less effective in suburbs because there are not many options for walking or biking to work as there are in urban areas.

Under the Socialdata approach, we also conducted a lot of research to determine the potential that exists for promoting public transportation, bicycling and walking. So we did a lot of in-depth interviews for measuring attitudes and awareness. We would ask the household to complete the survey and maintain a travel diary for one day. We would then take the travel diary back to the household and ask trip-specific questions like why they used a car for a particular trip and not a bike. We wanted to know specific reasons and look at all the barriers they had. On basis of these in-depth interviews we found that generally 50 per cent of the barriers were subjective. They would choose not to bike even when the weather is nice, the trip is short and they have a bike, because of habit. People generally do not think about their mode of transport, and automatically reach for the car keys. So we are trying to change that mentality by telling them that using alternate modes is possible and easy and does not involve a radical change in their lifestyles.

One benefit to these kinds of projects, and this is not quantifiable by any results but based on my observations doing the project, is that when you have more people out bicycling and walking, it tends to make communities safer.

How do these strategies complement/combine with other transportation planning, investments and strategies?

One good approach to individualised marketing is using it when new transportation infrastructure such public transport routes or bike lanes are being opened for public use. If you know a big project is coming, a real good way to promote it is to target all the people living in the neighbourhood or corridor that will be using it. For instance, Socialdata did a project in 2004 when the Yellow MAX (light-rail) line was opened. We had a control group so we knew what the results of our individualised marketing efforts were vis-a-vis the marketing by Trimet and City of Portland. It was determined from this analysis that targeted individualised marketing in conjunction with new public transportation infrastructure had basically doubled the usage of the new line by people versus generalised marketing efforts. This proves that individualised marketing is a really effective tool when planning such big investments, and does not require significant additional investment. So if you are going to build a $50 million transit line, you might as well invest an additional $100,000 and get patronage from the beginning, and hopefully they will become regular users over a period of time.

Individualised marketing can also be linked with transportation planning is to use data from the surveys to look at everyday mobility. Of course, you need to have a good survey to do that. You need a travel diary, and you need to see how the household is combining trips. If you have a robust enough sample and a good survey, you can really study at travel demand patterns during peak hours and other times of the day.

We have already determined through individualised marketing that a lot of the trips made by car are of a discretionary nature, like going to the store. They are not trips that have to be made at a particular time of day, and are at the discretion of the traveller. It is always said that the commute trip is the hardest to change because you have to look nice, it is early in the morning and you have to be on time. On the other hand, discretionary trips are made on a flexible time schedule as and when you have the time, and are therefore easiest to change in terms of mode choice and travel behaviour. If commuters begin to experiment with transit, walking and biking for these trips, they are more likely to have a good experience. On the other hand, if they miss a transit connection and get late for a meeting, then they would never want to try transit again. Our experience also shows that once a commuter gets good at doing shopping trips by bike or transit, he/she is also likely to feel confident about using these modes for work commuting.

What are the key challenges that one faces with individualised marketing?

Nowadays, with limited resources, that constant level of contact with households is missing. Socialdata invested a lot into contacting people. We used to call people a lot and our response rates on a mailbox survey were as good as 70 per cent.

Another challenge is measuring the results. There are a lot of different ways to analyse the same data. If you do not have a detailed travel diary that is mailed back in, the survey quality may be different. However, travel diaries take a lot of postage and a lot of time for households to fill out. Hence, they are being replaced with more phone surveys in Portland. The problem with phone surveys is that you are getting information from just one member of the household instead of the entire household at once. It becomes difficult to see how transportation choices are working within the entire household with only one person’s account.

You can also get into the problem of self selection, because usually the people who take the calls and surveys are enthusiastic about the programme. This may end up just accounting for those people who are actually making the changes because they participate whereas those who are not making the changes are left out from the analyses because they are not participating in the surveys. In this case, your results might reflect more than what likely happened in the entire area.

Another issue with phone surveys is that landlines are being replaced by cell phones. When you call landlines, you generally reach out to an older demographic. To target cell phones, you need to pay the cell phone user. So there are some issues around sampling because of these technology changes.

Going forward, what outcomes do you expect from the next round of individualised marketing in Portland?

In Australia, they ensure that the long-term impact is sustained by redoing the marketing campaign in any city every couple of years. Lesser resources are required to be spent on refreshing an individualised marketing campaign after a few years, but the impact is ensured. City of Portland has pretty much covered the whole city through their SmartTrips individualised marketing programme. At present, they are starting to circle back to repeat the whole process, which is a good thing, especially because a lot of people move to new areas.

I would say that one thing we would like to see is that when people move to a new area, they are greeted with a little kit that has information from previous surveys, because when people move houses and jobs, it is a good time to show them their transportation options as they are still deciding on their transit choices. If they are not aware of the safe routes and transit lines in the new area, they are probably just going to drive. Trimet does already have a programme to provide welcome kits to new employees in area, but there is no similar individualised marketing targeted at new residents in an area. It is a part of our future strategic plan but we have currently do not have the funding. Besides, another issue with such a programme would be to maintain a database of people renting/buying houses, which is a complex affair to manage.

Another thing that Metro is trying to do is to reach out a little bit more into the suburbs because the City of Portland covers only areas within the city boundaries. We are already doing an individualised marketing project in Wilsonville called ‘Discover Wilsonville’. Gresham is also in the process of finishing one. So we are reaching out to these more suburban environments. Now the great thing about individualised marketing is that it can be used anywhere that people have some kind of access to transit options. If biking is not safe, and there are no sidewalks or public transportation, then it is going to be tough to have a successful project. We have progressed in our transportation infrastructure in the suburbs and are progressing to meeting pedestrian needs and bicycling needs as well. So we really want to do some individualised marketing at this stage to make people aware that there are trails and sidewalks and other safe ways to get around by bike. This especially makes sense now with the transit system expanding into Milwaukie. We have a really good opportunity to focus on the rest of the region and hopefully having the same amount of success that City of Portland’s SmartTrips project has had.

My takeaways:

  1. Individualised marketing makes sense when some new transportation infrastructure is set up, especially for public transport and non-motorised transport. For a small additional investments, such marketing can greatly enhance the success of transportation projects. In the Indian context, it might make sense to use this tool to complement the upcoming transportation projects receiving funding under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). These would include all the bus modernisation projects, BRT projects that include cycle tracks and metro/monorail projects.
  2. The infrastructure marketed must be of good quality and provide the user a good experience, otherwise the marketing project will fail.
  3. The ultimate objective should be replacing car trips, not cars as a mode per se. Individualised marketing can succeed in encouraging households to replace some of their car trips, particularly short trips of discretionary nature, with other sustainable modes.
  4. Often, the barrier is habit and unawareness. People are used to moving around in cars and are unaware of the other safe and convenient transportation options. Not having tried these options earlier creates an unfounded fear that can be dispelled through individualised marketing.
  5. If done properly and in a detailed manner, the results from individualised marketing surveys can also feed into future policy decisions.
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About the Author

Ishani Mehta Ishani Mehta is The Urban Vision's Fellow at The Young Urban Leader Program. Ishani is working in Portland as part of the program. The program is aimed at facilitating knowledge transfer between cities known for their progressive planning policies and rapidly urbanizing India. The YUL Portland Fellowship is supported by Portland State University and Portland Metro. The Program in Portland was made possible due to the support of Nancy Chase , Independent Planning Professional in Portland and Architect Hafeez Contractor in India. Ishani has been working in New Delhi as an urban infrastructure analyst for the past three years. She has experience in writing articles, papers, reports and newsletters on urban infrastructure developments in India. Her areas of professional interest include urban transport, development policy and planning, civic infrastructure and basic services, and infrastructure financing. By background, she holds a Masters in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics, prior to which she graduated in Economics from the University of Delhi in 2006. Ishani has held various positions of leadership during her academic life. She was the Co-President (Campus) for ShARE-Global, a students' organisation spanning over 20 campuses across the world. During undergraduation, she was the Council Member and Treasurer of the college Economics Scoiety.