Marketing! at Transpo Camp 2014


Transpo Camp was, like, a month ago. This past week, I finally got around to assembling notes from my session, on marketing transportation and planning.

I didn’t plan this session. I didn’t have an agenda or a list of things to talk about. But I do feel frustrated with my work, sometimes, because I, effectively, have to market WABA and feel like I don’t really know what I’m doing. And: Marketing is so traditional, can be quite boring, and encompasses way too much for people to find it an interesting, useful, and important part of the transportation field, which is so wrong. It was in that spirit that I pitched this session at the last minute.

I was very pleased with how the whole thing went. The room was mostly all people who do public-facing communications in some capacity, and I was able to moderate a lot of very smart comments on the trials and tribulations of a type of work that is basically throwing it at the wall and seeing what sticks, over and over and over and over and over again—until something sticks, and can then be justified  in the future. No sweeping theories were presented here, just some ideas that might help us all tighten our communications work.

I tried to get at all this with this (month-out, so take it with a grain of salt) write-up of the session. It’s below the jump.

Transpo Camp 2014

Here are some hacked-together notes, sent very belatedly following Transpo Camp 2014 at GMU in Arlington, Va. I didn’t take notes because I was attempting to moderate a session I pitched without an agenda! If you did take notes, feel free to put them someplace (this Transpo Camp document, perhaps?) and share.

Thanks to Aimee Custis (whom you may know from Coalition for Smarter Growth) for taking shots of the boards:


  • Transportation in general is something we need to sell.
  • What we deal with daily are specific products we need to sell. Ex. I work for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. We do bike advocacy in the D.C. area. We need to sell two things, primarily: memberships (to support our advocacy work) and our advocacy work (so people become members).
  • Transportation and planning easily descends into jargon or niche topics that people don’t appear to care about. Marketing needs to make it all sexy.
  • Transportation and planning agencies, departments, organizations, and institutions can be inscrutable. Marketing makes them less so.

These things we know to be true:

  • People like to be told exactly what to do. Need volunteers on a deadline? Say, “We need five volunteers at 6 a.m. to help us set up our event,” not, “We’re in need to volunteers for our event!”
  • People will look at photos. If you can, include a photo. Flickr is a great resource—just be sure to use open-source content.
  • People will not read walls of text. Qualities to strive for in copy included clarity, specificity, sincerity, simplicity, and the implication that you know your audience.*
  • Transparency sells. Ex. WABA’s 2013 year-end appeal was long, but it was honest. We asked for money to fund specific work in 2014. We exceeded the $30,000 we asked for.
  • Social media is a means, not the end. It’s great, but Twitter, et al are just platforms in the way an email newsletter, blog post, or flyer is a platform. Some things are better suited to promotion for a certain event or campaign than others.

*Everyone—us, users, your mom, whoever—wants clear, direct, succinct copy, even the people who don’t want their writing edited into clear, direct, succinct copy. I could have run an entire session on good writing for the workplace! But I’d offer, briefly: avoid rhetorical questions; avoid cutesy, whimsical, or otherwise unserious language; avoid jargon; include hyperlinks rather than offering long-winded explanations (if possible); keep it short.

If I recall correctly, only two or three people in this session had a formal background in marketing, and only a few more had had any professional development regarding marketing. Here are some things that might help us navigate:

  • Talk to other people who do what you do, or sort of do what you do, or do what you want to do, or something: This is important. This is why I’m (finally) sending around these notes and connecting you to each other on an email list. Please feel free to respond and discuss here. (List of email addresses removed because, privacy.)
  • Throw it at the wall and see what sticks: Ugh, we all have to do this because we are strapped, budgets-, resource-, and time-wise (and can’t run fantastic user tests for every project), but this session was a good reminder that we need to be doing things like A/B testing and tweaking content and tracking subsequent metrics to determine if one thing works better than another.
  • Use free tutorials: Can you spend your lunch break watching a webinar on something you can be better at? Do it! Coursera seems to be a thing. Skillshare is not free, but has some interesting topics.

Social media
Building software
Content management
Review tech designs
Data mining
Create proposals
Look at data
Facebook/Twitter (same as social media, but not really!)
Design posters
Write press releases
Ask people for money
Communicate without words (ex. photos, infographics)
Travel training
Managing websites and signage
Building apps
Running meetings
Explaining meetings
Excel (if anyone can explain why I wrote “blood” next to this, I’ll design you a free poster)
Small business communications
Employer outreach
Herding cats
Listening to Pandora
Telling people to do stuff
Using Adobe Illustrator

*I asked everyone to go around the room and, by way of introduction, give their name, professional affiliation, and one concrete task they performed during their workday. Why does this matter? So often, we look at job descriptions (or write them ourselves) asking for candidates who are self-starters, can work across platforms, are good writers, whatever. That doesn’t tell us anything about what we actually have to do during the day as transportation communications professionals.

It’d be awesome if you do. Here’s the official Transpo Camp Google doc for this session.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s