Offline Ads in a Train – Epic Fail

by Mike Chiasson on September 8, 2011 · 4 comments

As much as I love online advertising I always get lured to offline advertising just because the competition is extremely weak. Calling the competition weak goes hand in hand to past posts of mine where I mention how most local agencies are pretty much retarded and just want your money.

Let’s take a look at the local train station, Alewife Station in Cambridge, MA. I usually hate driving into Boston so I will drive to this station, pay the $7 to park my car and then the $1.60 to take the train to where I need to go (Usually Red Sox Games!). I’ve noticed for a long time how they allow multiple forms of advertising in the train station. These vary from standup posters, cool complex ones that form a flipbook style animation on the walls as the train drives by them, and standard posters within the trains themselves.

The problem with offline ads is that they are NOT cheap! They are often times significantly more expensive than online methods, you can’t target demographics as well, and no guarantee people will see or react to your ads.

Prices to Advertise on the Train

The MBTA uses Titan advertising to manage their rail advertising. Titan shot me over some rough specs upon request and the prices were pretty crazy.

“Rates can range from $2,750 for an 11×28 orange line program to $11,200 for a market-wide 22×21 program [all 4-week net].”

MBTA Orange Line Display Ad UnitsAccording to their flyers the Orange Line of trains has a daily ridership of about 154,400. I’m sure that is an accurate statistic since there are turn style counters at every entrance/exit. Now they didn’t really clarify exactly how many 11×28 signs you got to put on the Orange Line (1 of 4 Major Subway Routes in Boston) but a little more investigating shows that there are about 436 total inventory advertising spots in the train station. Roughly looking through the areas it looks like only in the larger locations will you see the same ad in multiple areas. Probably an upsell to that particular client to fill the space.

I will assume that the 11×28 poster will have a total placement of ‘1’ unit at each of these areas. In the lowest placement area you will be competing with at least 11 other advertisers for subway rider’s attention. Not to mention often times different entrances/exits may make your ad impossible to be seen anyways.

Taking that out of the calculation they claim that 154k riders each week. Now the frequency cap for your offline ad in an ideal situation here would be a maximum of about 2 (departure and re-arrival at the station). Unfortunately what is actually happening is the subway is home to MANY commuters so I would average their actual exposure for about 70% of the riders to be about 10 views per week. This obviously can hurt us advertisers. We can’t have our same ad being displayed to the same user 10 timesĀ  can we? Well of course those ever popular ‘brand advertisers’ think this is a bargain, but direct response, this sucks for us.

Anyways, let’s take that out of the equation. Let’s focus on just the standard 2 views per person in an ideal world. Here is the actual math of an ideal situation.

Orange Line CPM

Well damn. $0.31 CPM actually isn’t too bad now is it? The problem being that this is an ideal case and in NO way is it real! I would be willing to bet that the actual people who view your advertisement is WAY less than 154k a day and to be realistic I would wager that approximately 15-20% of the viewers are all under the age of 18. Which is in many ways out of our target demographics. Realistically I would guesstimate that if we were looking to get unique viewers and over 18 demo that the actual CPM would be around $0.91.

Wow, now $0.91 that isn’t too different than the recommended CPM of Facebook for the 18+ Bostonian crowd as seen below:

Facebook Boston CPM Bid

Facebook Boston CPM Bid

Obviously the suggested $1.00-$1.76 is a little pricey. FB will still deliver CPM traffic well under those prices.

Well Maybe the Quality Is Better?!?

I asked myself the same question but lets be honest. The reason why online ads work so well is our Call To Action is so easily available. With offline ads your Call To Action is no longer a click away, but instead a ‘phone call’ a ‘request for more info’ a ‘scan this QR code’ or ‘Find us on Facebook’. Lets see what everyone else is doing for CTAs on the train.

The checking account one has a pretty good bribe on it. Some of them have ‘Pull Away’ information which is pretty cool (except that a few are excessively high in the air for most people). The gin ad is just brand advertising so whatever. However most of them had their call to action being a QR code. This was the advent of helping offline ads bridge the gap of mobile and online however on the trains and in the train station…market research SHOULD be your best friend.

I commend all these advertisers and their hard spent dollars but have one Crucial piece of information to share.


Orange Line No Service

Orange Line No Service


The advertising isn’t really as costly as the initial insertion orders would lead you to believe. Offline ads aren’t leveraged by many direct response marketers and there is huge room to grow this field. Most of the advertisers were either big brands looking for exposure or government funded groups (who clearly have money to burn) who must be looking to get their name out.

I think there is potential on railway advertising but definitely not using QR codes as your way to bring people online!

About the author

Mike Chiasson Mike Chiasson is the Director of IT for a publicly traded company by day and an Internet Marketer by night. He absolutely hates the words 'serial entrepreneur' but loves discussions about business. You can follow him on Twitter.

NegBox September 8, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Too damn funny!!

PJK September 8, 2011 at 5:26 pm

Very true for trains. However, depending on the spot, offline advertise can be quite cheap and convert quite well.

KnMn October 31, 2011 at 7:16 pm

Brilliant post

iPyxel Creations February 2, 2012 at 3:53 pm

SUCH a bad ass case study. Entertaining and educational post. Who knew that was possible?


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