How Uber and Lyft Could Have Won at the Polls

Did you vote for Prop.

On Saturday, May 7, Proposition 1 in Austin failed in a 55–45% split. For those of you who are unaware, Prop. 1 was a referendum on rules the Austin City Council passed that would have required Uber and Lyft drivers to undergo fingerprint-based background checks, among a few other things.

Our own Mark Thompson from Dialog Group wrote a piece featured on design4emergence, about Uber’s bulwark stance on background checks, and how a lack of commitment to continuous network improvement hurts their ROE² – their return on equity and, what we’ll also call, their return on experience.

At the beginning of his piece, he mentions that Uber’s tactics were “annoying,” explaining, “Uber called [his] cell phone on Saturday morning… And then they followed it up with a text.” He goes on to say, the only companies he appreciates getting texts from are airlines informing him of flight delays, his dentist, and the yummy JuiceLand. Totally fair.

While I personally didn’t receive any text messages from Uber or Lyft, despite being an avid rider of both services, I do believe some of their communications fell flat in telling a story that could have ultimately mobilized voters in their favor.

Here’s what I think they could have done better in their direct marketing campaign to change perceptions around the issue: First, they needed to have clarified the real issue at hand; second, they needed to prove their stance to the community, and lastly, they needed to emphasize the service benefits they offered to the city. Let’s tackle each of these.

1. Clarify, C-l-a-r-i-f-y, CLARIFY!

If you aren’t from Austin, I’ll give you the short of it – people in the city were so confused about what was happening. Either they didn’t really know what Prop. 1 was, or they knew a little bit about it and simply didn’t get what “the big deal” was. I received multiple email communications from Lyft attempting to explain what, in fact, the deal was. Here is a snapshot of one of their emails to me breaking down the difference between voting “for” and “against” Prop. 1:


Vote AGAINST Prop 1 Explanation

So here’s the problem (and this kind of vague language recurs in other communications): “Keeps the current rules in place” and “Creates unnecessary rules” doesn’t clarify anything for people. You have to create a distinction people can truly understand and cling to. They want to know the “how” and “why” of what they should be feeling, especially the type of person who is energized enough to get off their butts and vote.

If I simply relied on these emails for my source of information on the subject — which would be a huge win for Lyft/Uber since they 100% control these messages — I would have never known that fingerprint databases are often out-of-date, put minority drivers at a significant disadvantage, and will actually hurt the number of driver-partners on the road. I had to research that information for myself to truly understand the “how” and “why” of the ride-sharing service perspective. I can assure you, not everyone is as proactive as I am in pursuing answers. Uber and Lyft needed to bring this clarification to the people and really drive home the impact of their vote, which, in my view, they did not adequately accomplish in their Prop. 1 campaign efforts.

2. Prove the Stance!

If the argument is that Uber and Lyft’s approach to vetting drivers is, in fact, equally if not more effective than fingerprint background checks, then simply prove it to people. Uber’s newsroom posted guidance on their security practices “emphasizing how they focus on safety for riders and driver-partners.” They used their California service as an example to illustrate their practices. Here’s an interesting list, located at the bottom of the piece, which outlines disqualification criteria for driving in the Uber network:

Uber Newsroom Safety Practices

Okay, let’s take a breath because that’s a long-ass list. It seems pretty comprehensive to me — how about you? I feel pretty good about driving with Uber after taking that all in. Did you also know if an Uber driver receives more than just a few bad ratings, their driver-partnership could be revoked indefinitely? It’s possible your driver isn’t a criminal, but is still a pretty creepy person. It seems like this high standard for drivers can discourage/resolve any negative behavior and weed out both criminals and creepers.

Here’s the problem, why didn’t this long-ass list make its way, in any capacity, into Proposition 1 campaign communications? In fact, this SHOULD HAVE BEEN the campaign! “Hey! Have you had three or more driving violations in the last three years? In the State of Texas, you can be a school bus driver, but you can’t be an UberX driver.” Something to make the people really go – Okay, Uber’s safety practices are pretty good, as is.

I didn’t truly know any of this safety information until I went looking for it and found it linked to another blog post that was actually removed from Uber’s newsroom. Not very accessible, if you ask me.

Uber Blog Post Removed

Here’s another great story on safety practices I, nor you, probably ever heard: According to a safety report conducted by Uber last year, 53 Uber driver applicants who failed their third-party background checks were issued chauffeur’s licenses by the city. Uber Austin’s General Manager Marco McCottry wrote in a memo obtained by a local Austin news source that 19 of those 53 were rejected “because of a recent serious offense (conviction). Crimes included felony assaults, DWIs and a hit and run.” I think the appropriate response to that is “whoa.”

Bottom line, if you have a valid perspective, you need to share it with your customers. Don’t just tell them to do something, tell them “why” and make it compelling. Arm them with the right information so that they can argue intelligently on your behalf, because you’re not just convincing your customers that you’re right, you’re also trying to convince an entire community, many of whom may have never tried your ride-sharing/hailing service before.

3. Don’t Assume Your Customers Care. Emphasize the Benefits!

Here’s another email I received from Lyft:

Lyft Email Vote Prop 1.

I can only imagine this email was sent to the vast majority of Lyft’s customer database. And that’s fine — except this kind of language assumes all of Lyft’s customers care about this issue and just need a friendly reminder of polling event details. (This minimalist messaging recurs in other forms of media.) But that’s not exactly the case. Lyft and Uber cannot assume all of their customers are evangelists, waiting on the edge of their seats, ready to vote, simply in need of an address. Some of them needed a small fire lit under their rears to shuffle them along.

Lyft could have used this email opportunity, and many others, to emphasize ride-sharing service benefits for those who needed a little more convincing. It’s so easy! The positive impacts are mostly already there:

  • According to the Travis County Sheriff, DWI collisions decreased by 23% in 2014 compared to the year before.
  • Ridesharing has created 10,000+ jobs for local Austinites.
  • 100 Million pooled trips have been taken in the U.S. since the program began, reducing carbon footprints and congestion on the roads.

Listing these three benefits takes only 51 words. They could have easily fit into this email template and gone the extra mile to convert customers into voters.

Concluding Thoughts

Please don’t mistake this campaign critique as a stance on Proposition 1. Personally, I feel conflicted. Even after doing the research, I’m still not exactly sure what “the big deal” is. I think there is a lot of water in the view that Uber and Lyft are being bullies. They could have used this campaigning opportunity in Austin to emphasize the benefits they bring to the city (many of them mentioned in this article) versus making this an immature fight between Austin government and ride-sharing services. At the end of the day, it’s the benefits that locals are going to be missing, which should have been the focus of the campaign story and where they, ultimately, spent their dollars.

As marketers, we would be remiss if we didn’t try to dissect, analyze and explain why a popular ride-sharing campaign, that was able to secure 26,320 petition signatures, was unable to successfully translate those signatures into Proposition 1 votes. Uber and Lyft collectively poured over eight million dollars into this campaign. And as you’ve seen, there are some significant communications gaps that, if closed, could have possibly made the short six percentage-point difference at the polls.

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