Full disclosure: I don’t like electric scooters.
Believe me, I wanted to. My coworkers liked them, young people liked them, and the longer they stuck around the more I felt like Old Man Buggy Whip complaining about the horseless carriage. Maybe my time would be better spent chiseling my own headstone: “HERE LIES ALEX MATTINGLY AND HIS ILL-CONSIDERED OPINIONS.”
But now that they’re gone from Indianapolis, I kind of miss them. And what I’ve started to realize is I don’t necessarily dislike the scooters. I just really dislike the way the scooter companies operate. And given the complete clustercuss that was their short-lived tenure in our city, I think it’s fair to say the mistakes they made can teach us some valuable lessons about marketing.
Lesson 1: Consumer Education is Your Best Friend
The first time I encountered Bird scooters, I was biking to work along the Cultural Trail, the same route I always take. But one morning the scooters were just suddenly… there, in clusters of twos and threes, scattered along the sidewalk. It wasn’t until I Googled the company that I learned what they were, how the scooters worked, and the scale of their operation.
Clearly, people figured out how to use the scooters on their own. But Bird—and later, Lime—gave up the opportunity to educate consumers in their hurry to put scooters on the street. Even setting aside the safety concerns around handing scooters to people who may not understand the dangers, this approach depends on individuals seeking out information. A consumer conducting a quick Google search might end up on the Bird home page; but also perhaps somewhere far less flattering.
By skipping over consumer education, Bird and Lime both missed opportunities to introduce their products and to control the narratives surrounding them. Taking the time to educate consumers, on the other hand, can yield much more positive results.
Lesson 2: Know the Audiences You Need to Reach
If you did happen to make it to the website for Bird or Lime, you probably noticed that most of their messaging was geared toward potential customers. Which stands to reason—if the companies don’t sell their services, they don’t stay in business. But one of the keys to any successful messaging project is to identify the right audiences. And that’s where both companies whiffed.
To understand what I mean, let’s step back a second and look at one of the unique challenges these companies face: Without public infrastructure, their products are useless. Nobody’s going to rent an electric scooter if they can’t ride them on city streets or walkways.
But these streets and walkways are shared spaces that Bird and Lime cannot own or control. It’s not enough, then, for these companies to only speak to their own customers. They also have to win over the non-riders their customers share public spaces with.
Lime does a slightly better job here with some videos that make a fair case for how their products benefit cities overall. Bird makes a much more confusing mess of things with their “Save Our Sidewalks Pledge,” which is an imaginary contract ostensibly aimed at other electric scooter company CEOs, but which is clearly intended to be a consumer-facing statement of corporate responsibility.
But neither one makes a very compelling case to non-riders for why these scooters should be tolerated en masse on public property. That’s a pretty big problem for companies who regularly tangle with city governments. Without public pressure, city officials have little reason to regulate in favor of the scooters. And since Bird and Lime did little to win over non-riders, they had fewer allies when the City of Indianapolis decided to kick them out before finally settling on fee structures that surely can’t be called scooter-friendly.
Lesson 3: Smash-and-Grab is Not a Long-Term Strategy
Indianapolis is not the first city to tangle with an electric scooter company. Or the second. Or the third. In fact, when you look at the way these companies operate, legal disputes seem to be baked into the business model. In order to make money, it appears, companies like Bird attempt to move in and cash out as quickly as possible, recouping expenses before sluggish city governments are able to adequately respond.
It’s not a bad way to make money, assuming you plan to close up shop after hitting a handful of cities. But like a bank robber who swears he’ll stop after one last big score, Bird and Lime just can’t seem to help themselves, moving into city after city and racking up more bad press as they go. About the only clear winners here are the personal injury lawyers enjoying an influx of clients.
The frustrating part is there’s no real reason for these mistakes. There’s no reason Bird, Lime, or any other electric scooter company couldn’t take more care to educate consumers, work with city governments, and win over non-riders. It’s just not what a smash-and-grab model demands. And since neither Bird nor Lime appears to be cashing out to retire in the Bahamas, you can expect their bad decisions to keep catching up with them.
It’s a tough old world out there for business start-ups, but bad marketing makes it a whole lot tougher. Some companies have to learn the hard way—but there’s no reason yours does. Cut yourself a break and talk to us first.