Image from WMATA.

Yesterday afternoon, subscribers to WMATA’s MetroAlerts across the region got an alert advising them of dire service impacts that could affect their commute: a discount on tickets to a basketball tournament.

As you can imagine, many found the spam message irritating, and Twitter lit up with snarky responses. MetroAlerts is, of course, a tool meant to alert riders to disruptions in service. These alerts can be valuable in helping riders choose an alternate route or leave earlier or later to avoid delays. What riders don’t expect are spam emails, which have absolutely nothing to do with alerting customers to potential problems, and are a waste of time for Metro’s customers.

One of the reasons yesterday’s “alerts” message generated some angst on Twitter among riders is probably that many riders, especially on the Red Line, faced some delays during the morning rush. Many riders complained that alerts were slow to come out. And then a few hours later, WMATA sent them an “alert” they didn’t need.

No one who visits the MetroAlerts website would expect these spam emails. According to the webpage, MetroAlerts sends out the following information:

  • Major Metrorail and Metrobus delays and service disruptions
  • Metrobus schedule changes and detours
  • Metrorail advisories specific to your line or frequently used stations
  • Other changes or enhancements to Metro service and facilities

Advertisements aren’t part of the package.

Why spam riders?

It’s not entirely clear what Metro thinks riders get out of this spam. Clearly some MetroAlerts subscribers are basketball fans. Maybe they’ll appreciate the discounted tickets to the BB&T Classic. But most riders don’t care about the Classic in the least.

These alerts aren’t targeted toward anyone, like basketball fans, for example. It’s just mass advertising sent out to a large group in the hope that someone will find it helpful.

It doesn’t appear Metro gets anything out of it, either. I asked spokesperson Dan Stessel whether the organizations promoted in the alert compensate Metro for the use of their email lists and alert system. He says Metro doesn’t get paid for these. According to Stessel, “these are in-kind promotions for the benefit of riders; generally barter only.”

Perhaps what Metro ends up getting out of this is some additional ridership. Some of those riders that got the alert that do like basketball might buy tickets (at a discount!) and then take Metro to the event.

But using untargeted alerts like this seems like a very crude way to promote ridership or create value for riders.

After all, what percentage of MetroAlerts subscribers are basketball fans? Even if it’s a high number, like 25%, what percentage will actually buy tickets to this event? For the rest of the subscribers, this is an irritant. And it’s more likely to make them unsubscribe from MetroAlerts.

Opting out

I also asked Stessel what discussions Metro staff had about the appropriateness of using the alerts system for promoting unrelated events. He didn’t answer directly, but he did point out that people have to opt in to receive the promotions.

It’s fairly easy to opt out. Riders just need to log into their account and uncheck the box labeled “promotions.” But it’s not a matter of opting in. The “promotions” box is checked by default (along with the “alerts” and “advisories” boxes).

Anyone who registered for MetroAlerts before the addition of “advisories” and bus alerts would have registered before Metro added “promotions.” Stessel said that subscribers were notified by email of the change at the time.

Alerts are for alerting, not advertising

In the world today, we have many different forms of communication for emergency alerts. Most state departments of transportation have electronic signs, especially in urban areas. They’re frequently used to broadcast messages about travel times, traffic accidents, construction, and Amber Alerts. But they’re not used to advertise discounted basketball tickets.

Spamming riders with promotions unrelated to Metro service reduces the value of MetroAlerts and it wastes riders’ time. It also creates the perception that Metro is out of touch with what riders want. After all, if people liked spam, email services wouldn’t have created spam filters.

In the future, transit riders need timely alerts that actually help riders during disruptions so they can have a smooth commute, rather than junk mail.

Tagged: metro, transit, wmata

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Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Dupont Circle. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.