Streets for People / The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – A Dozen Marketing Things KW Transit Can Do to Increase Ridership

By Chris Hamilton. This story was written for and published by KONK Life on April 9, 2021 and is reprinted here with permission.

There’s no substitute for frequent and simple service, but studies show that you can get a 10 to 30 percent increase in the investment of putting bus service on the street by doing some simple and relatively inexpensive things. Things like reaching out to people and educating them about the service and how to use it, (you’d be surprised at the number of people who are intimidated about using a bus), and explaining where it goes and how often. Likewise branding and marketing can enhance existing riders experience and attract new riders to try the system. 

Market research also indicates that once someone tries a product, they are more likely to come back. But you’ve got to get them to try it first. With this in mind, we’d like to suggest to our friends at Key West Transit that they take this marketing thing way more seriously. And so, begins our story of the good, the bad and the ugly of Key West Transit marketing and our dozen suggestions for improvement.

The Good

Take out your smart phone and type in www.kwtransit.com in your browser. Up pops up an easy-to-use app-like interface that shows you the nearby bus stops with real-time arrival information for each of them. Choose a bus route, like Duval Loop and then press the nearest bus stop and up will pop the arrival time of the next bus. I live on the Duval Loop route, so this works well. Test it out. We’re sure you’ll be impressed. 

The Bad

A couple years ago Key West Transit was approached by the wonderful folks at Key West Finest to be included in their popular On Duval Guide and Off Duval Guide. The guides, which always sported a map, now included the Duval Loop route and stops and an ad explaining the service. In addition, Key West Finest included Key West Transit’s Duval Loop and other bus routes in their racks all across the island. Key West Finest even offered the services of their 230,000 strong Facebook family. But alas, we are told KW Transit ended the partnership. Key West Finest didn’t know why, and we didn’t get a response from KW Transit. This is bad because it is precisely the kind of partnership the transit agency needs to do to stretch its marketing to the fullest. We’ll come back to this, but suffice it to say, Key West Transit needs more partners like the On Duval and Off Duval guides, not less.

The Ugly 

Type in www.kwtransit.com on your regular desktop computer, in any browser. Go ahead. We’ll wait. Ugly, right? If they had websites in the 1980’s, this is what they’d look like. No branding. Very little information. Click on schedules and you get sent to the City’s web site. Once at the City site you’ll then find additional information about fares, rules, etc. but you won’t find that information unless you are lucky enough to stumble onto the City’s site. It is badly organized, hard to use and downright ugly.

One Dozen Things Key West Transit Can Do to Better Market Themselves 

Branding, marketing, outreach and education isn’t done as a means unto themselves but rather to get butts in seats. That means less cars on the road and that’s the the goal, right? Good communications leverage the investment in the service itself and gets you more riders per dollar of investment. The Small Business Administration says that companies should spent between seven and 12 percent of an annual budget on marketing. Our cursory look at Key West Transit’s budget shows that promotions barely register and most of that is in the hardware and software needed to run the real-time bus information. Suffice it to say, a lot more resources need to be allocated here. But we’ll reiterate that this isn’t a big expense. These are all relatively inexpensive and cost-effective solutions:

1 – Brand the Enterprise 

Bring in some professionals and brand the entire enterprise. The North and South City Lines, the Lower Keys Shuttle and the Duval Loop. Are they all distinct services of the same Key West Transit family? What brings them all together? FDOT paid South Florida Commuter Services and an ad agency (the wonderful Diaz Cooper) to come in and brand the Duval Loop from the website, to the buses, to the bus stops. It was a job well done. (Here’s the story.) Time to do it for the whole agency.

2 – Develop a Marketing Plan

Now do the same for the whole shebang. Once the professionals have gotten the branding straightened out, develop a marketing plan that is tied to the fiscal year and budget. 

3 – Create a Communications or Public Relations Center

The agency is too big and important to not have its own communications point person. This is a different skill and practice than marketing, but these days, especially with social media, they go hand in hand. Think of this as the system’s own, part-time Alyson Crean, who does such an amazing job for the Key West Police. We won’t belabor the point, but Key West Transit has had a problem with a lack of transparency. Part of communications means putting out reports on ridership, budgets, what’s been done well, and what can be done better. Importantly, having a communications arm allows Key West Transit to share how it wants the system to grow in the future and what is needed to get there. It creates advocates! Lack of transparency sow’s mistrust. 

4 – Ask Existing Customers to Spread the Good Word

To its credit, the Duval Loop has a 4.5 out of 5 rating and is ranked #2 of 11 services in the Key West Transportation (mostly private rental services) category off of 123 reviews on TripAdvisor. This is good news. Make a big deal of this. Ask customers through in-bus advertising to share their experience on TripAdvisor and other rating services and on their own social media. And these positive comments should be shared on kwtransit.com and its social media channels. (Of course, that means redoing the website and starting some social media…)

5 – Rebuild the Key West Transit Web Site

Yes, the mobile version of the website is quick and easy to use, but for the other 50% of people who often use a traditional desktop instead of a mobile device, the current Key West Transit website doesn’t build confidence in the system. There’s a number of good firms on the island, like Wonderdog Studios KW or Duval Street Media, who could rebuild the site in a jiffy. Let’s do it! 

6 – Do Social Media

Hard to believe but Key West Transit doesn’t have its own social media presence. It isn’t like they need to be everywhere, all the time, but come on now, at least get a Facebook page. This is low-hanging fruit these days. We don’t even need to elaborate.

7 – Reach Key West Workers Through Their Employers

Employers can influence how their employees get to work – use the connection to get more people riding the bus. In transportation demand management (TDM) research, the number one strategy for influencing commute behavior is working with employers. Key West Transit should develop an easy-to-use portal on their new website for employers to become partners with the agency. KW Transit can provide each employer with a big map of the transit system/info to display in a break room with bus schedules. They can provide discounted passes for the City Lines and Lower Keys Shuttle.

8 – Reach Key West Visitors Through Hotels, Inns, B&Bs and Vacation Rental Companies

Without fail one of the first questions front-desk and concierge people get asked is how do I get around? Rather than have these folks send these customers looking for rental cars and rental scooters wouldn’t it be nice if their first instinct was to share information about the Duval Loop and other buses? But in order for this to occur KW Transit needs to make it easy to do so by providing lots of map and schedule information. Perhaps a framed route map on the wall or something that can be laid out on the desk. Simple take-one boxes that are constantly restocked and reminders of the website address so people can type it into their smartphone. Hotel staff have a million other things to do, so make it easy on them. Join the Lodging Association and attend their events.

9 – Develop a Strong Ground Game

Look around town for some great examples of a strong ground game. Start with each of the major water sports companies or the aforementioned Key West Finest. They all have excellent maps and brochures. Their people make sure these are stocked at all the lodging across the island. Their people regularly visit lodging staff to make sure they have information and are up to date on the latest offering and specials. Copy this approach and do it in-house or hire it out as there are a number of companies that specialize in this. That way KW Transit can reach the employers, lodging and retail people to carry the system’s information to the potential end users.

10 – Partner with Others

 At the top of this story, we talked about “the Bad” of KW Transit dropping the seemingly one partnership they’d actually developed, with Key West Finest ‘On Duval Guide’ and ‘Off Duval Guide.’  KW Transit should have their routes, especially the Loop, on as many of the maps and guides around town as possible. Don’t expect companies to simply do this as a public service. KW Transit must barter, trade, and pay to get there. A partnership is a two-way street and that way everyone wins. Make sure KW Transit are members of and active participants in the Lodging Association, the Business Guild, the Chamber, Mom n Pop Key West and others.


11 – Put Information at the Bus Stops

You thought we’d forget about this one? The point of purchase – or the bus stop – is one of the best places to sell the product. But you actually have to put map and schedule information at every stop. You have to brand the stop as part of the system, so it looks like the bus, the website and marketing materials. As well as a sign that tells you what route this is. This isn’t being done at even a rudimentary level. It needs to. Read the whole story here: The Sorry State of Key West Bus Stops for the full story.

12 – Promote ALL Alternatives to the Car, Not Just the Bus

Studies show that transportation choice and options are what people want. Those who use one form of alternative transportation, like a bike, are more likely to want to use another mode, like the bus, or a scooter or Uber, Lyft and taxis or a even a vanpool. So Key West Transit should promote and provide information for all alternative modes and become an Alternative Transportation Agency. Perhaps KW Transit can take over the forgotten Car-Free Key West web site and Facebook page. People today often like to make one-way trip decisions, perhaps taking the bus in to work and catching a taxi home. Being a one-stop shop for all the alternatives to driving is a way to lift ridership on the bus.

A Small Investment Leverages Big Rewards

As we said out the outset, nothing would move the needle on increasing ridership more than Key West Transit finally instituting free, frequent and simple service. But research also tells us that you get more use out of whatever service you put on the street if you market it well. This is something Key West Transit doesn’t do at all. It needs to start now. And if their management says they don’t have the money, then the City leaders need to allocate it. Doing otherwise is pennywise and pound foolish.

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You can find all the KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and and here (non-paywall) recent stories below:

Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

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