Uber, disruption, and content strategy

Sarah O'Keefe / Opinion6 Comments

I used Uber and lived to tell the tale. And I found a lesson for content strategy in my rides to and from the airport in San Francisco. Uber competes with taxi and car services. It is controversial and possibly disruptive.

From the customer’s point of view, Uber is an incredible improvement. It fixes all the bad things about the traditional taxi experiences—you get cashless transactions, a map on which you can watch your ride approach, and lower fares than taxis (sometimes). No tipping. Near-instant response.

But look a little deeper, and I’m troubled by the business model that seems unfair to taxi drivers, who have been thoroughly vetted and who paid a lot of money for their taxi licenses. Uber undercuts this model by providing the technology layer that connects drivers to riders, and arguing that they are not in fact a transportation company, only a match-maker for ride-sharing. The German government disagrees, and has banned some Uber services, as has the city of Portland, Oregon and several other jurisdictions around the world. Uber has also engaged in some…questionable…business strategies.

But my misgivings about using them were outweighed by the convenience and, critically, the strong recommendations from Val Swisher and Scott Abel, both of whom are Bay Area locals. After using Uber and emerging unscathed, I offer some lessons for content strategists:

  • The customer wants a good experience. They don’t really care about how you achieve the good experience. Your organizational problems are of no interest to the customer, only your interaction with the customer. A few companies have made their ethics a key reason to buy (Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s come to mind), but without an explicit story, customers will not make this connection on your behalf. (Possible content marketing strategy for taxi companies: Tell the story of their cabbies—the plucky immigrant who is living the American dream, the New York native who loves working on cars and knows all the back roads, and so on.)
  • Your regulatory problems are of little interest to me, er, them. (Possible exception: life-and-death content, such as medical information or aircraft maintenance information.) Uber has aggressively positioned taxi regulations as outdated and inconvenient. The taxi companies need to tell the story of why the regulations are necessary and good, such as launching a sustained campaign around Uber’s infamous surge pricing policy.
  • Banning your unauthorized competitor is probably not going to work. (It doesn’t work with Uber; it’s definitely not going to work with information.) So figure out how to accommodate illicit content as part of your strategy. Or improve your customer experience so that people don’t go looking for a (possibly sketchy) alternative. (Unauthorized translations by resellers come to mind. They usually happen when the content owner fails to make the content available in the needed languages.)

Uber is a cautionary tale for anyone who makes their living in a closed market.

After finishing this article on Friday afternoon (March 28) and scheduling it for publication on Monday morning, I received this email late Friday night:

They are your drivers, and we want to celebrate them. Meet the people behind the wheel who make it all possible. (Image of smiling driver.)

Well played, Uber. Well played.

About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe


Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

6 Comments on “Uber, disruption, and content strategy”

  1. “I’m troubled by the business model that seems unfair to taxi drivers, who have been thoroughly vetted and who paid a lot of money for their taxi licenses.”

    In some cities, this may be true. In Boston, however, the taxi medallion system is terribly corrupt, and Uber gives prospective drivers (some of whom are actually former taxi drivers!) a way to drive taxis and actually make a decent living, which they were not able to do via the traditional system.

    1. Hi Marli,
      Thanks for your comment. I did gloss over the difference between taxi drivers (Uber might provide for another opportunity) and taxi companies (Uber is bad bad BAD).

      I think the general point still stands, though. Why should Uber get to avoid jumping through all the hoops that a regular taxi company must go through? (We can argue about whether the hoops themselves are useful or not.)

  2. So glad you made it unscathed. I think that taxi companies should rethink their model. If they adopted a technological approach, such as Uber, they might do better. In fact, had taxi companies considered incorporating technology into their services years ago, Uber might not have completely disrupted their market. Instead, I think taxi companies are stuck in the old fashioned hail-a-cab or call (and you have no idea if or when the cab might show up) model. Plus, I’m personally tired of getting to my destination, only to have the driver tell me his credit card machine is broken. That happens all the time when I travel — a little sketchy, no?

    1. Yes, and there are a few taxi apps, but they don’t have widespread coverage. I I think that credit card acceptance might actually be the key factor. I *never* carry cash–unless I think I’m going to need a cash in NY or Chicago or something.

  3. One thing that sets taxis apart from Uber: taxis do not refuse to take service dogs. Some Uber drivers do, not understanding that if they are providing a public service, they are required to follow the ADA. And while Uber (the company) has made noises about telling their drivers (who drive their own cars) to follow the laws, the drivers don’t always listen.

    BTW, I took a taxi from the Pittsburgh airport to my hotel last week and had an absolutely great driver. We talked about Seder and Jewish holidays; his daughter (who runs a publicity company in NYC); his service during WWII and Korea (he’s 82); different types of foods; places I should visit while I was there; and more. It ranks as one of my best taxi experiences.

    1. Interestingly, this is not a case where additional regulations are needed–the rules are the same for taxis and Uber. Uber drivers who refuse to transport service dogs are flat-out breaking the law–and I am sure that it’s possible to find a taxi driver who has done so, as well.

      In either case, the driver needs to be held accountable.

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