Uber’s Bus Driver Strike Promotion Worked Even Without a Strike

The company offered kids rides to school even as the buses went back into business.

It’s a sign that Uber has found a marketing strategy that’s taken hold when users begin coming up with their promotions for them. Yesterday, we saw a bunch of people suggest Uber offer free rides to students stranded because of the surprise school bus drivers’ strike. Uber, an app that allows you to hail and pay for black cars and cabs with your phone, is always offering free rides pegged to the news to lure in new customers and demonstrate its commitment to social good. (Stranded at Washington Navy Yard after a devastating shooting? Uber’s got you covered!) So, except that we usually think of Uber users as yuppie bankers on Android phones—not public school kids—this fiasco seemed almost too perfect an opportunity.

Unfortunately, this strike was a bit sudden and unpredictable, and offering rides to an entire city’s school kids is complicated. So by the time Uber announced that they would in fact offer the free trips to BPS kids and families, the buses were basically back in business. Uber Boston’s community manager began tweeting out the promo at about 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, which was never going to offer the parents of school children a lot of time to discover and download a newfangled app in time for school the next day, even if the bus hadn’t come on time Wednesday morning anyway.

Uber will be ready if negotiations between the city and the drivers break down. But otherwise, it’s the promotion that wasn’t. (Think of all the other companies’ clever on-the-news promos that’ll have to be tabled thanks to the sudden start and quick resolution of the strike. Dunkin, put down the pen and stop the “Wake up early to get your kid to school? Have coffee on us” sign you were designing. Boston Sports Clubs, step away from the “Kids Stuck in the House? Escape to the Gym” ad you had ready to go on the cover of Thursday’s Herald. You’re going to have to stick with whatever boring old government shutdown promo you had planned before this.)

In a way, Uber wins anyway. They don’t have to pay their drivers to truck around an entire city of school kids, though perhaps a few still took advantage of the free rides. And sure, they lose out on the opportunity to convert those customers, who are probably outside the demographic they attracted back when they launched as a reasonably expensive black car service. (They now have cabs and ride share options.) And yet, on Twitter, even as the buses roll around the city, people continue to tweet admiring things about the company.

Just the idea that Uber would step in to clean up a mess when normal structures break down is impressive to people (and perhaps to a city government that usually gives Uber a hard time.) Uber wins: no free rides required.