Providing free, ad-supported Uber rides

Andrew Chen, famed startup investor, advisor, and mentor, reached out to me to help with a particular project he was working on — free ad-supported rides on Uber! If you don’t know who Andrew Chen is, it is worth doing a bit of research and discovering all the great content he’s put out over the years. So definitely, as a follower of his work, getting the chance to work with Andrew on a small project was an opportunity that I didn’t want to pass up!


The Summary

  • It's possible to subsidize expensive ridesharing services with advertising.

  • Created concept mockups for Andrew's ideas and added a video ad concept of my own!

  • Since this was for Andrew's blog, it never ended up being implemented, but I'm surprised it hasn't been done yet.


The Problem

How might we enable people to ride Uber for free?

As a concept, it was an interesting idea to explore, not just for Uber, but generally for all ridesharing services. They can get quite expensive at times (buying time and convenience is expensive!) and leveraging that as a way to subsidize rides through advertising is a real tangible business opportunity.


The Customer

Uber has built a broad customer base in many markets across the world. When you have such scale, it is difficult to pinpoint just a single persona. The feature itself, to use ads to subsidize rides, can apply to all of Uber's customers. It's the specific ads themselves that would have to be targeted using the typical marketing segmentation.


What are their goals?

In general, Uber users are trying to get from point A to point B, without taking their personal vehicle, or using other forms of mobility. The big benefit of ridesharing services is that it's also on-demand, so people don't have to wait for particular times, or fit within a schedule.

What are their pain points?

Simply put, ridesharing is expensive! Especially when surge pricing is in effect, the prices can be astronomical.


The Idea

The first thing to do of course was to sit down and discuss what he had in mind. At the outset of any project, you need to know some fundamental things to help get the creative juices flowing. As part of this is also trying to gather some basic requirements. I mainly try to get enough info to get started and help focus the brainstorming activities.


The basic idea was that ridesharing services (like Uber) could offer free rides by sponsoring someone’s ride and show advertising in the app. After meeting with Andrew, I went right into brainstorming and sketching on my own. Waiting too long to generate ideas may mean that important contextual information gets forgotten. So it’s best to brainstorm ideas when everything is still fresh in your mind. When sketching I always start with rough ideas and concepts, and move to more specific things later on.

Of course not every idea makes it from brainstorming to mockups, and it’s better to focus and zero in on the right concepts. So I decided to focus on simplicity to help design something appropriate for ads on mobile devices. Furthermore, visually, the ads shouldn’t appear as something different. They should look like they’re part of the app, designed with right intent.

Also, the more I worked on the visual design, it became clear how I could use consistency to help focus the interface on the right things. The visual design went through a few iterations. I sent earlier versions to Andrew for review, and I just kept working and iterating on it till things got more simple and straightforward.


The Implementation

After sketching, I pretty much just jumped right in to mockups. This was primarily just a concept for Andrew's blog, so not much more needed to be done to make it an actual product...


The Outcome

It was really great getting to work with Andrew on developing this concept, and creating some visual aids for what he was writing about. The blog post went out on schedule and I gained some additional Twitter followers (hey, social currency is better than no currency… :P). While I don’t recommend doing unpaid work in general, when someone you admire asks is interested in working together, it’s a good idea to find ways to work with them! I even got a shout out in the blog post!


The Takeaways

Ad-supported rides can be an interesting topic for ridesharing. People obviously appreciate the convenience of summoning a car wherever and whenever they need one. But if you ask many ridesharing customers (even though I didn't do any research for this project), I'm sure that people would say that the cost of ridesharing is one of the main issues.  Perhaps in reality, free rides might be out of the question, but this kind of thing could at the very least help subsidize rides, especially during surge pricing times, as a way to bring the cost down.

If I were to continue on this project, I would probably mock this up in a prototype of some kind to be able to test the concepts with people. Getting some feedback on this would be really interesting to gauge perception. If there was enough positive sentiment, then I think it would be safe to proceed with rolling it out to a limited set of users. Especially with the scale that Uber has, event testing with 1% of customers would be a huge number of people and it would be a great way to evaluate and continue the evolution of this concept.