Tracking Amtrak Ad Dollars.

One of the giants in retailing—it may have been F. W. Woolworth himself—once said, “I know I’m wasting half of my advertising dollars. The trouble is, I don’t know which half.”
A couple of days ago, I mentioned Amtrak’s decision to stop staffing the railway station in Hastings, Nebraska, all part of the big-picture issue of cost-cutting. Since then, I’ve done some checking and turned up some related facts.
The population of Hastings is about 25,000. Obviously, it’s a small town, but I wondered about the surrounding area. So I contacted the Office of Economic Development in Hastings and asked if they had an educated guess as to how many people live within a 50-mile radius of Hastings. The answer came back within a few hours: about 200,000 people, they said.
Ah … now we’re talking! That’s a substantial number of people who are potential Amtrak customers. But how many of those people, I asked myself, even KNOW that the California Zephyr stops in Hastings? Up pops the retired ad man in me, suggesting we tell them in an occasional ad in the local newspapers. Maybe that would cause a significant number of those people to wake up to the fact that Amtrak is viable public transportation.
Let’s say we run an ad in the Hastings Tribune—that’s their local newspaper—with a very simple message:

Amtrak’s California Zephyr will take you there in comfort.
To Denver for just $48
To Chicago for only $71

I’ve discussed this issue with a number of people over the past few years. Amtrak spends a substantial amount of money—literally millions—on advertising in the major markets. But almost all are generic ads promoting the Amtrak brand. The only exceptions I’ve ever seen are ads specifically touting destinations you can reach by taking Northeast Corridor trains.
Since advertising space is very cheap, wouldn’t it be worth a few thousand dollars for Amtrak to run a six-month test campaign of small space ads in a couple of dozen of these small town newspapers?
Here’s the beauty of the scheme, Mr. Woolworth: If ridership goes up, we know it works!