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Why fintech startups love advertising on the New York City subway

  • TransferWise, SoFi and Venmo may be investing in digital financial products, but they're reaping the benefits of print advertising.
  • TransferWise's messaging has changed from one that charged at the legacy banks to one that empathizes with its customers.
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Why fintech startups love advertising on the New York City subway

For the last two months, money transfer startup TransferWise has been trying to connect with people stuck on the train during the New York City subway’s “summer of hell.”

For a consumer fintech startup, it’s the perfect place to put some advertising dollars. TransferWise has built its business around the ability to let people send money overseas at a low cost. Sixty percent of its users are immigrants; 40 percent are American-born. Its employees represent more than 50 countries. Its user base and prospective customer pool looks a lot like the people of New York.

“We serve people who have a connection overseas,” said Kate Huyett, TransferWise’s North America growth lead. “New York has the densest population of foreign-born people.”

Even if they’re American-born, theres still a chance they moved to New York from someplace else. TransferWise wants to send the message that it celebrates that diversity.

“We wanted to show New Yorkers we understand them,” said Colby Brin, a senior writer at the company. “We had a message that resonated with people who weren’t native New Yorkers but had made themselves New Yorkers because they moved from a different state or different country.”

Skyline

 

The company didn’t specify the size of its marketing budget, but Huyett said it needs to stretch those dollars as wide as it can — and subway ads are the best way to do that. TransferWise bought the smallest package that the MTA offers, which gives the company 1,000 cards that are distributed across the trains. With that option, she said, the MTA doesn’t give the company any say in how the ads are placed or distributed.

TransferWise did, however, choose whether to run the ads on the trains or along the platform walls.

“We felt on the platform, the ad would be behind people,” Huyett said. “When you’re in the car you’re a captive audience for a longer time, so there’s the possibility that someone sees them and pays closer attention to them.”

The subway is a hot destination for startups in general, looking to stretch their marketing budgets. E-commerce startups like Thinx and Casper both love advertising on the subway, calling them “conversation starters” and a way to be in a city where “trends are set.” They’re also effective, say these companies: David Zhang, Casper’s CMO, told Tearsheet’s sister site, Digiday that subway ads are highly effective to target local audience because when riders get stuck on the train, they have nowhere to look except at those ads.

Three years ago Venmo ran an ad campaign around the New York subway featuring an everyday millennial called “Lucas” (who, it turns out, was a Venmo engineer). Venmo’s message to subway riders was the same (although less nostalgic and bittersweet): we do the same things you do, we understand you. The campaign sparked a lot of frustration and confusion for consumers — but the company was engaging with them. Venmo was unavailable to comment for this story.

Earlier this year SoFi, the financial everything provider for millennials, also ran an ad campaign on the New York subway for its SoFi at Work product.

“The subway is a really cost-efficient medium from a reach and frequency standpoint,” said Margi Brown, SoFi’s vp of marketing and media. “It has allowed us to amplify our message to a commuter audience with a very specific message — keeping it simple and easily consumable.”

TransferWise, based in London, has raised about $117 million in funding to date from VC heavy hitters like Andreessen Horowitz, Ballie Gifford and Peter Thiel. Earlier this year it launched its “Borderless” online bank account for businesses and freelancers.

TransferWise’s language and tone have changed a lot since it first launched its U.S. operations, in 2015. Back then, its subway ads were more combative against the banks.

transferwise2014-1

 

The change is in keeping with the broader shift among consumer fintech startups, which initially came out charging toward the legacy banks with the intention of disrupting them. That attitude has since calmed as both sides embrace a more collaborative approach bringing banks and fintechs together.

transferwise2014-2

 

When asked to comment about the change in tone, TransferWise highlighted the changing political environment in the U.S.

“Given what’s happening in the U.S. right now, we want to show immigrant communities that we empathize with their journeys,” Huyett said. “And more generally, we feel it’s important to begin communicating one of our core values, which is that we believe the world is a better place when people, money and ideas move freely. It’s something we will talk about more and more in the future.”

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