Scootin’ into the Danger Zone: On Bird, Marketing, and Moving too Fast

amy lipner
May 1, 2018 · 7 min read
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Photo by dan carlson on Unsplash

For the past two weeks or so, a day hasn’t gone by that I haven’t talked about the scooter situation here in San Francisco. Haven’t heard of it? TL;DR 3 companies with over $200 million in funding unleashed a cadre of motorized scooters on the streets (mostly sidewalks) of San Francisco. The press has been overwhelmingly negative. And my anecdotal evidence has supported this.

There’s a lot to dissect here: for-profit companies profiting off of public goods, questions of regulation, government buy-in, and where investments are made (and where they aren’t). But I’m not up for that task right now. Catch me another time.

The task I AM up for? Being curious and googling. Specifically putting on my copywriter goggles (they’re like beer goggles but with words) to see how the well-funded, lead scooty-pie (Bird) has been using brand voice, narrative, and conversion copywriting principles on their homepage to combat the deluge of negative press.

And what did I find? A company that isn’t doing much when it comes to web copy to clean up its shitstorm (literal and figurative).

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Full disclosure: I haven’t taken a ride on one of these babies yet. But I feared injury at the hands of two women engrossed in conversation on the Gough sidewalk as they whizzed by. And I spend all my time crafting brand voices and writing personality-drive copy for B2C companies. So I’m qualified. *Knuckle crack.*

First of all, let me just say that homepages are tough. They are catering to a whole swath of viewers including existing customers, prospects, journalists, PR professionals, and the voyeur (aka asshole writers). But at their core, they should quickly be directing the viewer to the place they need to go.

We Need a Hero: Case of the Missing Headline

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There really isn’t a ton to ride (sic) home about here in the hero section. It’s your basic Silicon Valley empty headline/tagline. Well, wait. There isn’t actually a headline. Because the name of your company isn’t a headline. “Enjoy the ride” is fine. It feels very startup-y — mediocre, rather toothless, and totally lacking in any differentiation. But it’s not terrible. Oh and there’s a CTA (call to action) to download the app. Which is great. Really, it is. It’s clear and direct, that’s all we need.

An Electrically Existential Endeavor

Next, we’re presented with a quickie section about the scooter share. Or as Bird calls it, Electric Vehicle Sharing. Interesting. TBH, I don’t know enough to know why they aren’t just calling them scooters here. Because to me, an electric vehicle is also an electric car. But, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt here, maybe it’s a regulatory thing? Dunno. Enlighten me. But if it’s not, there’s no need to confuse your user. Be direct. If it’s a scooter, call it a fucking scooter.

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Anyways, I guess this section is about the features of the Bird. “Find a Bird Nearby” “Ride Anywhere” “$1 to Start.” Copy lesson here: A lot of writers will tell you to only focus on the benefits and not the features. Benefits being the reason a product/service will improve a customer’s life, whereas features are the specs and facts about a product. I hold the belief that good copy includes both.

The real problem with this section is that Bird does not give us, their customer, a single reason about how or why the scooter would improve our lives. And there definitely are reasons, reasons like 1) sustainability; 2) easier commutes; 3) fun, etc, etc. Instead, we are presented with a rather flaccid list of features that force us (the user) to make our own connections about how our lives could be improved with a Bird. Another copy lesson? Don’t make your reader do the work.

Here’s a Bad Way to Show Your Interest

Ooo yeah. Then we get to my favorite section. The “working with cities” section. Ummmmmm. “…[I]f you are a city official and would like to partner with Bird please contact our city relations team today…” is the equivalent of inviting someone to your couch for a first date and telling them to bring the take-out. And the wine. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, please.

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How much better would this section sound if it was phrased that “we are actively working (or trying to work, as the truth may be) with city officials to make transportation better and more environmentally friendly.” Instead, this actually puts the ONUS on cities to kowtow to an early stage startup. And nearly every article I’ve read, this is a reflection of the Bird approach. “Go fast. Break things.” And as a Bay Area resident, this is exactly how I’ve felt watching the scooters whiz by. The streets are Bird’s to claim, the city can clean up the mess.

But applause (I guess) for addressing this critical PR issue up front. Making the choice to put a section like this on their homepage is likely an attempt to build customer confidence and assuage concerns. Which is fantastic. But if you’re going to do it, be better. Write better. Think critically. Present something that will actually make a difference in the court of public opinion. Because the tone of this section makes it very easy for users to advance the story of a startup that sees cities as a nuisance.

But, Who Are You, Really?

There’s a lot that’s missing. But what feels especially obvious is the lack of personality and warmth on the site. This is a B2C products company, which means that personality-driven copy is paramount. The tone taken on the site can be best described as short and hurrying. So much so that there isn’t even an About Page (the second most visited page on any website). And for a company embroiled in a PR crisis, one would think building customer support is critical. It’s an easy opportunity to build rapport and trust. Two things needed most at this juncture.

And what’s especially interesting is the contrast of the web copy compared to Bird’s Instagram. A peppy, lighthearted, if not homogenous feed. But overall, it’s good. The images have a consistently bright and happy feel that match the tone of the captions, including a cutesy #lovebird hashtag (a hashtag never introduced on the website). Compare that against the tone of the Bird homepage and I have to ask, “whatever happened to predictability?” Or at least a consistent brand voice?

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In one Instagram post, a car is being towed and the caption says “Car problems? Don’t worry @bird has your back.” And that’s a great point to make to your users — that you have far fewer responsibilities and worries when you use a Bird. But this sort of benefit is nowhere to be found on their website. Instead, it’s just softly presented on Instagram. And it’s here where I have to wonder how different the rollout could have been if the Bird team had done some critical thinking about how to communicate the ways in which these scooters could actually help people and cities. And likely that thinking has been done, but from the view of this city, it certainly doesn’t feel like much.

I always bristle at the idea that companies like Bird aren’t thinking about the consequences of their products. And the terrible rollout of these scooters seem to be just that. Because when city residents (your prospective users) are gleefully vandalizing your products, something isn’t right. And in the rush to be first to market, it certainly feels like companies, like Bird, forgot to think about their user.

I think many of the copy problems with the Bird website are baked into the antiquated Silicon Valley ethos of “it’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” ​​​​​​​Because good copywriting, like good branding, has to stem from a central guiding principle. But the only guiding principle I get from Bird and their copy is that caveman rumble of “we’re here to disrupt.” And fuck, I am tired of it.

And yet, the pieces were and maybe still are there. An electric scooter IS environmentally friendly. Bike riding CAN be annoying if you have to go long distances and don’t want to get gross and sweaty. Scooters like Vespas are terrifying to ride if you don’t have the training. The pieces of a powerful narrative are all available, but it’s about presentation and intention. Good marketing can’t (and shouldn’t) fix a product that comes to the table gutted. And customers are expecting something with more life. And a beating heart.

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