How Mobility and Social Media Will Change the Industry

By Rachel Levy Sarfin

Technology has changed virtually everything we do, from the way we run our businesses to how we communicate with family and friends. So, it should come as no surprise that it has had an impact on parking. The twin phenomena of social media and mobility have had an especial effect on this space.

Social media and mobility have had an influence on parking in Canada, and Canadians are also using these two forms of technology to improve the way we find parking spots and the way we park. The Canadians profiled in this article are using technology to change the way drivers in Canada and around the world park.

If It’s Not on Facebook, It Isn’t True: Social Media and Parking

Some things have not changed, in spite of technology. If you park well, no one will notice, let alone single you out for praise. On the other hand, a bad parking job would merit you a nasty note on the windshield in the days before social media. In today’s world, you would be lucky just to receive an angry Post-It. More likely, a picture of your vehicle will be posted on popular social networking sites for the entire world to see.

Edmonton residents Daniel Huber and Brian LaBelle have harnessed the power of social media to shame drivers who park terribly. In 2014, restaurateur Huber created a Facebook group called “D-BAG ParkJobs.” The group gives metro Edmonton area drivers the opportunity to upload pictures of poorly parked cars to Facebook and write snarky comments.

Shortly thereafter, his friend LaBelle, a certified child and youth counsellor, decided to start a Twitter account devoted to the same subject. The handle is @DBagParkingYEG. Calgary residents began sending in photos, too. LaBelle then launched Twitter accounts for other cities so Canadians across the country could share photographic proof of terrible parking in their own locales.

What was the appeal of Twitter? “I just thought that pictures and the ability to scroll up and down on your phone was really useful,” LaBelle replied. Apparently, many people agreed. Huber’s Facebook group has over 2,000 members; LaBelle’s Twitter account has over 4,700 followers.

For the time being, LaBelle and Huber plan on sticking to Facebook and Twitter to shame drivers of badly parked cars. There are other social media platforms that would also be appropriate for this goal, though. LaBelle believes that the photo sharing site Instagram will probably be the next venue for the pair’s social media presence.

LaBelle emphasized that both the Facebook group and the Twitter account devoted to shaming bad parking jobs began as a joke. “When we started, it was all just about making fun [of badly parked cars],” he recounted. And there is not much either Huber or LaBelle need to do to keep either social media presence going. “It really doesn’t take that much time or effort,” LaBelle commented. “It’s crowdsourced. People are constantly uploading this stuff.” The only difficulty LaBelle has found is writing jokes. “It’s a challenge to come up with funny things to say about the same parking job,” he remarked.

On a serious note, there has been a positive impact. “People have said they’ve started parking conscientiously,” LaBelle noted. He added that a social media user published a comment that he would begin parking as though he had small children in the car, as a result of something a mother posted about driving with small children in the rear of a vehicle.

Calgary has experienced another benefit of Huber and LaBelle’s social media campaigns. LaBelle explained that residents of that city now upload photos of badly parked cars that are in violation of the law to the municipal parking authority’s website. The information contained in the photo, such as the location and the car’s license plate, is enough for the parking authority to send the car’s owner a ticket without having to send an employee to the site. Using technology to ticket offenders saves the municipality money.

The spotlight social media shines can have a negative effect on efforts to encourage drivers to park well, though. “On the flip side, people are looking for attention,” LaBelle acknowledged. “And they will park like an ass on purpose.”

The Hottest Spot in Town: Parking and Mobility

When the average person thinks about parking, he or she most likely focuses on it from a consumer’s point of view: drive somewhere and search for a spot. Until recently, not many people looked at the issue of parking from the perspective of a shopkeeper or a business owner.

Enter Phillip Curley and his business, HotSpot Parking. HotSpot Parking is a merchant-facing solution that aims to make parking easier for their customers. It launched in October 2013. “Traditional solutions focus on consumers,” Curley stated. “Merchants are the biggest stakeholders in parking. Consumers have options. Merchants are stuck downtown and need parking to work for them.”

Curley developed the idea after speaking to local businesses in Fredericton, NB. “I just had a keen interest in downtown health, honestly,” he commented. “I met a few retailers hanging around coffee shops and the rest is history.”

“HotSpot acts as a check in point for consumers,” Curley explained. HotSpot sells a wireless transmitter to merchants, called an iBeacon. When someone parks at an electronic meter, the driver pays for the spot using HotSpot’s free app on his or her smartphone. Upon entering a business equipped with HotSpot’s iBeacon, the customer will automatically receive a targeted message on their smartphone. Curley added that this message could be that the store will pay for the customer’s parking, or it could be a coupon or other offer to entice the customer to spend a longer amount of time (and more money) in the store.

HotSpot is not just a boon for local businesses; it bills itself as being an easy-to-use solution for municipalities. According to Curley, the technology seamlessly integrates with any current electronic meters a city uses. The only thing municipalities need to do is to place a numbered sticker (provided by HotSpot) on existing meters and kiosks. Parking enforcement officers are given a mobile handheld device into which they enter the vehicle’s license plate number. A message will tell them whether the driver has paid for parking or not.

Curley believes that many types of businesses will benefit from HotSpot’s technology. “Bars need to make sure you don’t get parking ticket next morning,” he said. “Lawyers and banks need to make sure no one runs out during mortgage or divorce proceedings.” Businesses that use HotSpot can override parking meter time limits for an hour or more in order to provide a better customer experience.

The company makes money off of the sale of iBeacons to businesses. Curley is targeting smaller cities. His strategy has been to markets that are “underserved” by parking solution providers. Curley has seen this plan pay off. “We’ve been pulled upstream to more aggressive and progressive cities,” he said.

As of the end of September 2014, six cities are using HotSpot’s technology. “Three are about to launch before December [2014],” Curley noted. What are the company’s founder’s plans for the future? “We’re looking at other major parking providers,” Curley responded. “The next step is offering this as a white label parking solution.” “White label” refers to a product that has been rebranded to appear as though another company offers it.

HotSpot will not neglect its original market: small business owners. “We’re going to be experts on merchants,” he declared. This segment also presents some challenges. “We spent the entire last year working with merchants,” Curley commented. “Every merchant has different needs. How do you reach merchants?” His goal is to connect with more merchants and convince them that HotSpot meets their customers’ parking needs.

Mobility will continue to play a significant role in parking, Curley predicted. He pointed to the stages of web development: Web1.0, Web 2.0 and Web 3.0. Web 1.0 is the first iteration of the World Wide Web. It was known as the “read-write” web; you could search for information and read about it, but users could not really contribute content to sites. Web 2.0 is not so much a leap forward from Web 1.0. Rather, it represents a set of design techniques. While Web 1.0 pages were static, Web 2.0 pages are constantly updated. Moreover, Web 2.0 pages are interactive, and Web 2.0 applications are open source.

Conversely, Web 3.0 does mark a sea change in how the Internet will work. Experts believe that Web 3.0 will offer users personalized search results, and it will be able to suggest things based on people’s preferences. “Parking is going to lead the way in Web 3.0,” Curley asserted. “Location matters to the functionality of web programs. Micro-location matters to apps. Mobile devices are important to this. We’ve used this to bridge to all of the other cool stuff in the world.”

Where Do You Park: The Intersection of Social Media and Mobility

Toronto native Alex Enchin had a problem: he knew where he wanted to find a parking spot, he knew how much he wanted to spend, but he could not find a spot in the area. Enchin spoke to parking lot attendants and performed online searches to hunt down his ideal place to park. “I concluded that there should be something to help find parking easily,” he commented.

Enchin’s struggle led to the birth of www.whereipark.com in June 2014. WhereiPark is a parking spot marketplace of sorts; companies and individuals can list available parking spots for rent and people searching for a parking spot can lease them. The people who have the parking spots can list them on the site for free. WhereiPark collects a fee from the individual or organization listing the spot only if someone rents it. The fee is equivalent to half of the first month’s rent.

“We’ve had an incredibly overwhelming response,” Enchin said. “The value proposition we offer is that there’s no risk. It’s all upside.” As of the end of September 2014, WhereiPark had 1,000 parking spots listed on its website. The response has been positive on both the demand and the supply side. “We’ve gotten great user feedback,” Enchin remarked. “People are really pleased with this offering.” Parking lot companies are also very interested in Enchin and business partner Jeremy Zuker’s idea. “Prospective clients say, ‘I can’t figure out why I wouldn’t do this,’” Enchin noted.

WhereiPark benefits parking lot operators as well as other businesses that have unused spots. Enchin explained that real estate companies that are listing commercial properties can advertise parking spots on the site and generate income while the property is still on the market.

Enchin and Zuker have been approaching parking lot operators as well as other owners of parking spots in Toronto about listing their unused spots. In addition, the duo embarked on an online advertising campaign. “We try and generate interest with search, display ads, SEO and social media,” Enchin said.

Another aspect of publicity is building up WhereiPark’s customer base. “We’re trying to create a loyalty and advocacy,” Enchin explained. “We’re creating a referral program [for customers].”

What do Enchin and Zuker have on the horizon? “We’re going to get into short term parking soon,” Enchin replied. The business partners will also continue to focus on overcoming the obstacles that their venture has thrown at them. “Any time you start something, how do you let people find out about it?” Enchin remarked. “One challenge is awareness. Getting [people] to change their behaviour is difficult. Navigating a fragmented parking market is difficult. Identifying smaller, non-commercial lots is difficult.”

In spite of the challenges, Enchin remains optimistic that social media and mobility technology will have a positive effect on parking in Canada, especially in Toronto. “Mobile gives you the ability to identify different places to park and tell your friends where to park,” he commented. “As mobile grows, you can ask friends where they park. It’s about being able to tap into your friends’ knowledge base.”

Canadians, Mobility, Social Media and Parking

In November 2014, the CBC featured a story about Canadian Internet usage. The Internet analytics firm comScore published a report stating that almost half of Canadians’ Internet access is through mobile devices, as opposed to through a PC. According to comScore, that number will rise. Canadians seem to be following a pattern set by our southern neighbours of spending more time online, performing such activities as checking Facebook.

Just how many Canadian adults have Internet access? Approximately 27.8 million as of August 2014, says comScore. That figure is higher than the total number of licensed drivers in the country – over 21.6 million Canadian adults in 2004 (the last available year for Transport Canada statistics).

The Canadian parking industry cannot afford to ignore the effect of technology, especially social media and mobility, on its core business. These particular innovations can help the industry, or they can hurt it.

WhereiPark is one example of how mobility and social media can provide a business opportunity for the owners of Canadian parking lots. This service allows them to advertise unused parking spots online, which consumers can share through their social media. Drivers and businesses alike benefit from this service.

HotSpot Parking is another example of mobility’s effect on parking. While this technology does not directly influence parking lot operators, it does represent a change in the traditional payment model. This solution does not rely on customers paying for parking; rather, HotSpot offers incentives to consumers to park and visit small businesses.

Although the aforementioned technologies can herald good news for the Canadian parking industry, there are two sides to every coin. Daniel Huber and Brian LaBelle’s Facebook group and Twitter account are all in good fun. However, it is deeply foolish to underestimate the power of social media. All it takes is one disgruntled customer complaining on Facebook, Twitter or another popular social media platform, and your business could be severely damaged.

What can Canadian parking lot operators do to prevent that unpleasant scenario from taking place? Customer service must be a priority. It is also important to remember that social media does not take a break. If an unhappy client posts a nasty comment on Saturday evening, your company cannot ignore it or wait until Monday morning to respond. Not dealing immediately with dissatisfied customers can lead to the damage of your reputation, and of your revenue.

You may be saying, “But I’m a technophobe. I can’t deal with all of this and run my business.” Operating an enterprise in this day and age means that technology must be an integral part of your company. Technology need not be daunting, though. Many solutions are easy to implement as well as affordable. In addition, it is now simple to find social media experts to create and refine your online presence.

Technological innovations will only continue to emerge. Meeting them head on and embracing them will profit you in the long run.

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