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A long ride goes by much faster with a little “inflight entertainment.”
Surf is a Phoenix-based startup and one of the latest entries in the rapidly growing rideshare entertainment space. Surf provides Uber and Lyft drivers with preloaded tablets fitted in the backseat of their vehicles. The service entertains riders and generates additional income for drivers while content creators and advertisers create new fans, leads, and revenue. Drivers are paid when the passenger uses the tablet for at least four minutes. Drivers have earned from $30-$150, depending on how many rides they complete.
The Surf business model is a part of a digital reimagining of traditional, out-of-home advertising targeted to users on the go. The digital out-of-home (DOOH) market includes digital billboards and screens on buildings, in subway stations, on taxicab roofs and now inside Uber and Lyft cars.
Surf says 18 million passengers hop in and out of rideshare services each year in the U.S, and 66% report an average annual income of $75,000 and higher. Forty-seven percent of them are in the desirable 18 to 39-year-old demographic. Approximately 40% of all riders have used the tablets in Surf-equipped cars.
Founder Eli Chmouni had his ‘Aha’ moment while commuting between work in Silicon Valley and his home in Phoenix.
“You can only refresh your Instagram so many times or listen to the driver talk about his problems,” he says, but he knew he didn’t want his offering to be like New York City’s famously annoying Taxi TV. “If I’m paying for the ride, I want to control the entertainment.” He installed a small version of the app onto 20 tablets he purchased himself and began offering to fit them in Lyft drivers’ cars for free.
The first Surf cars were in Chmouni’s hometown of Phoenix. Surf has since expanded to Los Angeles, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, Denver, Chicago, and Las Vegas. Surf plans to hit the road in Miami in early April. The plan is to keep rolling out in more U.S. cities throughout the year.
“So far drivers seem to like what we do,” he says. “Drivers come to our site and apply to cities we aren’t even in yet,” Chmouni says. “If we have drivers who want tablets we consider going there. We also look at cities where there is a lot of spending on out-of-home (OOH) advertising, but we follow the drivers.”
Like in-flight entertainment on airplanes, Surf tablets won’t play unless activated by the user. They are always free. Offerings vary by city and change monthly but typically include local dining, shopping and sightseeing suggestions, comedy clips, YouTube videos, and movie trailers. With an average ride time of 17 minutes and virtually no distractions. Surf says it’s the perfect venue for the next breakout content superstar. Different presentation options and metrics are also available for both national and local advertisers.
“Surf is delivering a creative new channel for advertisers to reach a captive audience,” says Jake Huber, an advisory board member at Surf and director of program management at Coplex.
“It improves the rider experience by giving riders access to free entertainment during their trip — Surf creates a new revenue stream for drivers, so they’re able to earn even more during each trip,” says, Huber, who is an early Surf investor and former Uber executive. “Over 15 million rideshare trips happen every day and that number continues to grow, so this is a very exciting space to be in right now.”
“No pun intended,” Chmouri says. “But it’s a moving space and we are here for the ride.”
Frances Katz is a freelance writer focusing on media, culture and technology. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Week, The Washington Post, USA Today and other publications. She lives in Atlanta.