Turn to face the wall

Outdoor is booming, but amid all the talk of interactive ads and new technology, are advertisers losing sight of what made posters so effective in the first place? asks Richard West

While many analysts devote a large proportion of their careers to spooning through a minestrone soup of media statistics, the UK out-of-home (or outdoor) industry wears, with some justification, the look of a well-fed and satisfied diner.

Last autumn, the sound of backs being slapped was audible from Soho to Barcelona, where delegates attending an outdoor advertising industry conference heard that not only had revenue growth in the first half of 2004 maintained outdoor’s position as one of the fastest-growing media, but it was actually beginning to accelerate away from the pack.

The effect of media fragmentation is hurting several of the industry’s competitors (BARB, for instance, reported recently that ITV had experienced a 17 per cent annual drop in its under-25 male audience), but for outdoor advertisers, it is a case of “out is in”.

Outdoor has a lot going for it. Sites are improving and new technologies have injected a much-needed “wow” factor. What’s more, posters seem to strike a chord with the right demographic groups – the younger, more discerning, “cash-rich, time-poor” generation. No wonder industry bosses have described themselves as “glue”, holding together the other media options such as press, multi-channel television and online. (There’s even evidence that the notorious fly-posters are starting to toe the line.)

But plenty of people have used the glue analogy in the past and come unstuck. Fashions come and go. A new invention can make another technology obsolete overnight. So what is so great about outdoor? The essence of outdoor media has remained largely unchanged since the earliest days. The image of Lord Kitchener’s moustachioed features urging people to enlist during the First World War remains an iconic reminder of the power of simple poster advertising. A well-executed outdoor campaign is about capturing attention through a mixture of location, orientation, physical size, traffic flow and, most importantly, creativity.

These days, however, you can add to that list “moving images”, “interactivity” and “dialogue”. Plus, of course, the “bigger, bolder, better” mantra that states success is not just about being seen – you have to be talked about as well.

Squeeze your bottom line

Clear Channel UK marketing director Yvonne O’Brien says: “Advertisers want their promotional budgets to work as hard as possible. Everyone wants to squeeze the last drop out of their marketing because there’s so much pressure on the bottom line.”

The bottom line is, ultimately, about making customers part with their money and some sceptics fear that the surge in outdoor’s popularity among advertisers carries hidden dangers.

O’Brien continues: “There is a perception that outdoor and ambient advertising is becoming more challenging. To some extent, that may be true, but ‘wild and wacky’ has always been around. What has changed recently is that advertisers and agencies are more inclined to go for that approach. It provokes media comment and public interest – and if people are talking about you, then it makes you look good. But does it create a long-term increase in sales? It’s difficult to say. It is definitely possible to make the link between awareness and sales, but a lot of companies are driven by the desire for notoriety and fame – so from a sales perspective, some of their motivations have to be questioned.”

Peaks and posters

A look at the profiles of traditional outdoor advertisers reveals several distinct categories that use the medium in different ways. Big-brand spenders such as the drinks and motor sectors, for instance, have seasonal sales peaks and need high advertising awareness to drive those sales. Media and entertainment companies, on the other hand, whose products lend themselves to big, one-off launches, find outdoor perfect for promoting new books, albums, films or the latest TV series. Then there is government, with its hugely diverse set of messages, from encouraging the public to vote to publicising tax credits. The appeal of outdoor lies in achieving maximum value from relatively limited budgets.

However, measuring the effectiveness or the return on investment of outdoor has always been a thorny issue for advertisers. Lord Leverhulme’s famous observation about which parts of his advertising worked and which were waste has passed into cliché, but it remains a pertinent one for the outdoor industry.

Digital technology is set to change all that. According to the Outdoor Advertising Association, digital outdoor is the fastest-growing media channel in the UK. Last year, revenues almost doubled, to £18m, and growth is outstripping outdoor as a whole. If the evangelists are to be believed, we are at the start of a digital revolution that will bring animated posters as well as interactive devices that will enable advertisers to evaluate the effectiveness of their campaigns.

Rachel Harker is marketing director of Hypertag, which develops interactive programmes for outdoor advertisers. Hypertag has worked on interactive poster campaigns for companies such as Procter & Gamble, O2 and HP. Last Christmas, Hypertag received wide coverage for a safe travel campaign with Transport for London.

Harker explains: “Posters at major London stations were fitted with interactive ‘Hypertags’ that enabled travellers to have a phone number for safe travel information beamed direct to their mobile phones. Since Hypertags are infra-red, they don’t rely on mobile phone networks to function, so they can be deployed in areas such as London Underground stations.”

Attention-retention

Harker believes that digital media provide ideal opportunities for targeting. She says: “Consumers are becoming more discriminating about advertising, so advertisers have to be more sophisticated in their approach, finding ways to reach the right people in the right place at the right time. Getting into people’s heads requires that you first get their attention and then reward them for their engagement with your message.

“To persuade someone to interact with a poster, clients have to offer something useful, entertaining or informative. In return, they benefit from a high-impact interaction with the brand.”

Hi-tech posters are using Bluetooth and infra-red technologies to send passing consumers with compatible mobile handsets video clips of TV ads, offers or further information. Maiden is just one company currently testing Bluetooth technology, in its case in the ads shown on the large Transvision screens at travel points such as London’s Victoria Station.

Harker says: “The widespread take-up of mobile phones has helped to drive growth in this area. But one of the other major benefits is that it allows advertisers to measure direct response.”

Traditionally, the effectiveness of outdoor and ambient has been hard to measure. Measurement tools such as POSTAR provide a good way to plan campaigns, but they are limited when it comes to evaluating the success of a campaign. Harker says: “The constant refrain from our clients is that they find it hard to decouple the sales effect of an outdoor campaign from other media elements, yet they are desperate to evaluate the success of outdoor in an accurate way. That is one of the attractions of our campaigns. The number of interactions per site can be measured and the results allow advertisers to identify which sites work and which don’t.”

Yet these are still early days in a fledgling industry: digital media represents just over two per cent of total outdoor revenue. O’Brien says: “New technologies and digital technology in particular have been important drivers, but they can never replace a creative, eye-catching execution. Putting Lara Croft six feet into the air doesn’t need sophisticated technology, but it will attract attention.”

And there, perhaps, is one of the issues that outdoor advertisers will need to address. Many of the new-wave ideas break the basic rules of a good poster or a well-executed message by demanding dwell-time and over-complicating the process. As Lord Kitchener demonstrated nearly a century ago, the delivery of poster messages that take minimal effort to assimilate leads to longer-lasting memories.

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