When the walls talk back

Outdoor advertising has progressed far beyond the traditional, single-impact poster. Modern ads appear in a bewildering array of formats – and some of them can use the phone. By Richard West

A few years ago, the Outdoor Advertising Association (OAA) set its sights on achieving a ten per cent share of display advertising revenue. Today, it stands a fraction short of that target, at 9.9 per cent, having grown by about 40 per cent in the past five years. Much of this growth is due to the rise of digital technology.

the passing of passivity As a result of constant advertising bombardment, the public has become more sophisticated when it comes to deciphering marketing messages.

Rachel Harker, marketing director of Hypertag, a company that develops interactive programmes for outdoor advertisers, says this is a key reason for outdoor’s growing popularity.

She says: “Getting into people’s heads entails first attracting their attention and then rewarding them for their engagement with your message. To persuade someone to interact with outdoor media, clients have to offer something useful, entertaining or informative. In return, they benefit from high-impact interaction with consumers. Communications technologies such as infra-red and Bluetooth have presented advertisers with the opportunity to enter into a dialogue or a relationship with consumers.”

A recent nationwide campaign for Pan Macmillan books provides a good illustration. As part of the campaign, Pan Macmillan used infra-red technology in ten Adshel bus shelters. People could point their mobile phones at the poster to find out whether they had won a prize. It was an innovative way to engage the target market. The panel also directed mobile phone users to the Pan MacMillan website to redeem their voucher.

Harker continues: “Infra-red and Bluetooth in outdoor advertising in particular have really changed the way in which marketers can look at the medium. Depending on their industry, marketers should now think of outdoor as a tool for sampling, data collection or direct response as well as simple brand building.”

The spread of mobile technology has helped to drive growth in this area, although many marketers are only just beginning to get to grips with the potential opportunities. Interactive campaigns are likely to become more common, especially as they seem to strike a chord with the right demographic group – the younger, discerning, cash-rich, time-poor generation. What is more, they measure precisely how many people interacted with the poster and when they did it – and (in many cases) they establish the outcome of the interaction.

value and validity But hypertags and interactive posters are not the only significant developments in the out-of-home sector. Clear Channel UK chief executive Stevie Spring points out that the industry has benefited from a range of technological advances in several different areas. She says: “A well-executed campaign can capture the imagination through a mixture of location, orientation, physical size, traffic flow and creativity. Outdoor advertising has become a more â¢interruptive medium. The new technologies have enabled advertisers to add impact and flexibility to help them be noticed. A lot of people tend to equate ‘technology’ with screens and interactivity, but advances have been just as important in other areas, such as in printing and the construction of special-builds, where there have been dramatic improvements in quality over the past few years.”

Posters post-haste The pace of change means that a number of large out-of-home agencies have set up in-house divisions to raise awareness among clients and creatives of what can be achieved through outdoor advertising. Spring says: “Clients are demanding more innovative campaigns, which is why Clear Channel set up an internal division called Create, whose remit is to suggest ways to meet briefs using existing techniques in unusual ways, and to develop and test new technology.”

Last year, digital outdoor was the fastest-growing media channel in the UK, with revenues almost doubling to &£18m. In absolute terms, that may sound like small beer but, if the evangelists are to be believed, we are at the start of a revolution. Earlier this year, for instance, Fox Home Entertainment ran four separate campaigns back-to-back on ATM:ad, which allows advertising campaigns to run across ATM networks, at 146 Asda cashpoints nationwide. Fox expected to generate 3 million one-to-one opportunities.

Other high-spending brands also experimenting. In August, Gillette was the first advertiser to use Taxi Media’s new screens in cabs, as part of a 450-strong nationwide taxi campaign. Screens in five London taxis played a 13-minute film featuring key sporting moments and interviews with sports stars including David Beckham, specially created to support the ads on the exterior of the cab.

But Harker offers a word of caution. She says: “We are very careful that interaction between a Hypertag installation and consumers is wholly opt-in. Consumers must choose to receive content. Bluetooth, when used incorrectly, perfectly demonstrates this. Broadcasting indiscriminately to every phone with Bluetooth switched on will generate a whole load of downloads and an equal number of aggrieved consumers who feel they have been spammed. However, the technology is constantly being improved.”

Digital outdoor has accelerated at a tremendous pace and it is easy to get sidetracked by the technology. Whether the British public is ready for this new media onslaught, with its fresh bombardment of marketing messages, we will find out over the next 18 months. â¢

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