Outdoors’ digital awakening

Having revolutionised other media, digital technology has reached outdoor advertising with an accompanying wave of opportunities to market brands and measure impact. By Richard West

EscalatorThe outdoor advertising industry has come a long way since posters of Lord Kitchener urged people to enlist during the First World War. Following the success of such early billboard campaigns, outdoor for a long time remained unchanged.

While other media, such as print and broadcasting, have developed apace, outdoor has remained something of a fringe player. But with emerging digital media offering real-time advertising, measurement and accountability, outdoor has been quick to adopt some of the lessons from online when it comes to providing targeted and timely communications.

“It was only a matter of time before the interactive and multimedia advertising that has revolutionised the online world came to public spaces,” says JC Decaux UK marketing director David McEvoy. “Advertising is at its most effective when it is relevant to time, place and person, and digital outdoor advertising has the potential to combine and improve all three of these elements.”

Tim%20Bleakley%20CBS%20OutdoorIncrease on the horizon
Digital outdoor advertising accounts for around £48m, or 5%, of the £950m that UK advertisers spend on static posters. This figure is expected to rise over the next five years as poster contractors roll out screens across the country in huge numbers.

Titan Outdoor (formerly Maiden), for example, has its Transvision screens at major railway stations and JC Decaux has digital displays at Heathrow with plans for further expansion. However, one of the biggest concentrations of digital outdoor screens will be on London underground. CBS Outdoor, which handles London Underground’s poster advertising, is investing £72m in outdoor digital sites.

The agency promised Transport for London a world-class digital advertising network in time for the London Olympics in 2012. The investment will see the company install cinema-style screens on Tube platforms, digital escalator panels in 20 Zone 1 and 2 stations and 200 high-definition 57-inch screens in corridors.

What does the company believe will be the impact of the investment? Managing director Tim Bleakley is in no doubt. “When the upgrade is completed, London Underground will have one of the most advanced systems of its kind anywhere in the world. It is a brand new communication channel using cutting-edge digital technology that will enable advertisers to target Tube users, not just by station and time of year, but by time of day.”

Attracting the investors
The companies investing millions are confident that the promise of easily updatable dynamic screens will provide a lucrative proposition. However, there are two main advantages that the industry hopes will attract the big spending brands. The first is day part-scheduling, a facility that will allow advertisers to target different messages at different times of the day, and the second is advertisers’ ability to closely track results.

Chris Green, head of division (Malls) at ScreenFX, believes that the industry is at a watershed moment. “There is an amazing proliferation of new screen networks and interactive ideas. So there are plenty of opportunities for creatives and marketers to experiment, including audience segmentation and micro-marketing,” he says.

Green points out that in the past, advertisers had to spend weeks putting a campaign together and getting the posters printed. “Then they’d be up for two weeks, so by the end of it, the message could be a month or more old,” he says. “With digital, brands will be able to change offers and promote different products in a very short space of time, as they wish.”

This has obvious implications for planners and media buyers. Green continues, “It will challenge existing ideas about how the public interact with outdoor media. Essentially it is moving to a broadcast model where advertising space is sold in timeslots throughout the day.”

CBS Outdoor’s Bleakley agrees. “Advertisers may want to reach the morning commuters with a breakfast or newspaper ad, when people are most receptive to that kind of message. Later in the day it may be shopping with offers in local shops. Perhaps in the early evening, drinks brands may want to advertise, targeting the after-work commuters planning their night out,” he says.

There is, however, an obvious question about the cost to the advertisers. The answer isn’t necessarily straightforward. Bleakley candidly admits that there are areas where the digital model doesn’t stack up. “The London Underground is unique,” he says. “There are 3.5 million people © passing through it every day. In terms of a targeting opportunity, the Tube is the prime environment. But it’s important to remember that only about 15-20% of sites will be digital. The rest will be static sites – albeit upgraded,” he adds.

Gideon%20Adey%20KineticAttracting the right clients
This is going to be crucial in terms of attracting a new type of advertiser, says JC Decaux’s McEvoy. It is also the beginning of an era where outdoor advertising focuses on key venues and locations rather than traditional billboards. “We have done a great deal of research looking at the way people interact with digital sites and from there working out the kind of brands that work well. These tend to be modern, leading edge brands that have a technological focus.”

The large electronic retailers, for example, have shied away from outdoor advertising because they often don’t know what their latest offers will be early enough for posters to be created in time for the launch. With digital screens, products and prices can be changed centrally and quickly, so outdoor becomes an option.

The message is that content delivery technology will change the way companies advertise in the real world. As Gideon Adey, business development director of media sales house Kinetic, explains: “It’s not television on the street. It provides the opportunity to catch the right consumers, at the right time and in the right place.”

Even so, the industry is well aware that hardnosed and cynical advertisers will be scrutinising the ROI with special interest. There is also no shortage of people who believe that the proposition has been over-hyped. “People will need convincing that digital outdoor is a new medium and not just a ‘posters-plus’ format. It is a digital way to reach the mass audience, but the © relationship a commuter has with a moving image compared to a static one is different and what it triggers in peoples’ minds is also different,” explains Bleakley.

However, there is a fine line between being engaging and being intrusive and this has always been a challenge facing the outdoor advertisers. McEvoy admits that it is the environment that will dictate. “A new market is being created and the industry is still on a learning curve,” he says. “But by profiling the kind of people that encounter different sites we can provide targeted and measurable information for advertisers.”

TNS head of media Jenny Beck believes that the industry has been more innovative than most when it comes to providing advertisers with measurable data. She says, “The huge expansion in scale, size and type has presented challenges for audience measurement. But these are very interesting times for the industry and in addition to more traditional tracking surveys, new technologies are being used to measure traffic and impact.”

Bus%20stopInteraction with phones
Companies and government agencies have been experimenting with posters using interactive Bluetooth-enabled hypertags that allow mobile phone users to download materials such as music tracks – while at the same time providing advertisers with customer data.

Cameras and webcams embedded in posters can also provide researchers with accurate audience profiles, such as age, gender and even social-type. In other parts of the world, GPS satellite technology is widely used to measure traffic – although surprisingly it is comparatively rare in Britain (“…the cost makes it very expensive,” explains Beck). Even so, critics believe that the © industry could go further to make it a more integrated medium and haven’t done enough to capitalise on synergies with other platforms – particularly mobile ones.

Chris Green of ScreenFX accepts that this is fair up to a point, but points out that these are early days for an industry that is evolving very rapidly. He says: “In some ways the industry is still feeling its way and is changing all the time. A few years ago, people were writing-off kiosks and touch screens because of the public’s apparent indifference. Today, people are more at ease when it comes to searching for information, and interactive screens can work for brands and retailers seeking to engage with consumers where and when they are primed to spend.”

It is this measurability and reach that makes digital outdoor advertising so attractive. Green continues: “You can confidently predict that there will be plenty of ‘media firsts’ to follow as creatives and marketers push the boundaries of the channel’s possibilities.”

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