Digital evolution will take time

Digital posters displaying easily changed messages will prove invaluable to marketers, but consumers will take time to get used to the switch from six-sheet sites that the make up a significant percentage of outdoor advertising in the UK, says Alex Johns

We are beginning to see signs (no pun intended) of the next giant leap forward in outdoor advertising. For some years now, the six-sheet poster has been the ubiquitous face of brands attempting to get their messages across on the high street. With over 70,000 roadside sites, and around a further 12,000 inside various venues, six-sheet posters make up a significant percentage of outdoor advertising, which itself takes a 9.2% share of annual UK ad spend. Yet, due to planning regulations and the physical limitations of a static format, the medium has practically reached its zenith. That is, until now…

Today sees a close-fought race among the giants of outdoor advertising to get digital versions of the six-sheet to market, with promises of evolving content delivered to target markets instantaneously.

Using a central network to control content, the possibilities really are endless. Imagine a restaurant that could use the same poster site to advertise breakfast, changing to lunchtime offers mid-morning and replacing them with dinnertime ads for afternoon commuters. It’s a pretty compelling argument for a brand to “go digital” with their outdoor strategy.

The technology also has positive implications for consumers, who not only receive more intelligently targeted messages throughout the day, but can interact with the technology. Through techniques such as “bluecasting”, where consumers receive specially targeted messages or money-off vouchers on their mobile phones, the gap between outdoor advertising and in-store sales can finally be bridged.

However, for all of its merits, digital outdoor must not try to run before it can walk. Some recent digital outdoor trials have failed before they started, with screens proving impossible to view in direct sunlight, underlining the need for media owners to do their homework when selecting delivery partners.

High-profile failures of in-store TV serve as a forewarning to marketers about the dangers of viewing digital screens as “the TV of the high street” and, while the temptation to beam TV ads or incredibly animated content may be palpable, consumers simply are not ready for a full-scale assault on the senses, where before there were passive posters.

For brands, it’s all too easy to get carried away with the excitement and opportunity that digital formats can offer, but the shrewd (and ultimately successful) will exercise caution in their first forays into digital outdoor. Posters will, for the foreseeable future, remain an important part of the mix, until media owners decide how much of their estate to convert to digital. The best approach is to treat digital outdoor as an extension of the six-sheet static format, rather than using it to do too much, too soon.

The time will come when consumers will be used to, and want more, complex content and interactivity but, as with any new format, it will take a while to arrive. Like it or not, consumers are used to static, simple messages, so gradual introduction is the only sensible option.

The temptation to use all technology’s bells and whistles is difficult to temper, yet by taking time to understand the limits of consumer acceptance – in terms of how far technology can be pushed before they switch off – the results can be powerful. By keeping it simple, marketers will reap the benefits of phased content and simple-to-change ads, while reinforcing the messages of their existing poster sites. As more sites convert, consumers will become more used to seeing digital ads – then, and only then, can the outdoor revolution begin.

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how media owners sell their digital outdoor solutions to brand owners. Arguably the ability to screen ads and change content centrally reduces costs, but it also gives advertisers the ability to book ad space in time slots that will directly engage with their target demographic so, much like television, we may see a higher cost peak time/ low-cost “graveyard slot” pricing model emerging.

This may see more brands taking to the high street, where costs had previously been prohibitive, or outdoor media owners tying up with retailers to offer brands complete street-to-shop integrated digital campaigns. The answer for now is to watch this space. However, one thing is for certain; the future of the high street will be digital.

Alex Johns is co-founder of iblink

Latest from Marketing Week


Access Marketing Week’s wealth of insight, analysis and opinion that will help you do your job better.

Register and receive the best content from the only UK title 100% dedicated to serving marketers' needs.

We’ll ask you just a few questions about what you do and where you work. The more we know about our visitors, the better and more relevant content we can provide for them. And, yes, knowing our audience better helps us find commercial partners too. Don't worry, we won't share your information with other parties, unless you give us permission to do so.

Register now


Our award winning editorial team (PPA Digital Brand of the Year) ask the big questions about the biggest issues on everything from strategy through to execution to help you navigate the fast moving modern marketing landscape.


From the opportunities and challenges of emerging technology to the need for greater effectiveness, from the challenge of measurement to building a marketing team fit for the future, we are your guide.


Information, inspiration and advice from the marketing world and beyond that will help you develop as a marketer and as a leader.

Having problems?

Contact us on +44 (0)20 7292 3703 or email

If you are looking for our Jobs site, please click here