Outdoor is right on the button with social media

The marriage of outdoor advertising and the mobile internet is creating a whole new channel for marketers to explore – but brands must handle this new data source with care.


It’s sometimes hard to cut through the noise on Twitter, but what if a tweet is broadcast onto a giant screen at a football stadium, shopping centre or train station? This is just one of the ways that brands such as Volkswagen, Dove and charity Plan UK are making out-of-home (OOH) media more personal. Some are also using techniques including face recognition and real-time discussions with TV presenters.

Unilever is currently involved in a four-week trial in Reading, which is hosting the first large-scale deployment of near field communication (NFC). This means that when someone with a smartphone gets close to a JCDecaux six-sheet poster in the town, they can download exclusive offers from one of 13 brands from Unilever and others including Morrisons, Mercedes and ITV2. Consumers get a more personal interaction with the brand and advertisers will get access to a rich seam of data that can inform future campaigns.

Unilever has already used its Dove brand to encourage commuters at Victoria Station in London to respond to questions such as: “Who is the most beautiful woman in your life?” and “What makes you feel beautiful?” People could respond via Twitter and their answers broadcast onto the posters.

“This will become an integral part of our marketing strategy,” says Unilever senior communications buying manager Richard Brooke. “It opens up opportunities for conversations with our consumers and enables [us and other] brands to drive immediate online engagement, whether that’s to a brand’s Facebook page or another online destination.”

Unilever will also be looking at the data output from Reading with interest. “We’ve created different mobile consumer experiences for each brand and are testing everything from real-time downloads to how non-smartphone users feel about this kind of opportunity,” says Brooke.

Interactive advertising

He says the marriage of outdoor and mobile is creating a whole new channel for marketers to explore. “Posters reach a great many people and with mobile technology in just about everyone’s hands today, OOH advertising can be far more interactive for so many more people.”

ESPN: Launched its integrated outdoor activity at the start of the 2011/12 Premier League season

The number of people using smartphones is, of course, on the rise, while 50% of consumers would interact with screens given the right incentive according to research by outdoor specialist Kinetic.

Dove: Used Twitter to hold a conversation with commuters at Victoria Station in London

A range of technologies are in development, all of which could be advertising gold. Last month, children’s charity Plan UK launched an ad on a bus stop on Oxford Street in London that uses facial recognition software to determine the gender of the person facing the screen (see Q&A, below).

On the Up!: VW used a campaign for its new Up! model to hold a twoway dialogue with consumers

Anyone viewing the ad was shown different creative depending on whether they are male or female. By the end of the launch week, Plan UK had enjoyed news coverage in eight national papers and features in the Financial Times, Daily Mail and Independent.

Following an interview on Radio 5 Live, Plan UK was also asked to pitch to become the charity partner for a global corporate. That has all been very welcome, but Leigh Daynes, the charity’s director of advocacy, campaigns and communications, is quick to point out that it wasn’t just a stunt.

“For a charity, this [kind of activity] isn’t just about eyeballs, it’s about actions,” he says. “There are a wider number of objectives to hit, and we need more people to be aware of what we are about. Part of this campaign’s success has been the clever use of the message. It is highly personalised and tactile.”

However, there is a danger that brands could be distracted by the stunt and forget about the strategy. William Grobel, a senior consultant in Deloitte’s marketing effectiveness team, says there is no doubt that digital outdoor is growing – revenues were £125m in 2011, or 14% of total outdoor – yet the channel isn’t being exploited to its full potential.

He says brands are failing to see where interactive OOH activity fits in with the bigger picture. “Outdoor needs to keep broadening its relevance, formats and services to be a true intermediary between brands and consumers out of home. It needs to provide a greater connectivity between the two, becoming the out of home fulcrum for channels such as social media, retail stores, online stores and check-in services.”

If that happens, outdoor could become a major link in the customer’s purchasing journey, according to Grobel, but this will require significant investment.

“Outdoor could have been the natural home for mobile and more innovative digital media, capturing consumer data, provision of interactivity, immediacy of information, personalisation of ads on both fixed sites and handheld devices,” he says. “It missed a trick 10 years ago and needs to broaden its definition of digital and invest significantly to catch up.”

The cost of using this channel can be a limiting factor, especially with new technology. However, it helps that the foundations are based on well-established social media platforms.

“Facebook and Twitter make things much easier,” explains ESPN associate marketing director Alex Lowe. “Without social media platforms, I’m not quite sure how we could have done what we did. You could have used emails but that would have been very ‘labour heavy’.”

Football season

ESPN launched its integrated outdoor activity at the start of the 2011/12 Premier League football season to compliment its Miss Nothing campaign. It involved real-time discussions between ESPN football presenters and fans appearing live on 300 digital outdoor screens.

“Most people have an opinion on sport and this helped us create a platform for that two-way dialogue. It was also a great way to amplify our personality as the brand that will discuss all sports,” says Lowe.

He adds that the key to interactive OOH marketing is for it “not to become wallpaper – it isn’t passive”. Lowe admits ESPN is learning as it goes: “We stopped the smaller screen formats and concentrated on the enormous outdoor sites where there were great levels of engagement.”

Others also admit there is an element of “suck it and see” in all this. This month, Volkswagen launched its first foray into the world of social media-cum-outdoor marketing with its Big Up the Up! campaign, which encourages people to compliment its new Up! car via the company’s Facebook page. In return, VW pays them a personalised compliment back on one of 18 nationwide digital outdoor poster sites.

Like Lowe at ESPN, VW communications manager Silke Anderson says that using established social media platforms helps the campaign, but admits the measurement part “can be the most difficult, but also the most interesting”.

When it comes to return on investment, she says it is difficult to compare the costs with a basic digital campaign. “There is an element of suck it and see, but this is still a sizeable spend on a big campaign so we have enough measures in place to give it some evaluation.

As yet, little is known about the quality or quantity of data that can be gleaned from interactive OOH campaigns, but what isn’t in question is how valuable it could be. “Data will be very useful for any future work, especially around social media,” says Anderson.

Grobel goes further and suggests that a Minority Report movie scenario isn’t that far away. In the film, characters who pass an ad in a shopping centre are sent a targeted message through a social media channel inviting them to purchase a relevant item with a personalised discount. “Why couldn’t outdoor provide this comprehensive service with scale?” he asks.


Michael Walker, head of commercial development at Heathrow Express agrees. “Billboards that target consumers on a one-to-one basis are edging that much closer. In the shorter term, marketers will be able to create more innovative and engaging campaigns, such as the one run by Plan UK.”

Walker has worked on a campaign with agency Gyro to promote Heathrow Express over other modes of transport, contrasting real-time traffic and Tube reports with how the rail network is running.

One possible reason why brands are not targeting consumers more closely is concerns about data protection. “Brands are going to have to wrestle with how to interact in very private spaces and will have to be very thoughtful in how they do that,” says Plan UK’s Daynes.

Kim Walker, a data protection specialist with law firm Thomas Eggar, agrees: “The way in which consumers give up their data is changing, but the rules are the same as they have always been. Brands need to be up front and tell consumers how they might use this data.”

If brands breach data protection law, consumers are likely to exploit their newfound social media power to damage the offender’s reputation, warns Walker. The combination of social media with outdoor advertising will be a powerful marketing tool, but it needs to be handled with care.



Leigh Daynes
Director of advocacy, campaigns and communications
Plan UK

Marketing Week (MW): What did your recent interactive ad involve?

Leigh Daynes (LD): Our advert, on a bus stop in Oxford Street in London, used facial recognition software to determine the sex of the person in front of the screen. Men and boys were denied the choice to view the full content in order to highlight the fact that women and girls are denied choices and opportunities on a daily basis due to poverty and discrimination.

MW: What made you decide on this execution?

LD: It’s highly personalised, tactile and you can clearly differentiate the messaging men and women receive. Of course, people have to decide to stand in front of it first. There are risks too – and we consulted on disclaimers because it was never our intention to stereotype the way anyone looks.

MW: How was it received?

LD: It is Clear Channel’s most successful out of home campaign ever, doubling the number of interactions in its previously most successful Beck’s interactive ad.
We had a month’s worth of social media interaction in four days and over 124,000 video views on YouTube. So far, 27,297 people have ‘interacted’ with the ad, and it has exceeded its revenue targets by 2309%.

MW: What’s the secret to this kind of interactive outdoor ad?

LD: Clever is only clever if clever works. We put a lot of work into consumer insight – and I think the bus stop was successful because it was based on good insight. As a charity, it wouldn’t have been great to have invested our limited resources on this if it didn’t work.

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 customerservices@marketingweek.com

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