Programmatic ad buying has already revolutionised display advertising online and it is now set to transform the way out-of-home (OOH) media is bought and sold.

In January, the UK marketing body for the OOH industry Outsmart launched Space, a data management application that stores, categorises and standardises inventory in the UK market. Over half a million sites have a unique 10-digit code, allowing the inventory to be classified by location, environment and format, all of which is crucial in improving the infrastructure for programmatic development.

This is about “picking the best of digital and applying it to more traditional channels”, says Google head of media EMEA, Greg Smith. In doing so, “you create ads that are really useful”.

The internet behemoth has headed the queue of brands looking to test-drive some of the new technology.

Last year, Google started testing automated delivery at London’s Old Street roundabout – a site it has secured for a year – offering information rather than adverts, including the scores during the tennis at Wimbledon, warnings of upcoming traffic jams, and even the availability of fresh bread at a neighbourhood bakery.

At the end of 2015, Google began testing a “wholly programmatic OOH” approach on billboards, using its DoubleClick technology to power the screens.

Smith explains: “We fused the DoubleClick stack and the sales system to allow us to access inventory in real-time and then make individual decisions [regarding] which ads to show on which screens [and when].”

Providing relevant ads to a relevant audience “makes sense”, says Smith, especially in a channel such as OOH, which has what he describes as “dumb data”. The results of the trials were “really good”, he adds.

Others have been similarly quick off the mark. In February, charity Missing People launched a campaign to promote the Child Rescue Alert system with the aim of increasing the number of people registered to receive geographically targeted alerts to their phone when a high-risk child goes missing in their area (see Q&A, below).

Working with Grand Visual, which operates the OpenLoop ad-serving platform, the charity used live postcode registration data from the campaign and additional location and travel data to help tailor messages and keep communications targeted and relevant.

Charity Missing People tailored messages using live postcode regisration data

The chance to use data and insight to power campaigns, and adapt and respond to real-time events, is appealing, says Ross Miller, director of fundraising and communications at Missing People.

“All of our messages are urgent, time critical and geo-specific and we rely heavily on public awareness to support our search to find missing people. Anything that enables us to respond and communicate faster, more efficiently and harness the public’s attention at scale, is extremely attractive,” he says.

Real-time response

There will be other practical applications in the automation of OOH. The alcoholic drinks sector has a voluntary commitment in place not to advertise within 100 metres of schools but in the programmatic OOH era, any sites within that radius could be eliminated with a mouse click rather than manually. Retailers, meanwhile, could change their signage at different locations as stock levels ebb and flow in stores.

Working with Posterscope, Diageo launched a series of ads using real-time weather-activated triggers last year to deliver Pimm’s ads when the temperature reached or surpassed 16 degrees. Location was also added into the real-time data mix through a partnership with Taylor Walker pubs. Using a beacon network, the posters counted the number of smartphones at local venues using non-personal anonymised data, to tell potential customers where there were free seats to enjoy a jug of Pimm’s.

Minicabit, the taxi price comparison app, is planning an OOH campaign in May. Chief executive Amer Hasan has identified a number of areas in which programmatic can be used as part of this (see Brand viewpoint, below). For a start, programmatic digital out-of-home (DOOH) will enable a level of localisation “much more cost-effectively” than other offline or OOH channels.

“We will also be able to respond to engagement opportunities at short notice. We can then responsively and automatically shift budgets to buy media for not only the best performing cities, but specific postcode areas where we get the highest value customers from campaigns. We have to make our budgets work harder,” Hasan adds.

Concerns have been raised about the use of data stamping out creativity in advertising, but Alan Brydon, CEO of Outsmart, formerly the Outdoor Media Centre, does not believe this is an issue for OOH.

“The only restraint will be the vision and creative thinking of the media agency, the creative agency, and the client,” he says.

Diageo used real-time weather-activated triggers for its Pimm’s ads last year

That does not mean there are no challenges ahead, though. Programmatic service providers see a big opportunity here, and those with expertise and scope are moving quickly to claim a share of the sector, according to an eMarketer report. In September 2015, Rubicon Project announced a partnership with UK firm BitPoster, which specialises in OOH inventory. Similarly, Kinetic has said it will offer programmatic buying for both traditional and DOOH inventory in the first quarter of this year.

All of this competition will breed innovation in a marketing a channel that is in decent health but behind the data curve. Nevertheless, the end game must remain the same: to make it easier for buyers to spend money in the medium. “If the outdoor industry can make this easy, there are huge opportunities,” says Google’s Smith.

Steph Miller, head of media sales at property group Zoopla, says: “I’m looking for programmatic OOH to provide more advanced advertising precision, such as the ability to target key demographics – down to specific postcodes – in real time.”

The refinement of logistics will be key. “We need a top-line way of trading inventory so that you don’t have to be a specialist to manage buys,” Miller continues. “Following Rubicon’s partnership with BitPoster last year, and demand-side platforms such as Admedo investigating how to make this emerging technology more accessible, it is one to watch.”

A new era for OOH

Many hail programmatic as the turning point of OOH, where all consumers need to do is walk through an environment and be served ultra-personalised content from advertisers and agencies, enjoying new-found savings and efficiencies, but it is still very much in its infancy.

Alissa Ananieva, director of growth programmes at Exterion Media, believes that although a programmatic ecosystem is emerging, a lack of co-ordination is leading to fragmented approaches.

“Everyone in OOH is talking about programmatic but we need to differentiate programmatic trading and display,” she warns. “Most digital media owners can offer conditional campaigns that are akin to programmatic display. Yet nothing is done at scale.”

Although Ananieva is a firm believer that programmatic is “the next frontier” for OOH – and will result in simpler and faster ad buying and deliver greater value for advertisers and media owners – the first step of this journey is automation of existing processes.

Brydon at Outsmart is also keen to assert that it is an evolution of the channel, rather than an overnight metamorphosis. In this respect, he believes the word programmatic does not fit the bill. “What we’re talking about is automated real-time trading,” he explains.

“The systems need to be developed, and to be able to talk to each other, and the trading models need to be worked out. All this is happening. In the next couple of years, the immediacy, the clever solutions, and the efficiencies of deployment that real-time automated trading allows will add to the already strong growth of revenues into the medium.”

What part did data play in your Child Rescue Alert campaign?

We used live postcode registration data from the campaign and additional location and travel data to help tailor messages and encourage recruitment in those areas that need the coverage most. OpenLoop [the digital outdoor campaign management dashboard] analysed the data and automated the delivery of localised maps and messages calling for ‘local heroes’ to sign up in areas where more coverage was needed and ‘help bring a high-risk child home’.

How did the new approach alter delivery of the campaign?

[The dashboard] did the clever bit, analysing campaign data, adjusting and fine-tuning the messaging so that the campaign remained targeted and locally relevant. By measuring its own success in real time, the campaign messages could be adjusted, targeting those areas that needed more sign-ups in order to give Child Rescue Alert the widespread national coverage it is so reliant on. [It] delivered the content to digital billboards across roadside, commuter belts, train stations and shopping malls, on space donated by Clear Channel, JCDecaux, Outdoor Plus and Primesight.

What were the results?

The benefits were far reaching. Once the campaign was up and running it was automated and agile – needing no input from us. Thanks to the dynamic and responsive creative, the campaign was constantly evolving, reacting to data, and fine-tuning its message to improve the efficiency of our targeting and help give police the best level of support. In addition, the ability to localise the campaign creative meant that we were directly reaching out to people in their own communities and appealing to their sense of community responsibility by displaying the levels of ‘coverage’ in their local area.

How has it changed your approach to planning?

Programmatic outdoor ultimately streamlines the campaign planning process. From a creative perspective, this is exciting. Now we can think about our entire campaign strategy and make sure digital outdoor is working in unison with our online, social and press activity. As a charity, it is very exciting to be working on projects that are using such new and sophisticated approaches.

We have used programmatic buying online for some time but find the potential for digital out of-home (DOOH) very exciting, despite it being quite a new concept. We’re planning to use it in our UK-wide marketing mix this summer and it will help us in a number of ways.

First, the uncertainty of day-to-day events provides the perfect opportunity to use programmatic, such as during a tube strike or if there is congestion on the road while in transit in a cab. Programmatic means brands can be very responsive to on-the-ground events.

Second, because Minicabit is a booking platform, using programmatic means we can analyse impact and traffic on the site during the day, and how it affects our customers when they go on to book.

Third, it will enable us to localise our advertising, yet with the reach and scale that is hard to get from other channels. We can analyse different day and time slots that perform better for bookings, and schedule activity according key points during the day to reach our target audience.

Programmatic DOOH will help us experiment with messages and times and optimise these to the best performing campaigns at a granular level. It can combine the agility of online advertising with the mass audiences and context offered by OOH platforms.

Ross Miller will be speaking at our Get with the Programmatic conference in London on 21 September. Join us to tackle 2016’s biggest programmatic topics – from mobile, native advertising and out-of-home to creativity, in-house and more. Visit the event website here.