Why Can't I Buy Digital Outdoor by Time of Day?

If You Want People to Really Care About Out-of-Home, Try Putting a Timely Message up There

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In the march of progress and technology in our business, it always seems to me that everything is "18 months away" -- for, say, 10 years or so. I have gotten used to it and try to be patient. But every once in a while, I see something that has so much potential that I simply cannot help but try to move it along, even just a little bit. The potential of digital outdoor advertising has that kind of opportunity -- but one that needs prodding.

There are well more than 2,400 digital outdoor billboards in the U.S. now, with more added every day, offering new clarity and brightness as well as the potential to generate new revenue by letting multiple advertisers "share" the space throughout the day.

These boards are driven by a data connection on a server, which serves images to the sign. This should sound familiar to anyone who has done any interactive advertising in the last 15 years or so.

The power of this connectivity became clear to me after the Dallas Cowboys beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of the playoffs early last year. Every digital billboard leading out of the stadium had the score prominently displayed only moments after the game had ended: Cowboys 34, Eagles 14. Yes, in the ensuing year the teams have gone in different directions, but I digress...

That type of connectivity implies you can essentially do the same kind of dynamic advertising on these outdoor boards that you can do in any online placement, including time-sensitive and place-sensitive messaging, changing offers based on how busy your retail location is, the time of day, or even new delivery of a video.

So far the outdoor-ad companies are increasing their revenue by rotating the board among up to eight advertisers on a simple rotation. This is the digital version of the old Tri-Vision boards that rotate (when they work) between three advertisers for a month. Some more progressive advertisers are even changing their messages across a multiweek buy, and in at least one case are changing the offer during a day.

But here's what's missing (and this is the key point): You cannot buy the "morning drive" or a time slot that would be most relevant to the consumer unless you also run it for the whole day. These boards ought to enable advertisers to pitch Starbucks only in the morning, Safeway deals in the afternoon commute and David Letterman's guest in the evening. So why don't they? "They are just not sold that way."

Here's what happens when you try:

A year ago we had a restaurant client whose sales ticked-up dramatically when the temperature dropped below a certain point -- think comfort food. We had produced digital programs for the client using emails and interactive advertising that activated based upon temperature, so we thought, "What if we could do the same thing with outdoor?" We called our local outdoor reps with that idea and were completely rebuffed. OK, too progressive, I get that.

But later, for another client, we called local and national reps about executing a roadblock at a specific time of day and were once again stiff-armed. The boards were only sold on a 24-hour rotation. This time it bothered me a bit more. This is nothing more than dayparting, which is a well-understood means of increasing effectiveness and revenue that broadcast companies have leveraged for years. And the outdoor companies could increase revenue substantially. Imagine the impact of increasing the price for rush-hour time slots.

In subsequent discussions with the outdoor companies, they made two pretty good arguments to explain why they don't sell individual dayparts. First, the industry isn't geared to operate that way. Neither sellers nor buyers of outdoor today are oriented toward working with particular dayparts, so neither side is feeling particular pressure to make a substantial change to its model. Second, the premium for a specific period of time would need to be high enough to justify making that change.

In order for the vision of dynamic outdoor content to be a reality, the outdoor industry must ultimately change the way it sells its product -- not only here and there, but as an industry. It clearly isn't going to happen overnight, but if you want people to really care about outdoor, try putting a really timely message up there.

So we know it is possible and we suspect that it makes good business sense. We also know that it won't be that easy to accomplish, so what do we do?

How about a gentle nudge to see if we can't at least get the discussion going?

Owen Hannay is founder-CEO Slingshot, a full-service agency with more than 100 employees in Dallas and Lubbock, working with clients such as Brown-Forman, Microsoft, Verizon and Weight Watchers Yogurt.
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