Billboards and other outdoor media methods have been ubiquitous forms of advertising since before the first automobile. According to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, the earliest known billboard rentals occurred during 1867, while the classic Burma Shave continuous-message signs first appeared during 1925. Today, many advertisers, especially those targeting consumers, still rely on billboards to attract motorists and pedestrians’ attention to those companies’ products. Some experts claim that outdoor advertising is the only true public media, since the public doesn’t have much of a choice, as they do with print, broadcast (radio and TV) and even the internet.
Even after decades of use and improvements, advertisers are still challenged to create designs and messages that viewers can recognize and register on their brains within a few seconds. The “golden rule” of outdoor media is six words, six seconds. Traffic moves so fast, and the public is bombarded with so many advertising messages, that an effective billboard must communicate its message in very few words and within a very short period of time. In many instances, billboards on interstate highways are visible, readable and must be remembered in fewer than six seconds.
It comes as no surprise that many advertisers break this golden rule constantly. Of course, this goal is often somewhat easier if the advertiser is branding a product that is generally well known or easily available. The golden arches logo communicates “McDonalds” without using the actual name of the restaurant. Plus, a billboard of a well-known brand often doesn’t need any contact information, such as an address, phone number or Web site URL. Many experts cite research that seems to suggest that billboard viewers remember an URL better than a phone number. Thus outdoor advertisers were some of the first to develop tie ins between the use of billboards and web-based advertising; and it has worked well in many cases.
Now, outdoor advertising has taken a major leap forward with a new category of billboards currently being installed in Japanese malls. Based on technology developed by NEC, these new billboards utilize facial recognition software to identify a shopper’s gender, ethnicity and age. It’s accurate 85–90 percent of the time. Integrated with a database of content, the billboard automatically selects and displays a message that is targeted to the specific shopper viewing the board. Advertisers, of course, understand immediately the implication of such technology because it brings them closer to what is important about virtually any form of advertising: the number of impressions and the outcome of those impressions (Did the viewer purchase a product?) and ROI. Is the advertising method paying for itself?
An example of even more advanced technology is the digital mirror, a new software application designed to combine social media with a customer’s in-store experience. One such mirror is Yeahpoint’s MiMirror, introduced at the 2011 Digital Signage World Exposition. MiMirror is more than a mere mirror (think jewelry, clothing, eyewear, etc.) in which a customer views and decides if an item is appropriate for him or her. Instead, MiMirror allows a customer checking how a particular item looks in the mirror to be able to contact friends for advice and feedback.
Of course, technology of this nature often raises privacy issues in the West, which is why Japan is an excellent test market. The Japanese tend to be less concerned about what large companies may know about their buying habits. Western audiences, however, like to protect their privacy a bit more, and thus, are more likely to reject NEC’s claims that since its system does not store customers’ faces, but only data, such as age and gender, the technology is not intrusive or violates anyone’s privacy. Some early testing indicates that conversion rates with these systems increase by more than 15 percent.
Regardless of the sci-fi nature of the latest billboard technologies, experts say the most important factor is not the IT or software, but the content, just as it was for the very first billboards. Virtually as important is the total integration of all parts of such systems: the location, time, image, sound, emotions conveyed, and even in some instances the scent (perfumes, food, etc.) these billboards can eject into the surrounding air. As one speaker at the 2011 Digital Signage World Expo advised, “There are five requirements to sustain digital signage successfully: It must engage the user without alienating the sales staff; it must make business sense; it must be valuable to the venue; it must be integrated with the entire business; and it must provide a ROI.” As much as outdoor advertising has and will change, its purpose and goals remain the same.