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Digital billboards will save media. Yeah right

Digital billboards are now an unlikely arm of the media business, if New Zealand’s own MediaWorks is any indication, writes Richard MacManus.

Late last year, MediaWorks, which runs the Three TV network and popular radio brands like The Edge and More FM, acquired the New Zealand arm of Australian out-of-home advertising business, QMS Media.

It was another sign, pun intended, that digital billboards are a fast-growing industry. But what do they offer to advertisers (and media) that traditional billboards, like Tui’s famous ‘Yeah right’ campaign, don’t?

To answer that, I spoke to the Trading and Innovations Director of APN Outdoor, Kurt Malcolm. APN Outdoor has digital billboards all over the country, so Malcolm has seen first hand what works in this business – and what doesn’t.

Why digital billboards work for advertisers

The benefits of a digital, internet-connected billboard for the advertiser seem clear: they can add interactivity, they can update their messaging in real-time, and they can reuse the ad on the internet and in other digital formats.

According to Malcolm, digital billboards are also attractive to advertisers because they can more easily achieve what he terms “relevance” for the intended audience.

“The primary reason an advertiser chooses DOOH [Digital Out Of Home] over traditional billboards is relevance,” he said. “Traditional billboards run off monthly cycles, so play an important role for branding. DOOH is totally flexible and dynamic. I can change out ads to target my audience by time, location and product. This makes the consumption of these ads more relevant and allows OOH to play in a contextual space.”

Malcolm noted that retail giants have been “investing heavily in DOOH based on these capabilities”. Although he added that due to the cost of digital billboards, clients typically run “shorter campaigns, compared to the monthly cycles of traditional billboards”.

Replicating the ‘Yeah right’ success story

Perhaps the most iconic billboard we’ve had in New Zealand is the ‘Yeah right’ series from beer brand Tui. The beauty of these billboards is their simplicity. A short sentence, white text on black background, on the left-hand side of the banner; and the ironic reply, “Yeah right,” above the Tui logo on the other side.

The Tui billboards were so successful because they were simple to remember, and had a built-in viral quality due to their humour. While Tui later took advantage of the internet to amplify the message (it now even crowdsources ideas online), would the ‘Yeah right’ banners have worked as well if they’d debuted as digital billboards? I suspect even a slight bit of interactivity would’ve messed up the formula.

Malcolm pointed to another beer brand as a success story for digital billboards, although it is not as well known (nor as long running) as the Tui billboards.

Steinlager’s ‘Fight For Territory’ campaign, which was produced by APN Outdoor, ran in NZ airports during the British & Irish Lions rugby tour in 2017. As you can see in the following YouTube video, this campaign allowed rugby fans to interact with the billboards in a way that simply isn’t possible without digital.


Avoiding driver distraction

There are no restrictions on digital billboards in internal environments, such as airports. However, driver distraction for roadside digital billboards is a big concern.

“As a rule of thumb,” said Malcolm, “all roadside digital billboards in NZ need to refrain from displaying moving images.” He says that all New Zealand councils “have been very consistent” about this.

That said, the rules vary depending on where you live. According to an article last year from the New Zealand Institute of Landscape Architects (NZILA), in Christchurch “consent conditions define that images must be displayed for at least eight seconds and that one image must dissolve into the next over a second to avoid a flicker effect.”

In Auckland, “visual impact and standards of lighting” are factors in deciding whether you’ll need a resource consent for your billboard. In Wellington, the council looks at “visual obtrusiveness” as part of its criteria.

Regardless of council rules, there are user experience reasons for limiting interactivity. With billboards, advertisers may have just a few seconds to get their message across. For billboards on a motorway, for example, you may only get one glance at it while you’re driving past at 100 km/hour (although on Auckland’s clogged motorways, you may be staring at it for a while).

But there are “ways to be interactive without having moving images,” said Malcolm.

“We have had a number of [roadside] campaigns that have utilised social integration or dynamic feeds to connect with consumers in a more interactive way.”

The future of digital billboards

Finally, I asked Kurt Malcolm what will billboards look like in five to 10 years time – will it be all digital by then?

“Not all sites will be converted to digital,” he said. “The static format has its place and is still used (and will be for a long time) for big brand campaigns, and it’s one of the best channels to build brand salience.”

However, he does think more “DOOH conversions” will happen.

In five to 10 years time, he predicts, there will be “a huge investment in real time data to truly implement programmatic”. In other words, digital billboards in future will be algorithmically controlled – much like our social media feeds are now.

Malcolm thinks we’ll also eventually see “anonymised face detection technology with improved data sources”.

Note that he doesn’t mean facial recognition, which is when an individual’s face is recognized. Facial detection, Malcolm assured me, is completely anonymised and only identifies high-level attributes – for example if it’s a man’s face or a woman’s face.

If this is where we’re headed, expect to see more privacy issues arise over time with digital billboards.

For now though, it’s clear that “out of home” digital technologies are a growing trend for advertising. And while digital billboards won’t save media, at least MediaWorks now has access to hundreds more (very large) digital screens across the country.

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