The Great Outdoors

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The Great Outdoors

Outdoor Advertising Could Bring More Customers Into Your Business
By Mark Landsbaum

Although the Internet seems to overshadow all forms of marketing communication, conventional options still exist for reaching customers.

Even ubiquitous Google, which long shunned advertising, now concedes the Internet alone is insufficient. Last year Google began promoting its search engine with outdoor advertising in Russia, where it faced stiff rivalry from domestic competitors, and on buses and trains in San Francisco and Chicago, where it’s already well-established.

If billboards and poster panels are good for the hugely successful Internet-based Google, can outdoor advertising be good for your micro-business? Perhaps.

The Inside Scoop
Outdoor advertising, also known as out-of-home advertising, is divided into billboards, street furniture, transit and alternative media.

Billboards date to the 1830s in the U.S., but government restrictions on their numbers and placement have driven up costs by reducing supply in the face of growing demand. Nevertheless, conventional billboard advertising accounts for two-thirds of the outdoor industry’s $6.8 billion annual revenue.

Variations on the theme include sidewalk kiosks and even the latter-day version of sandwich boards, called human directionals, which typically feature a person on a street corner literally pointing the way to a storefront by waving a large portable sign.

Street furniture includes ads carried on bus and train benches and shelters, and even in-store displays, as well as public telephone, rail and shopping center displays. Transit displays include vinyl wraps that can encompass an entire bus and items as small as a taxi-top ad.

The alternative media category is essentially everything else, limited only by imagination.

Options include skywriting, wall ads on minor league ballpark fences, small poster displays in bars and restrooms, and stickers on barrier poles. There are ads on blimps and other inflatables. Smaller displays can be mounted on vending machines, turnstiles and trash receptacles (although you may want to think twice before associating your product with that last option).

The variety of outdoor advertising today is vast and ever-expanding as new hi-tech solutions are applied.

Increasingly, digital delivery is enlivening previously static kiosks and even conventional wall-mounted messages, luring prospective customers with creative interactive elements. Qkey Holdings, for example, has developed a digital marketing platform that enables consumers to interact with all types of media including billboards via a mobile phone, allowing downloading of data to the phone or to an e-mail address.

As technology makes it easier for consumers to avoid in-home advertising — think TiVo, do-not-call lists and spam filters — advertisers are going to places where eyes aren’t as easily averted, public places like malls, thoroughfares and workplaces. Outdoor advertising, including large flat-screen, TV-type displays, is becoming so widespread that messages are thrust upon people waiting for a haircut, buying groceries and pumping gasoline.

The Big Attraction

What works for your business will depend on your customers’ preferences and on what you can afford. Out-of-home advertising can be cost-effective, but it’s not a perfect fit for everyone, and probably never should consume all your advertising dollars. But if it broadens or deepens your reach and returns more than it costs, it can be worthwhile.

It’s noteworthy that the industry estimates seven out of 10 outdoor ads promote local businesses, and even a greater percentage in nonurban areas. Travel and tourism industries are the top buyers.

Outdoor advertising’s big attraction is the potentially huge audience it may deliver.

The downside is you may never know how many eyeballs were drawn to your message, or whether your advertising campaign resulted in any sales. Tracking sales in relation to visual exposures is nowhere as precise as counting Web page clicks. And it’s at least as difficult as tracking other conventional advertising, but without even the benefit of crude tools like counting clipped coupons from print ads.

On the other hand, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America says that the advent of digital displays updated in real time means micro-businesses can “adapt quickly in fast-changing, competitive environments,” such as offering constantly changing prices or announcing time-sensitive sales, as well an ability to target markets by time of day and location.

New, but so far sparsely applied, technology also permits billboards and other digital displays to count how many people come within eyeshot. Even more advanced versions claim to use tiny cameras to gather demographic details of passersby then analyze their facial features with software to determine sex and age. Soon you may be able to know whether middle-aged women or young men saw your ad.

The Pros And Cons

Before weighing advantages and disadvantages, determine whether outdoor advertising is a good fit for your micro-business.

First be mindful of your customers. What are the habits and preferences of your target market? What benefits do they seek that you provide?

If you sell wheelchairs to senior citizens, don’t waste money with wall posters at the roller rink. Placards touting automotive accessories probably won’t interest subway commuters.

But if your market profile (you do have one, right?) shows that your typical customer spends two hours daily on the highway, it may be worthwhile to buy billboard space. Similarly, if your customer profile matches the profile of frequent shopping mall visitors, investing in interactive digital kiosks can work, too.

Outdoor advertising’s advantage over direct mail is the savings on printing and shipping. Digital delivery also enables advertisers to share the same space, buying only a portion of display time, as opposed to paying for the entire display in a magazine or newspaper ad.

But disadvantages include a perception that your outdoor ad contributes to visual clutter, which can offset a lot of good will with a single glance. The reason municipalities restrict outdoor displays is because of adverse public reactions. When the idea is to build brand awareness, you may want to weigh the risk of being associated with visual blight.

How much of your ad dollar should go to outdoor advertising? Since budgets are limited, sample before committing.

Ultimately, how much you spend on direct mail, Internet ads, newspaper inserts or park bench displays depends on how much each contributes to success.

Because it’s more difficult than with other forms of advertising to directly link an upturn (or downturn) in sales to an outdoor campaign, it’s prudent to change no other aspects of your ad or marketing mix while doing a test sample. If you change two variables at the same time, you can’t be certain which caused the change in sales.

Here’s an indispensable marketing tip: Don’t abandon what is working for something that has yet to prove it works.

The Costs

Generally, outdoor advertising is competitive with other major ad options, but prices vary tremendously by region, season and type of media.

  • The Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) says billboard advertising costs 86 percent less than TV commercials, 66 percent less than newspapers and 44 percent less than radio.
  • Media Life Magazine reports that wallscapes in Times Square may run $12,000 a day, but only $400 a month in the Midwest for a prime location.
  • Del Outdoor Advertising serving Yuma, Ariz., quotes a $225 monthly rental price for a 6-by-12 foot single billboard.
  • Florida-based Billboard Connection prices 14 movie theater screen advertisements at $350 a week for a four-week contract, with a $700 one-time graphical production fee.
The price you pay isn’t as important as the return on your investment. A cheap ad that generates no sales is money wasted. A costly ad that puts heaps of dollars in the till is worth the expense.

And it is wise to deal with reputable companies and agencies to calculate the return on your investment.

The questions you want to ask include who will see your ad, how many times will it be seen and is there a way to measure the ad’s effectiveness. Different providers and different media will have different answers and measuring yardsticks. If the best they can do is to point you to your own sales numbers, be sure to sample first and sample only one change in your advertising at a time.

For self-help, get OAAA’s “Planning For Out of Home Media,” a 200-page planning guide available for $18. Order it online at Click “Online Store,” then “Sales and Reference.”


Mark Landsbaum is author of “Streetwise Low-Cost Marketing: Savvy Strategies for Maximizing Your Marketing Dollars” (Adams Media, 2004).

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