Digital billboard technology brought innovation to the billboard advertising landscape through offering additional value for advertisers by splitting costs and allowing for greater campaign control. For instance, Macy’s department store ran billboard ads for yearly sales like Memorial Day or Black Friday, and they ran ads for several days, with each one showcasing unique products and adding intrigue to a holiday shopping deadline. Traditional billboards can’t reasonably run this kind of promotion without serious vinyl printing and hanging costs. Because of the onset of digital billboards, Macy’s ads—and many others since—have been able to run dynamic ads that are easily changed.
Digital billboards first started in 2005, and changed how billboard content is displayed and how advertising is bought. Technology changes shift every industry, and the billboard industry is no exception. Here are several ways technology has changed billboards and how it will continue to drive billboard advertising forward:
The Democratization of the Billboard Market
Digital billboard technology opened up billboard advertising to a much broader range of advertising budgets. The first wave of digital billboard technology opened up billboard advertising to roughly 2 percent of all advertisers, and the latest technology changes to billboards allow all advertisers the benefits of billboard advertising. Now, all sized companies can afford to advertise on a billboard by strategically picking locations and times that meet their budget.
This isn’t the first time that technology has opened up new marketing channels to a new segment of advertisers. Digital advertising through channels like Facebook and Google Ads give companies the ability to spend $100 or $1 million a month. The barriers to entry simply went away with the new technology and were replaced by accessibility and transparency. Old school advertising is getting young again through innovation.
The Message Matters
Technology improvements transformed analytics. Marketers can dice information in countless ways, use data to make predictions, and adjust their campaigns dynamically based on analytics insights. However, using analytics comes with a caveat—it can’t replace a good message, which means that even the best analytics program is worthless if the actual billboard message doesn’t hit the mark with the audience. You have to have a good story. A good story and a design that stands out are at the core of developing brand awareness.
Capturing the Moment
Technology has shifted how advertisers can get on billboards. Technology has also changed what is actually possible for the delivery of the actual ad content. Digital billboards allow advertisers to present dynamic images to the real world in real-time. For example, KitchenAid placed billboards in Toronto to showcase its iconic kitchen mixer. The ads they displayed didn’t have any words—just a picture of the stand mixer. The innovation for this campaign was that the display changed colors in time with the changing colors of Toronto’s famous CN Tower. Using an XML feed, the billboard’s adjustments occurred nearly instantaneously providing viewers with an eye-catching contrast between the stand mixer product and the most visible building of the Toronto skyline.
Technology also encourages greater engagement between billboard content and the individual viewer or commuter. A Swedish drugstore company placed billboard ads for pedestrians that showed a man on the screen who would cough when someone was smoking. Smoke detectors integrated into the billboard generate the coughing, and the billboard then promotes smoking cessation products. The campaign generated a considerable amount of attention and underscored the potential for tying digital content to the actual physical world in a way that makes contextual sense.
Another technology breakthrough is the use of e-ink displays. E-ink displays mimic the appearance of ink and paper, similar to the technology that many Kindle devices use. This kind of technology is easy to read, even in sunlight. E-ink is also powered with low power requirements and is easily changed. Vinyl displays could be eliminated with the shift to e-ink, which removes a lot of the infrastructure required for more traditional digital displays. The promise of e-ink displays is shown with a recent German campaign that put the displays on the back of 18-wheeler style trucks. The back end of the trucks featured displays that illustrated when it was safe to pass the vehicle and real-time traffic as well as dynamic ads. The ads react to actual conditions and also function as a sort of mobile experience where they present multiple types of data continuously.
Technology will certainly continue to adjust how billboards are managed and the type of content that’s displayed. There’s always industry talk about linking billboards to an individual’s cell phone and then dynamically presenting billboard ads that are tied to their browsing habits and their geolocations. There are many questions about this type of interactivity and other geofencing-style promotions that will require ongoing experimentation and refinement.
From the horse-drawn carriages to Teslas, and from newspapers to digital tablets, emerging technologies shift industries. Billboards remain an incredibly effective way to build a brand, and new technology allows markets to have more choices and the analytics data they crave. Technology will continue to change the billboard industry, but in the future, the efficacy and impact of billboard campaigns will still come from the marketers who embrace creativity and concentrate on the ‘why’ of their message.