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Can Brands Make Billboards Go Viral?

Out-of-home advertising is the hottest channel in marketing today, but physical billboards still need to drive digital impact.
Madhappy billboard out of home advertising
Madhappy's second outdoor advertising campaign since May is helping the brand build awareness with consumers offline. Courtesy.

Out-of-home advertising is getting a modern reboot.

The out-of-home market — often referred to as OOH, which includes any ad that appears outdoors or in a major public space like billboards, wild postings (posters pasted on buildings and other areas), public transit and more — is hotter than ever. The second quarter of 2021 saw the market reach $2 billion in revenue, a 38 percent increase over the same period in 2020 and 37 percent increase from the same period in 2019, according to the Out of Home Advertising Association of America. In top markets, the most in-demand locations, like Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard, are sold out through the end of the year and executives in the space say prices have increased between 10 percent and 15 percent since 2019.

Fashion is getting in on the out-of-home boom: Balenciaga ran an anamorphic 3D digital advertisement to promote its partnership with Fortnite in Times Square, while Bottega Veneta placed advertisements on rooftops in the flyover space near LAX so that passengers could spot the brand’s signature apple green in the air. For its second OOH campaign this year, loungewear brand Madhappy translated its pro-mental health marketing to eight languages on billboards across Los Angeles and New York.

The renewed interest in out-of-home comes at a time when the default for many fashion brands — digital advertising — is increasingly out-of-reach. The cost of Facebook ads has increased by 33 percent since 2019 while Instagram and Google ads have increased by 23 percent, according to performance marketing firm Tinuiti. With those increases, even as brands use more traditional methods, like billboards, they’re also increasingly thinking about how to make their physical ads translate back to digital, too.

“We have a mantra: if it doesn’t end up on Instagram, it never existed,” said Gino Sesto, founder of Los Angeles-based media buying agency Dash Two.

The OOH Opportunity

Outdoor advertisements shouldn’t simply be repurposed from a print ad, according to Sesto. Instead — at least on billboards and posters — they should be bold with few words according to Sesto. He referred to a “three-second rule” in outdoor advertising: if an ad can’t be read within three seconds, it’s a waste of money.

“It has to be really recognisable,” Sesto said. “Oftentimes, these underground brands like to be subtle and cryptic and … I’m not hip, but I should still be able to know what the hell is on that billboard.”

That’s the approach vegan skin care brand Youth To The People took in launching its first national outdoor advertising campaign in September, which included billboards and wild postings across Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Miami.

Given the current challenges in social media marketing, the brand — which previously had only advertised on digital channels — knew it wanted to launch an ad campaign using a traditional channel to drive greater consumer awareness, said co-founder Joe Cloyes. The team landed on a straightforward creative strategy: billboards and posters that featured the brand’s logo alongside bare-faced models holding the brand’s best-selling Superfood cleanser with taglines like, “you are youth, live your truth.”

“As a smaller indie brand, it’s hard to sometimes think through these very multi-layered, out of home visual ads,” said Cloyes. “It was almost too complex for us.”

It’s too early to tell whether the campaign has driven sales and website traffic for the brand in the areas where its outdoor ads appeared. But at the very least, the brand has been able to use its out-of-home efforts online: Youth To The People quickly repackaged some of the creative assets from the campaign, as well as photos shot of the billboards themselves, for the brand’s social media feed and paid ads.

I’m not hip, but I should still be able to know what the hell is on that billboard.

In addition to thinking about what a campaign looks like, brands must also consider where the ads appear. While a high-traffic area like an expressway might attract eyeballs, but consumers might not be in a favourable mindset when they’re sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic along LA’s 405 freeway.

“On Sunset [Boulevard,] you’re looking to see what’s happening,” Sesto said. “When you’re on the 405, you’re just focused on getting off of it.”

Making an Impact

As people find their ways back to life outside their homes it is important for brands considering digital out of home ads (DOOH) to think about how to surprise consumers who are trained to ignore ads on their home computers or phones.

If advertisers chase “thumb-stopping” behaviour online — with ads that make consumers stop their infinite scroll and pay attention — they should think of OOH in walkable areas as stroll stopping.

The Tiffany takeover in Times Square in September occupied nearly a dozen digital screens flashing the luxury jewellery maker’s signature blue hue. But it also peppered in images and videos from the campaign with brand ambassadors Jay-Z and Beyoncé, who sings a downtempo piano rendition of “Moon River,” effectively acting as a foil to the chaos that usually engulfs Times Square.

“Don’t treat it as a digital version of a printed billboard,” said Dan Levi, chief marketing officer of Clear Channel, the company that owns the digital billboards that Tiffany rented in Times Square for the activation. “With digital out of home ad spaces, treat them as a way to tell a story [in] the same way as you might on social media.”

For as much creativity as brands can have without out-of-home advertisements, they’re not without issues. Investing in a unique out-of-home advertisement that no one sees is “like a swing and a miss,” said Sesto. And while the space has evolved to help marketers better measure their return on investment, the data isn’t always as sharp as it is with digital advertising. QR codes on wild postings can help brands drive website traffic, app downloads and even sales, but they first require the advertisement in question to be compelling enough for the consumer to scan the code.

Clear Channel’s Levi said it’s important for brands to understand precisely where their target customers live — and also where they’re going — before purchasing outdoor ad spaces so that the ads are attracting the right eyeballs. (The firm uses anonymised cell phone and other aggregate consumer data to help determine which of its units reach what kinds of people and what they do after they see a billboard, he said.) Finally, outdoor advertisements aren’t only about driving brand awareness but driving consumers to nearby stores.

“Advertisers are recognising that you can’t think of [out-of-home ads] in silos, you can think of them in more immersive, synced up ways,” said Levi.

Related Articles:

Why Social Media Advertising Is Still Necessary

Inside Balmain’s Entertainment Marketing Strategy

Unpacking Tiffany’s Contentious New Ad Campaign

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