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February 20, 2009

Digital Screens Are Not Billboards

Starbucks

Digital Screen at Starbucks showing song currently playing in-store

They’re both rectangular, have images and text designed to catch your attention in a short period of time, and are built around a business premise of taking messages to places that people physically (vs. digitally) frequent.  But that is where the similarity ends… or rather where it should end.

Burma Shave and Route 66

Billboards have been around in some form since the mid 1800’s when Jared Bell began making 9’ x 6’ posters for the circus in the US.  Their numbers expanded in the early 1900’s when the Model T was introduced and more people took to the highways. Advertisers quickly saw the miles and miles of open road as an untapped promotional landscape, with cheap potential for increasing consumer reach. Billboards even began to achieve pop culture status when the 6 panel Burma Shave billboards began lining highways such as Route 66 in the mid 1920’s. 

(Does this not sound a lot like the Internet of late 1990s/early 2000’s?  And I won’t pull the cheap shot of referring to the … ah …. “Information Superhighway.”)

However, billboards are not, nor have they always been, welcome additions to the visual environment. (Kind of like the way I feel about pop-ups that are still around and clutter my screen on occasion.) Many cities in the US tried to ban them as early as 1909 - “visual pollution”; and they are currently banned in 4 states (Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii and Maine), as well as in some 1500 individual towns.

Starbucks2

(These billboards and others can be seen at Toxel.com.)

So when do billboards work?  When they move away from some of the “in-the-box” thinking and premises of the media and embrace directions such as:

  1. Breaking the old 2D language: Adidas (top right) and Mini Cooper (middle right).
  2. Evolving the image (content) over time: Tide (bottom right).
  3. Integrating visual elements into the surrounding environment outside the billboard space: “Kill Bill” movie promo (lower left).
  4. Blending into the environment rather than encroaching on it:  Nike and its “gate billboard” at the opening of a park and running/nature path (middle left).

Evolution or De-volution?

So where are we now in the timeline of intelligent digital screens that are part of out-of-home networks?  How might they “break out of the frame” and “integrate with the surrounding landscape?” What are the rules they need to construct new creative/interaction models so they are not relegated to the role of disregarded chorus member in what some might call the growing cacophony of screen pollution.

Friend or Foe? Networked Digital Out-of-Home Advertising or Place-Based Media

Some might say that the whole host and variety of digital screens that we now see populating coffee and bagel shops, Nike stores, the window displays of brokers, airport terminals, and even doctors offices are the new millennium equivalent of twentieth century billboards, and with that they also bring with them the potential visual downside if misused. Like the drivers of the Model-T’s, out-of-home screens, are focused on marketing to consumers when they are 'on the go' – but now it is in high frequency foot traffic public places, in-transit queues, waiting lines and in specific commercial locations (such as in a retail venue).

 “In fact, billboards are not just for roadsides anymore. Advertisements have been popping up more frequently inside subways and buses, shopping malls, office buildings and airports.” 

- Jan. 2007 New York Times

But most are getting it all wrong.  Digital screens too often are turning into Route 66 billboards or an homage to “Blade Runner” with all of the associated problems in terms of consumer engagement or downright disdain because of ill conceived approaches and media that brings no personal value to viewers. With that, the opportunity could be lost to foster and grow a truly unique form of communication and connection.

Ported Static Ads vs. Dynamic and Personally Relevant Social Media Opportunity

We will concede that digital signs (even when approached like billboards) can offer what the industry may see as benefits over traditional static signage in that, depending on the intelligence of the backend network sending content to the screen:

  1. content can be updated and exchanged more easily, focusing on the day’s most important promotional item or message,
  2. content can be hyper-local parsing by zip code or other micro-targeting data,
  3. content can adapt to the time of day and audience profile with different programming cycles for different time-of-day experiences.

Unfortunately, the creative of many digital screens is populated by directly ported print ads or banners, TV ads and promo videos that do not take the full potential of the medium into consideration, and other creative that looks as if it was almost directly pulled from the Web, because … well … “It’s kind of interactive.”  Those translations fall short of what the medium (I am assuming there is an intelligent backend here) could be if it took but a few premises into consideration.  If we use the earlier model of the 4 points of “out of box” thinking around interesting and engaging billboards and apply it to networked digital screens:

1.    Breaking the old 2D language: The breaking out of the “self-contained rectangular frame” is in the potential for 2-way connection with people via their mobile devices.  This can include information that is downloaded (store and refer to later), information that is uploaded (consumer generated content) and two-way engagement (play). Examples might include: games and puzzles, download coupons and offers, bookmarking urls and downloading pdfs that relate to more info about on-screen content, consumers uploading content (a survey, comments, shout-outs, photo experiences) to the screen system on the spot, customers being identified through an integration of the digital screen and retail systems to display pre-approved personal information or offers.

2.    Evolving content over time:  By creating programs, events and initiatives, screen network providers, the venues that host them, or major brands that “buy space/time” on them – can create integrated campaigns in which content that people/customers actively create, contribute and comment on is an important element.  This provides ever-fresh and personally relevant screen programming that with more sophisticated two-way and database capabilities/applications could be set to trigger screens when the person who contributed or commented on the content arrives at the venue and activates a mobile device and their ”digital opt-in signature.”

3.    Integrating visual elements into the surrounding environment outside the screen: A website and mobile device outside the individual screens or screen network defines the person’s “surrounding environment” in this case.  Screens should not be seen as isolated uni-directional islands blaring propoganda.  Appropriate social media programs (per #2 above) means enabling people to create and upload, as well as download and experience – media related to the (perhaps shorter form) content of the out-of-home digital network screen on their own personal screens, tethered or mobile.

4.    Blending into the environment rather than encroaching on it: Simply said, the look and feel (UI) and nature of the content of screen programming needs to fit seamlessly into its physical environment and feel a part of it, not at odds with it.  It must deliver on the customers’ expectations of what any experience in that environment should be, in alignment with brand image, without being obtrusive or invasive.

In essence, screen programming needs to embrace and reflect the surrounding brand environment in which it exists (in creative execution and content) and be an integrated part of the kind of experience customers expect (even require) in that environment.  The programming experience needs to be personally meaningful to individuals at the point of physical delivery, but also provide information that can be taken with them when they leave the physical location (via their mobile device) or sent to their computer at home (mobile to screen while at the venue) for later engagement.

So screens are NOT billboards. Simple concept.  Takes some thinking and risk-taking (technically, creatively and in partnerships) to execute. Favicon-short

(Disclosure: Danoo, a Kleiner Perkins backed startup in the out-of-home digital network space is a client.)

 

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Liz Gebhardt


  • © Amanda Jones
    Digital and traditional (live & broadcast) media/ marketing strategist and producer living at the intersection of Web meets (live) World. More than two decades of experience in building media and technology businesses, content programming and distribution, brand stories and integrated communications campaigns.

    Believes that strategy is all talk unless it can be executed in a way that delivers on both the creative and business promises. Embraces the role of navigator of the uncharted path vs. passenger along the known road.