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Digital Billboards Ho!
By Louis M. Brill
In the 21st century of Outdoor Advertising, the emergence of digital billboards offers itself as a new frontier with its own pioneers staking out electronic advertising territories within the United States along its highways and urban byways.
Digital billboards have been around since the turn of the 21st century, its beginning years caught up in the tangle weeds of counter productive municipal sign codes, advertisers who were still mostly more comfortable with print billboards, and when used, not always in the most efficient ways.
But times change, and now the digital billboard has become a "killer ap" (a runway marketing success) for both the LED manufacturers who make them and as well, for their users, the top outdoor advertising media companies, all who have very aggressive digital billboard acquisition and installation plans for deploying these electronic boards in major metropolitan regions throughout the United States.
Of the approximately 450,000 billboards in the U.S., there are approximately 1,800 digital billboards, (Winter, 2008) whose total amount is growing on an almost weekly basis. The digital billboard expansion is a splendid opportunity that emerges from changing outdoor advertising strategies, lower acquisition costs of such billboards, and a more reasonable municipal sign code that recognizes the legitimacy of installing such billboards on roadside locations.
Despite the current disheartening economic times, the overall manufacturing and political environment for electronic billboards has never been better. Talk about supply and demand, most of the major LED manufacturers who fabricate LED billboards have increased their manufacturing production capacity in some cases by just about doubling their electronic billboard factory space to meet billboard customer requirements. And likewise, just about every major and midrange outdoor advertising company has an ongoing collection of digital signage in their advertising inventories.
One sign manufacturer, YESCO Electronics LLC (Logan, UT), has seen a tremendous demand for digital billboards as noted by Bob Klausmeier, Sales Manager for all YESCO electronic sales, who attributes the surge in digital billboard demand to several positive dynamic influences within the outdoor advertising industry:
Lower sign costs
Digital billboard acceptance
The results is a more up-to-date sign code that not only accepts the operation of a digital billboard, but clearly presents to billboard operators what digital billboards are allowed to do (to present multiple static images and cycle through them) and what they can't do (show animated videos). And from that, a greater deployment of digital billboards throughout the nation's highways and interstates has ensued.
"The biggest task of the digital billboard community," says Klausmeier, "is the ongoing education to the media planners of the community of digital billboard's advertising potential and to the municipal sign code regulators of the billboard's operational safety in regard to passing roadside traffic." Hence, disproving 'driver distraction' claims is the key concern of digital billboard community.
On a national level, year-to-year installations of digital billboards are increasing at a substantial rate. That increase, however is not seen as an overall replacement for the existing print billboard inventory, as much as creating a parallel advertising tier of electronic signage. Essentially digital billboards are still a "print" format, but one that is digitally enhanced and allows multiple advertisers the benefit of sharing the same billboard location with repeated daily showings of their advertising copy.
"At this time in early 2009, CBS Outdoors has about two dozen digital billboards in the top ten urban advertising markets. As for our clients use of our digital billboards" said Senese, "we can now offer national coverage for a client's advertising to simultaneously appear on all our screens if they so choose this format. However, what we are seeing now is situations where a single advertiser is buying an entire digital billboard's 'space' to create a single themed billboard dedicated to only their brand."
Norton Outdoor Advertising
"When we unveiled our outdoor digital billboard set up," said Mike Norton, executive vice president of the company, "there were no negative municipal sign code concerns for us, because the state of Ohio has had supportive language for the allowance of changeable message displays for quite some time."
"Our initial digital presence was easily accepted by our advertisers," says Norton, "as our outdoor customers were quickly attracted to them as a new media platform to advertise on. What we found though, was on one hand we had lots of customers seeking its accessibility, we also found that they did not always use the digital billboards to its full potential. In many cases, our early advertisers treated the digital billboards more as traditional static displays with the placement of a single advertisement that was left continuously on the digital sign face."
"We see the potential of digital billboards as a hybrid advertising medium that combines both the visual impact of a traditional billboard with the timeliness of the Internet. This combination gives our advertisers opportunities for day parting and 'week' parting, in having a much more direct contact with their outdoor audiences. We're finding our advertising clients are just beginning to understand this and are now beginning to use our digital billboards more effectively with multiple advertising spots during specific parts of the day or sudden sales opportunities when they come up, for reaching the public."
"As digital billboards come of age, we have found most municipalities are very receptive to this medium," said Norton, as our industry has partnered with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, to run AMBER Alerts on digital displays in appropriate areas. Another example of digital billboard's overreaching benefits is as a critical public communications system during weather or traffic emergencies. In 2007, when the bridge collapsed in Minnesota, Clear Channel informed motorists about the situation within less than an hour, and recommended that travelers take alternate routes. The local authorities credited this as a tremendous help in dealing with that horrible tragedy."
"Our average daily traffic passing the billboard northbound towards San Francisco on 101 is approximately 115,000 vehicles, and in the opposite direction going south towards San Jose, are approximately 125,000 vehicles per day."
The Silicon View digital billboard was installed in 2000 and has just introduced its second-generation billboard with state-of-the-art image projection. "Our biggest selling point with our new billboard is its Expanded Color Gamut which gives it a vibrant, very rich, full color output. Our new board has a patented design of five LEDs per pixel cluster giving the board very white whites and a very high contrast ratio which imparts an almost three-dimensional look to some of the ads on our screen. We have a full color range from light pastels to highly saturated deep colors."
With the enormous daily traffic passing the Silicon View billboard, Ackermann says she hears from the passing public on occasion as people e-mail her saying, "they only saw part of an ad that interested them and they're looking for more info on that spot. As to our solution for that, one of Silicon View's digital billboard special features is that we run (coming soon as of 1/31/2009), our electronic advertising loop simultaneously on the billboard and on our web site. This not only provides 'proof of display' to our billboard clients, but also allows interested board viewers to check the web site to get whatever information they missed in passing."
"Furthermore, our web-based advertising loop can be down-loaded to a viewer's cell phone, and by clicking on a particular ad, they can go to that advertiser's web site and have a direct contact with whatever ad piqued their interest (coming soon as of 1/31/2009).
"As for the saturation of digital billboards in the outdoor marketplace, Klausmeier believes there is still tremendous room for growth.” Not only are digital billboards appearing on the sides of highways, but also within inner city urban areas as well. In some cases, the digital billboards may be somewhat smaller (poster size) or deployed as large format, weatherized LCD screens, but the trend of outdoor displays is not only the process (electronic signage), but as well varied formats (LCD and LED screens). CBS's Senese notes, CBS Outdoors' digital billboards have also made inroads in various digital platforms, for example in New York City CBS operates its digital Urban Panel Network which is composed of 80 units of 30" x 60" ruggedized LCD screens that are installed on top of NYC MTA subway entrance railings which commuters view upon entering the subway system. Here instead of just static ads, the Urban Panel Network can showcase full motion video on its displays.
The medium and the message
It is the emergence of digital billboards as a "media platform" that is transforming the outdoor advertising landscape. Already we have the conversion of print billboards and posters into their digital counterparts. LED displays dominate most outdoor display technology platforms, but large scale LCD displays are also starting to become available as well, for outdoor use when appropriate. Thus in the true spirit of Marshall McLuhan, "it's a (digital) medium and message," which is transforming outdoor advertising from the Guttenberg era to state-of-the (electronic) art digital domain of 21st century outdoor communications.
Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech entertainment and media communications.
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