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Digital Billboards Ho!

In the 1840s, it was wagons ho and west to the new frontier. Thousands of people staked their fortune, their family and their future on the uncharted territories of westward expansion. Today, digital billboards are staking out new territories across the US of A.

By Louis M. Brill

In the 1840s, it was wagons ho and west to the new frontier. Thousands of people staked their fortune, their family and their future on the uncharted territories of westward expansion.

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  • 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.

    There is a constant production of digital billboards at YESCO, as yet another digital billboard is brought towards completion at their Logan Utah plant.
    photo credit: YESCO ELECTRONICS

    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
    In the last four years, Klausmeier says, the purchase of a single digital billboard has come down by at least 35%. In 2004, an average (depending on additional features), 14-foot x 48-foot digital billboard was about $400,000 per board. Today, the same billboard can be acquired for about $290,000.

    Digital billboard acceptance
    Over the last five years there has also been a lot more municipal government acceptance of digital billboards and in some cases, the revising of state and/or local city ordinances to accept the installation of such boards. This has been done on a state-by-state, and individual market by individual market approach.
    In the YESCO production area, a recently completed digital billboard goes though its color testing phase.
    photo credit: YESCO Electronics

    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.

    "To this end, the OAAA in Washington D.C. (Outdoor Advertising Association of America) has taken up the mantle of presenting the viewpoint that digital billboards are NOT distraction," says Paul Wright of SignValue (Mesa, Arizona) a company that specializes in appraising billboards and off-premise outdoor advertising. Through the OAAA's efforts, they have convinced many of the appropriate government agencies dealing with sign code regulations that vehicular operation is not affected by the viewing of such board. Indeed, as stated on the OAAA web site, an analysis of accident data by the industry and state and local governments shows that digital billboards are not related to accidents. Typical glances in the direction of digital billboards are less than one second, which is well under the risk threshold identified in a major federal study. In fact, the New York DOT stated in its October, 2008 guidelines, "There is no empirical evidence at this time to indicate an electronic message changing every six seconds results in an increased risk of accidents."

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    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.

    CBS Outdoor
    "CBS Outdoor (NY, NY) has fully embraced digital billboards as part of its advertising inventory," says Jodi Senese, Executive Vice President of Marketing. "In expanding our existing outdoor advertising network, CBS Outdoor is augmenting its existing print billboard network of high profile digital locations. What we do is look for iconic real estate in our top markets and once we have the proper leasing and permitting in place, we install each digital billboard as a premium advertising platform in selected locations along high demand locations."

    CBS Outdoors digital billboard, located on the East Bay side of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, is 19-feet tall by 59-feet wide with a resolution of 240 pixels (tall) x 720 pixels (wide) with a 16-bit full color display is one of about two dozen digital billboards in the top ten urban advertising markets, with each digital billboard installed as a premium advertising platform in selected locations along high profile highway locations.
    photo credit: CBS OUTDOOR

    "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
    Big outdoor companies and small ones are all investing in digital billboards to establish an outdoor digital component as much as possible. In Cincinnati, Norton Outdoor Advertising, which has been around since 1949 with a complete inventory of traditional outdoor advertising platforms (8 sheets, 30 sheets, tri-vision and print billboards) took the plunge in 2007 with the introduction of Norton HD Outdoor Network, which consists (to date) of four high-resolution digital billboards installed around the Cincinnati metropolitan area.

    Norton Outdoor Advertising initiated the introduction of Norton HD Outdoor Network, which consists (to date) of four high-resolution digital billboards installed around the Cincinnati metropolitan area.
    photo credit: 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."

    Silicon View
    Silicon View (Palo Alto, CA) is an outdoor advertising media company that manages a digital billboard in the San Francisco Bay Area. The billboard as described by Christine Ackermann, vice president, is 40 feet from ground with an active display area of 34-feet wide by 19-feet high. The billboards LED matrix was custom commissioned by the company with its own patented LED technology to illuminate its screen area. "Our billboard is located in a high profile traffic corridor on Interstate 101. The digital billboard is double-faced with its north side facing southbound traffic heading towards San Jose Airport and Silicon Valley. The opposite side faces traffic heading towards San Francisco."

    The Silicon View double faced digital billboard is 40 feet from ground with an active display area of 34-feet wide by 19-feet high. The billboard is located in a high profile traffic corridor on Interstate 101. Passing viewers will sometimes contact Silicon View for further information on the billboard spots.
    photo credit: Silicon View

    "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).

    CBS Outdoors' also operates in New York City its digital Urban Panel Network which is composed of 80 units of 30" x 60" ruggardized LCD screens that are installed on top of NYC MTA subway entrance railings which commuters view upon entering and leaving the subway system.
    photo credit: CBS OUTDOOR

    "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
    As digital outdoors becomes more firmly entrenched, so does it begin to redefine the advertising landscape, both for advertisers and for the public who connects with these digital billboards. Digital signage can be seen as both a process, which is the electronic transmission of advertising messages, and a product which is the media platform these messages appear on.

    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.
    He can be reached at (415) 664-0694 or

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