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Can Billboard Advertising Really Be Measured?

Outdoor advertising could get a boost with reliable ratings that cause companies to pour more money into billboards and bus shelters.

By Jennifer LeClaire

There’s big money to be made in outdoor advertising. Unfortunately, billboards, posters and bus shelters are only a small fraction of most sign shops’ revenue. Nielsen Outdoor, however, could soon change that.

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  • Nielson Outdoor has released the first-ever outdoor ratings data based on Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. GPS was originally intended for military applications, but in the 1980s the government made the system available for civilian use. GPS works in any weather conditions, anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day.

    Nielson Outdoor worked with technology partner RDP Associates to develop the Npod, a device about the size of a cell phone that is continuously linked to the network of 24 orbiting satellites. GPS satellites circle the earth twice a day in a very precise orbit and transmit signal information to earth. GPS receivers, like the Npod, take this information and use triangulation to calculate the user’s exact location.

    Outdoor advertising measurements are drawn from people who are asked to carry the Npods in their pockets, purses or wear them on a belt clip while thy travel on foot or in cars. The satellite linkage allows Nielson to identify where the people are located relative to the location of outdoor advertising messages, their speed and direction of travel, and the exact time of day when they passed the outdoor advertising locations.

    “Outdoor advertising is the last of the great unmeasured media. This ratings system benefits both sides of the advertising transaction by establishing a currency that is comparable with other measured media, such as television, radio and print,” says Lorraine Hadfield, managing director for Nielson Outdoor.

    Nielson: The Sign Builder’s Friend
    Advertisers spend an estimated $5.5 billion a year on outdoor advertising in the United States, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA). However, that $5.5 billion is barely 2 percent of the $276 billion Universal McCann media forecast was spent on all advertising last year.

    A lack of a reliable, consistent, people-based audience measurement system that provides ratings data comparable to other media is one reason why outdoor advertising has not gained more traction, according to OAAA Chief Marketing Officer Stephen Freitas. Why does all of this matter to sign makers?

    “This rating system will take outdoor media, the oldest media, to the next level because advertising today is all about accountability,” Freitas says. “These ratings tell advertisers who they are reaching, how many they are reaching and when they are reaching them. This is true demographic profiling that allows sign makers to demonstrate the value they are providing and the return on investment.”

    Learning from the Data
    Here’s how Nielsen’s system works. When the respondent’s travel path intersected with a known outdoor display, an “intercept” is recorded, representing an “opportunity to see” the ad. Each event can be dated and time-stamped.

    Nielsen establishes the respondent’s likely exposure to an advertising message by applying a series of variables known as a “visibility adjustment” to the data. The variables include the respondent’s speed of travel, the angle of display to the road, its distance from the curb, the distance from which the display is first visible, the complexity of the environment around the display, the height of the display above street level, the size of the display, and whether or not the display is illuminated or obstructed.

    Nielsen’s data doesn’t provide a demographic snapshot for individual outdoor sites, but they can give advertisers on a multi-site campaign level an idea of what kinds of consumers were exposed to their ad, as well as its reach and frequency. For example, Nielson’s Chicago study, conducted over the summer of 2004, revealed that the most likely group to see advertising on billboards is men between the ages of 35 to 54. Eighteen to 34-year-old women are the most likely of all women to see bus shelter advertising.

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    Hadfield says monthly reach to any outdoor media is 97 percent overall, with the average Chicago adult exposed to 40 outdoor ads a day. For adults living in the city, that number rises to 66 percent. However, she adds, reach level is highly dependent on site dispersion. Hadfield notes two different advertising campaigns with GRPs of 560 generated varied reach because of the dispersion. A campaign randomly dispersed across the greater Chicago market generated a reach of 60 percent, while a campaign concentrated in the city proper had a reach of 45 percent.

    Skeptics Remain
    Kate Sirkin, executive vice president of global research for Starcom MediaVest Group is encouraging the industry to embrace outdoor ratings: “It is now time for the outdoor industry to have a comparable currency with the other measured media to enable us to seriously consider outdoor in our media planning schedules and marketing mix models.”

    Nielsen Outdoor can provide a dramatic improvement in the accountability of this medium, and that’s long overdue, says Tony Jarvis, senior vice president and director of the Strategic Insights Group at the media-buying agency MediaCom. “We expect that advertisers will be more willing to consider committing more money to outdoor once they actually see the kind of target audience delivery they're getting,” he says.

    Not everyone is jumping on the GPS bandwagon, though. Arbitron tested a similar ratings service in Atlanta in 2002 using global positioning, but decided not to pursue it. John DiPietro, a marketing expert in Holden, Mass., calls Nielsen’s new measurement system “baloney.”

    “There is no way to correctly and precisely measure the number of people who will notice a billboard regardless of what the traffic count is on a particular venue,” he argues. “There are too many variables, like the number of people in the car, other devices at use in the car and weather conditions.”

    Hadfield and Freitas were surprised by DiPietro’s response, contending that this is the most accurate audience measurement of any media. “Clearly this marketing executive didn’t understand the multibillion-dollar technology we are using,” Hadfield explains. “We literally track where participants go every five seconds through the Global Positioning System.”

    Researchers understand that just because thousands of cars drive by a billboard on a freeway is no guarantee that the driver viewed the billboard. That’s why the visibility adjustments Hadfield mentioned are integrated into the program.

    “The Visibility Adjusted Index will offer a way to scientifically reduce the number of exposures to determine the realistic number of people who are actually seeing the billboard,” Freitas explains. “When you put the demographic profiling on top of that number, then you have a true comparison to other media, like television.”

    Beyond billboards
    Nielson Outdoor has plans to extend its outdoor measurement ratings beyond billboards and bus shelters. The technology can measure exposure to any transit, whether fixed or moving, so long as it is outdoors. It can also measure exposure to standard posters, overhead signs and grand-format signs.

    “This system will raise the outdoor advertising industry’s cost per thousand because we can tell ad buyers that we know for sure they are reaching their target audience instead of just random viewers who may or may not be interested in their company,” Freitas says. “This is a win-win for everyone involved in outdoor advertising.”

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