Hybrid EMC/ Billboards: Combining the Best of Print and Electronic Displays on a Single Billboard
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Hybrid EMC/ Billboards: Combining the Best of Print and Electronic Displays on a Single Billboard

While most outdoor media companies are taking the plunge to add electronic billboards, it is in no way seen as a replacement of the existing print billboard set ups. It is seen more as a compliment to print, each having certain strengths that reinforce each other's advertising potential.

By Louis Brill

In the world of Outdoor Advertising, print billboards have evolved into their electronic counterparts which are now appearing with regularity along many major highways throughout the United States. A recent signindustry.com article Electronic LED Billboards: The New Voice of Business noted an estimated national billboard inventory of approximately 200 electronic outdoor displays.

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  • While most outdoor media companies are taking the plunge to add electronic billboards, it is in no way seen as a replacement of the existing print billboard set ups. It is seen more as a compliment to print, each having certain strengths that reinforce each other's advertising potential.

    In another approach to improving the "kinetic" presence of billboards, there is a middle ground of combining print with an electronic message center (EMC), including both text and alpha-numeric message content which are taking the best of both mediums (print and electronic), to create what is referred to as a 'Hybrid Billboard.' These combined billboards include the staying power of print in reinforcing a message with certain content that is always in place, and is followed by its EMC component, which can high-light the main ad tag with updated electronic copy to make the message more personal and time specific. Another benefit for outdoor advertisers using the Hybrid billboard approach is the expense, as leasing time on an EMC is much less expensive than a advertisement on a full color, electronic billboard.

    These Hybrid boards have been around for several years in this form, but are more recently starting to take off as both LED sign manufacturers, and Outdoor Advertisers see the benefits of directing specific ad campaigns on these electronic/print billboards.

    Ultimately, the creation and use of a Hybrid billboard is client driven, in collaboration between the client and their ad campaign, and the outdoor advertising media company and the LED sign manufacturer who will provide the LED board to the billboard company. In some instances very creative uses of EMC have appeared that incorporate elements of passerby personal involvement, interactivity, and print/EMC integration that have made for some really compelling sign messages.

    Act One's NiteVISION as deployed in San Paulo, Brazil. The rooftop billboard is approximately 20 feet high by 50 feet long and uses an 80 mm pitch LED matrix. By day the board represent Claro and by night in its electronic mode, presents some 3rd party advertising and public service announcements with weather reports.
    photo credit: Act One Communications

    Act One
    The Hybrid billboard has gained enough traction with Outdoor Advertising companies that several variations of EMC/print billboards have been developed, each with a unique approach, depending on who's building them. One company, Act One Communications (Irwindale, CA) offers two unique billboard products, NiteVision and Act Bright EMC/billboard series. Act One describes NiteVision as a "LED video display reinvented." In this instance, they have designed an electronic billboard that functions as a print board during the day, and at night, automatically becomes an electronic billboard showing off full color, and graphic animated content for their message sponsors.

    photo credit: Act One Communications

    How this works was explained by Ethan Lin, Act One's Marketing Manager: NiteVision is a special purpose hybrid billboard directed towards outdoor use on a building side or rooftop. The signs are usually part of the client's corporate identity look and alternate with a daytime component (print with a product or advertising message) and an evening LED part (with corporate name/logo) then with a highly visible electronic illuminated brand promotion on the sign. Rooftops are the perfect home for NiteVision boards because of the very large pitch (80mm to 150mm) and long sightlines of hundreds of feet which are required for ease of visibility. Because of its rooftop position, Print messages have to be thought out very carefully, because unlike conventional billboards which are changed out on a regular basis, NiteVision print messages are hardly ever changed.

    photo credit: Act One Communications

    NiteVision originated from a traditional RGB display by taking into consideration both the message and the medium as a new kind of outdoor advertising forum. Here the message stays the same (the client copy), but the medium becomes transformative depending on the time of day. The result is a hybrid billboard that uses a print billboard which has a vinyl pre-cut perforation which fits across the billboard allowing the sign's LED pixel cluster to shine through the perforations of the print part of the board. At night, the billboard transforms into a full color, LED display where its increased brightness is a great attraction in presenting its message at night.

    "In developing a NiteVision display, we have found that we don't need to have as many LEDs (as we would in daytime) to populate the board. This in itself creates a more affordable billboard as less LEDs reduce the overall purchase cost of that kind of board," said Lin. The second consideration is less LEDs consume less energy which results in a lower cost monthly electric bill.

    Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

    LED electronic message billboard
    "The other Act One product is our electronic message billboard which is our monochromatic, LED message center that combines with a roadside billboard to reinforce some aspect of the existing print copy of that board." Lin observed, "Typically, these are already existing billboards where the billboard owner has decided to incorporate an EMC somewhere on the billboard sign face. This process is usually client-driven for the life of the ad campaign. Once that advertising campaign is over the EMC unit is removed or another hybrid electronic/print campaign takes its place."

    On one Act One EMC/billboard for a History Channel advertising campaign the billboard promotes the Cable TV channel by asking passing drivers a history related question and then answering it.
    photo credit:

    Perhaps one of the most memorable Act One EMC/billboard projects was an EMC installation on a History Channel billboard. To engage passing drivers, the billboard promoted the Cable TV channel where the board asked passing drivers a history related question and then answered it.

    Lamarís real-time electronic display
    Lamar Advertising, (Baton Rouge, LA), who is one of the largest outdoor advertising companies in the United States, owns and operates over 150,000 billboards deployed throughout most of the country. The company's outdoor advertising billboard is state-of-the-art and offers its media clients several advertising options from conventional print billboards to the latest full color, hi-resolution electronic billboards. In terms of providing some form of changeable text without the higher expense of going to a full-face electronic billboard, Lamar also offers its Real Time Electronic display billboard program. These Lamar message centers are an 89mm pixel pitch with a three-foot height on the sign face. Sign width varies depending on the character length. The large-sized pitch makes the EMC signs easy to read for drivers even those at passing speeds of 65 - 70 mph.

    Bill Ripp, Lamar's Director of Digital Displays discussed Lamar's EMC/billboard inventory and what advertising opportunities were available to their clients. "We categorize our digital display boards into groupings, EMC's that can do alpha-numerics (text and numbers), and full color digital displays that can do graphics. The EMC monochromatic line is application-based and geared to specific content such as hotel rate numbers, gas price changers or lottery numbers. To help define the EMC/billboard market and make it more affordable, we've set up three available sign formats: a small sign that offers an eleven character sign face, a medium sign which handles about 22 characters, and the larger ones which offer up to a 33 character message on its sign face."

    Ripp explained Lamar's view on the EMC portion of the billboard, "we see them as an add-on feature that can be put on just about any static billboard anywhere in the Lamar billboard network. This, of course is governed by what the local municipalities permit. As for text message content, Lamar leaves that up to the client to determine. When a client requests an EMC/billboard, Lamar will purchase the EMC (or transfer one from an unused set-up) install it on the appropriate billboard and lease it to the client for the length of their ad campaign.

    "At the close of the campaign, we'll try to resell that mixed-use sign, so we don't have to remove the EMC portion. Otherwise we'll move the EMC to wherever the next Real-Time client project is. As for accessibility to this particular sign program, we offer it to every billboard market we serve throughout our entire billboard network."

    Clear Channel Outdoors
    Tony Alwin, Marketing Director for Clear Channel Outdoors, noted that Clear Channel has offered its own Hybrid billboards for at least ten years. Over this time Alwin estimates that Clear Channel has had at least one hundred EMC/billboards in use at different times. "Naturally all these Hybrid billboard projects are client-driven depending on how they will use the electronic text message center, both as an esthetic part of the billboard and also as a content delivery platform. Auto dealers have used it to show off current vehicle pricing, lottery commissions to promote current lottery payouts, and radio stations who use the print part to promote their station call letters use the EMC part to show off a running play list of songs currently being broadcast so people can tune into the station for their favorite songs.

    "It's still a popular format for us," Alwin noted. The EMC/billboard is in its own advertising platform tier (others being print and electronic) and is all self-selected as clients determine which format is best for their campaigns.

    Cell phone democracy
    One great aspect of EMC/billboards is the innovative opportunities it offers advertisers in how they communicate with the public. One sign process, interactivity, is always popular with advertisers because it allows them a more direct contact with their markets. Recently two different EMC/billboard campaigns used interactivity (with two different technological formats) to engage the public with their billboard content.

    Recently in Times Square, BBC WORLD has posted an interactive billboard allowing passers-by to view a central 'news worthy' image on a billboard, and then asks viewers to vote using their cell phone between which of the two sharply different opinions they agree with. Optec Display provided the signs and also designed the software in allowing the signs to communicate the final voting results.
    photo credit: Optec Displays

    The first project was an advertising campaign for BBC World, (which recently won the Best in Show honors at the 65th Annual OBIE Awards!), that had used a hybrid billboard located in Times Square to engage the passing public in viewing a "news worthy" image on their billboard, which also had two sharply different opinions about the image. Once viewers decided which opinion they agreed with, using their cell phone they were able to call either a 'agree' or a 'disagree' phone number and register their opinion.

    As the votes poured in, two alpha-numeric counters tallied up each sideís votes allowing passersby to immediately see the voting opinions as represented by 'cell phone democracy.' The EMC counters were supplied by Opec Displays (City of Industry, CA), as was the software that allowed the sign to communicate the final voting results.

    Text message from Mini Cooper
    In another instance of an interactive EMC/billboard, an outdoor advertising campaign for the Mini Cooper car (a subsidiary of BMW) created an innovative billboard scenario that "talks" to certain passing Mini owners. Each billboard shows a photo of a Mini Cooper car with an EMC component that is able to identify special passing Mini owners and transmit a personal message (birthday greeting, questions about their car or a poignant saying related to them). The advertising program used four Daktronics EMC units on Clear Channel billboards that were implemented in four cities including San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Miami.

    This initial Mini Cooper promotion invited Mini owners who lived in the above mentioned cities to participate by filling out a questionnaire about themselves and their car. Owners who were selected to be in the program were sent an RFID (a Radio Frequency Identification) transponder that they placed in their car. When they passed the Mini Cooper billboard on the freeway, the transponder identified itself to the sign which in turn allowed the EMC part of the billboard to transmit some personalized message to the Mini Cooper vehicle approaching it. The interactive billboard program was a big hit with Mini Cooper marketing people as well the car owners who got a kick out of seeing their name in lights.

    In one interactive EMC/billboard for the Mini Cooper car a billboard scenario was created that "talks" to certain passing Mini owners. Each billboard shows a photo of a Mini Cooper car with an EMC component that is able to identify special passing Mini owners and transmit a personal message (birthday greeting, facts about their car or a poignant saying related to them).
    photo credit: Daktronics

    Evolve or disappear is the rule of change that controls the universe. Clearly this affects print billboards as much as anything else in our newly minted 21st century. In this case, the world of electronic signage is neatly merging with print billboards as presented both by the electronic or Hybrid billboard. It's a win-win for everyone, sign manufacturers and sign installers see it as a sales opportunity, billboard operators are able to use them to create a pricing scale to meet different levels of outdoor advertising budgets and advertisers like it for the direct market effectiveness of connecting with the public.

    For more pictures of EMC Hybrid Billboards, Click here

    Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech entertainment and media communications.
    He can be reached at (415) 664-0694 or louisbrill@sbcglobal.net

    More Articles on this:

    Digital Billboards Ho!

    Electronic LED Billboards: The New Voice of Business

    LED Video Screens On The Move

    LED Billboards: Outdoor Advertising in the Video Age

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