A shout out for digital billboards


In 2009, digital billboards were just starting to change America’s roadside landscapes.

Coke Digital Bllboard

Digital billboards allow every highway to feel a little bit like Times Square.

Despite constantly swimming in cyberspace, I was shocked by the revelation that new media go beyond Web x.0, mobile messaging, and other vehicles that enable marketers (and people you know) to make contact every waking moment. Yesterday, I went outdoors and ventured onto the highway where, for the first time, I began to think about the wondrous transformation that has come over billboards.

Of course I’ve seen digital billboards before, but never really thought about them. So, I did a little research and discovered that we are not supposed to think about them. Unlike other media, they are regulated by the government to make sure they deliver their messages quickly — if not subliminally — without capturing your undivided attention. It would be counterproductive if the ad was so effective all the potential customers were injured and had to spend their money on medical bills instead of the advertised products. (An exception might be if you were distracted by an ad for personal injury attorneys, but they would would have to sue themselves as well as the billboard company.)

Out-of-home advertising (as it is officially known) had changed little over the last 150 years until it started going digital around five years ago. Traditional billboards, static and often drearily fading, have been the Rodney Dangerfield of advertising media. Always under attack by zoning officials and roadside beatification advocates, the industry has never generated more than $10 billion a year which is a pittance compared to television, radio, newspapers, etc. But, the industry has done very well indeed since billboards became a new media.

Here is a snapshot:

  • Since 2007, the number of digital billboards in America has grown from 500 – 1,500, and will continue to explode as the up-front cost has dropped from $500,000 – $200,000 in the same period.
  • Magic Media, a Pennsylvania company that owns more than 10,000 billboards, told Inc. magazine a little over a year ago that its 20 digital billboards account for more than 10% of the company’s revenue. That’s because digital billboard space brought in $14,000 a month as opposed to $2,000 – $5,000 for the same traditional space.
  • Advertisers can also get more for less, because they can go on and off digital space quickly, as well as enjoy reduced production costs.  Paper hanging was never a real hot career anyway.  Companies can now buy outdoor “time slots” just like television, radio and Internet.
  • While 2008 was one of the worst years on record for all media companies, outdoor revenues declined just 4% compared with double-digit declines most other categories.
  • Best of all, 75% of millennials — those cyber sophisticates who “don’t like being sold to” — think digital billboards are a “cool way to advertise,” according to a recent Arbitron survey conducted in Cleveland.

Like with everything else, there is much talk of convergence, but some things don’t change. Speeding down the highway, it is no easier to write down a web address than a phone number.

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