Outdoor advertising goes digital

By Sharif Sakr
Technology of business reporter, BBC News

  • Published

Online advertising is currently growing faster than any traditional means of getting messages out.

But staff at outdoor advertising giant JCDecaux have a saying: "We're very good at doing what we're very good at."

Even though the company's core business proceeds in the shadow of online advertising channels like Google, CEO Jeremy Male insists there is still plenty of room for growth: "The great thing about outdoor advertising is that you can't turn the page, you can't switch it off - it's just there.

"So we have the ability to reach a much broader audience than online can."

But this does not mean the company is sticking to old-fashioned paper and paste.

JCDecaux is spending heavily on new technology which, although it currently accounts for just 5% of its business, is being relied upon to give outdoor advertising a new lease of life.

The promise of pixels

Last year the company invested in a 40% increase in its stock of digital displays, giving a total of 6,500 screens globally.

These screens include billboard-sized displays in train stations right down to poster-sized displays on street stands and in bus-stops - but always in high traffic locations where the risk of vandalism is minimised.

Many of the screens are designed to work in harmony with specific advertising campaigns - particularly ones which try to engage consumers using interactivity.

A recent campaign for the Ford Galaxy in the UK targeted dads out with their children on a holiday break. Bus shelters were equipped with two separate screens, one on top of the other. The higher screen presented information about the Ford Galaxy while the lower screen kept the children occupied using interactive games.

Image caption,
A man tries to figure out how 'love-a-bubble' he is, using one of JCDecaux's interactive bus shelter displays

A separate bus shelter campaign for Aero Caramel chocolate bars tried to engage passersby with a "love-a-bubble" test. The screen presented moral dilemmas and asked viewers to pick a response from a set of options - after five questions it scored them on how 'love-a-bubble' they were.

Real-time ads

What makes digital screens even more powerful is the fact that many of them are equipped with 3G sim cards, allowing them to be updated wirelessly from a central hub.

"Suddenly we now have real-time outdoor advertising, which makes what we do far more flexible than it was in the past," says Mr Male.

"We can have adverts that react immediately to events, or that only display a certain message when the weather is a certain temperature."

When Lewis Hamilton won the Formula One World Championship after the Brazilian Grand Prix, JCDecaux screens across the UK announced the news within 10 minutes.

As those lag times get shorter, digital signage might one day be considered another branch of online advertising, rather than a traditional medium.

Happy shoppers

The ease with which digital signs can be updated has led to their adoption by a broad range of businesses - not just the big brands who promote themselves through JCDecaux's screens, but also retailers who want to advertise specific promotions on the shop floor.

The TRN duty free shop at Oslo airport does exactly that. On a good day the shop sells as many as 15,000 bottles of wine, with 1000 customers passing through its doors every hour - and it depends on shopfloor advertising to sell as much as possible.

"Before the screens we only had a brochure to tell people about our special offers, but none of our customers were interested in it," says TRN's web administrator Christine Toemte.

"We have new offers every month and printing brochures is a lot of hassle - not just printing them, but also making sure that the right ones were being distributed in the store in any given month.

"Now we make one film and put it on all the screens at the same time."

Image caption,
Shoppers walk past an attention-seeking Sony Ziris screen in Oslo Airport's duty free store

TRN uses a system called Ziris, made by Sony, which runs off a rack of modified Playstation 3 consoles sitting in a back office.

These consoles are connected to the internet, and any approved member of staff can generate new content via a web page.

When a member of staff wants switch to a different ad, it's as simple as pressing a button on a Playstation controller.


The result is that ads can be extremely specific and work in real-time - and according to Sony that is the key to a good display.

"There are dos and don'ts when it comes to designing messages," says Sony's Damien Weissenburger.

"If you're looking to sell something, you need to be very specific and very targeted. Promoting an overall brand will not help to sell a specific item in your warehouse."

Customers at Oslo airport do seem to notice the screens, and some even acknowledge that it affects their buying decisions.

"It grabs your attention, especially when its a high resolution screen with bright colours. But it also depends on the quality of the clip being displayed - it has to be something worth watching," said Constantine Salnikow, who was passing through duty free on a visit from Lithuania.

A number of older customers, however, barely seemed to notice the screens and in any case denied that their purchases might be affected.

"I'm just concentrating on what I want to buy," says Brit Brenne, returning from a holiday in Poland.

"If I'm interested in special offers, maybe on groceries, then I prefer to get them through the post."

Staff announcement

The use of digital signage in retail is steadily expanding, but not merely in terms of the number of screens.

Increasingly, larger companies are beginning to use the screens to talk to their staff as well as their customers, by placing screens in canteens and other staff areas.

"There are often hundreds of staff, working on different shifts and in different shops and warehouses, and they are very seldom near a computer," says Paul Sigvaldsen from Norwegian company 3C Technology, which installed the Sony Ziris system at Oslo airport.

"So instead of sending a passive email and expecting staff to open it, you can address them where they are."

The same eye-catching qualities of the screens can be used to attract the attention of staff too - if companies know how to use the technology to full effect.

"The most common trick is to put up some news and weather forecasts, which all the staff are interested in", say Mr Sigvaldsen.

"Once you get their attention, you can deliver any message more effectively."

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