Opinion: Fable of Content

As an emerging medium, the digital out-of-home space (including digital/video networks) is still trying to figure itself out. Even though advertising momentum for digital out-of-home (DOOH) is increasing, all too often its benefits are left undelivered. Why? It’s simple: We don’t understand that value content is a fundamental key to DOOH’s success.

More often than not, programmers of digital networks mistakenly believe that an all-ad network strategy is just fine. Content—real, original content—is an afterthought, and only a handful of networks are putting resources behind developing it.

All successful ad-supported media (radio, TV, print) result from the balance between editorial and advertising. With few exceptions, no communications vehicle can sustain an all-ad model and still maintain the interest of an audience. Could a consumer truly be engaged with a magazine or TV network that’s completely ad-based? How long would you bother to listen to a radio station that broadcast nothing but commercials? There are fundamental reasons why this approach isn’t viable in other media, too.

Literal content aside, an all-ad network sends a subconscious message to the consumer, and it goes like this: “You are a captive audience, and, because I know you can’t escape my message, I’m going to exploit your attention by showing you some paid advertising.” Or like this: “Never mind what you want to hear, I’m going to do what I want.” Such messages aren’t just off-putting, they’re disrespectful. It’ll only take a short time for the audience to tune this programming out. An all-ad content strategy dooms a network to early extinction.

Though all-ad formats may claim high-traffic counts (or Daily Effective Circulation), buying into one is proving to be a lesson in futility. Over time, the network’s effectiveness decreases. Digital networks are only effective and valued by the viewer when ads and content support each other—and when the content and programming strategy respects the audience.

“Alright,” you say, “I get it. Good content is essential to digital networks. But it’s a lot of hard work to develop good content.” Well, that doesn’t have to be the rule. In fact, in all forms of video production, effective content for digital signage can be some of the easiest to produce.
Though I’m stressing the importance of good content, I’m saying that “good” does not necessarily mean expensive or difficult. Understanding as much requires correcting a number of misconceptions:

Misconception No. 1: Content must be engaging

There’s much ballyhoo these days about digital networks engaging the audience. But, except in some unique cases, that’s probably a lofty goal for most venues. The fact is, content doesn’t always have to engage the audience on an intellectual level. It’s enough that the content be relevant to the activity happening in the space. In some cases, true engagement isn’t even necessarily appropriate. For example, in the case of a retail digital network, my firm decided that interactivity was too distracting from the prime objective, which was  allowing customers to focus on, and purchase, merchandise. Though the execution would have been fabulous (highly engaging content), interactivity was ruled out—for the better.

As marketers and content designers leveraging the power of these digital networks, we hope to create brand recognition by aligning ourselves with the activity of the space. That is, we want to be associated with an attitude  and agenda already created by the environment.
Psychologically, visual association in conjunction with a physical activity (especially an activity that is considered fun or desired) is much stronger than visual association alone, as might be experienced through a magazine or television impression. We, as the DOOH industry, need to understand this fact and use it to our advantage.

Misconception No. 2: Content must be compelling

Here’s a multiple-choice quiz that I give to the folks who we work with. The objective of your digital video network is to be compelling …
A) Some of the time
B) All of the time

Nearly 100 percent of the time, people will say B. “Of course our goal is to be compelling all of the time,” they tell me. Sorry to disappoint you, but the correct answer is A. Why? Because the audience has come for other reasons than solely to watch your digital network. If they only wanted to watch your content, that would put you in the movie-theater business. The important lesson to learn here is one worth repeating: The goal of the digital network is to be compelling some of the time.

Accepting these ideas as misconceptions can take a lot of pressure off of the content strategy. We make a point of establishing these concepts before we dive into developing a content strategy for clients. Only by fundamentally understanding and subscribing to these DOOH tenets can one then begin to make decisions that will shape the personality of a successful digital network.

Advertisers: Before you buy DOOH time or when evaluating a network, ask: “What is the content strategy?” Discover the personality of the network and understand how that aligns with your creative brief. Networks: Make sure you are clear in your response to these questions. This information will be key to whether or not you get on “the plan.”
Phil Lenger is president and founder of Show+Tell, a DOOH media production agency. He can be reached at dooh@showandtell.com.