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Tech Startups Hit Highway 101

Billboard wars see the intersection of old and new media

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Startups may rule Silicon Valley, but until recently, you wouldn’t have known it driving up Route 101, the region’s main highway. In the past year or so, however, billboards have started popping up with messages from companies like Zynga, Zoosk, and Zazzle.

Travel startup Hipmunk, for example, recently purchased billboard space south of San Francisco to promise commuters “agony-free travel search.” Hipmunk’s public relations director Jacqueline Tanzella says the decision was inspired, in part, by all the other tech billboards that employees saw as they drove between Silicon Valley and San Francisco. A local billboard, they realized, would be a way to continue reaching the early adopter techie audience while also going a little broader. “We thought, ‘Hey, we could do that too,’” Tanzella says. “We’re competing with those big dogs.”

As with any form of advertising, billboards can help strike a blow against the competition. Sometimes companies are competing for customers. Sometimes they’re battling for engineers—social gaming company Zynga’s billboards are all about recruiting employees, not FarmVille players.

Japanese competitor GREE is also looking to billboards to help build its presence in the United States. Sho Masuda, vp of marketing for GREE, says that despite its success in Japan, GREE doesn’t have the same recognition in the U.S., so it faces “lots of challenges” recruiting talent. By placing multiple billboards in the Bay Area (including one on top of Zynga’s San Francisco headquarters), Masuda hopes to get “the right message to the right people.”

A spokesman for Clear Channel Outdoor, which handles many of the Bay Area’s billboard ad sales, agreed that the company is seeing significant growth among startups and other tech companies, though it doesn’t come close to the dot-com craze of the late ’90s.

And startups aren’t just looking at this medium as a way to market themselves. A new company called ADstruc runs an online marketplace for billboard advertising, and CEO John Laramie says he’s trying to introduce more efficiency to “an old ad medium that’s ripe for improvement.”

Startups, Laramie says, are catching on to the fact that billboards, despite their “mystery” and “aura,” aren’t ridiculously expensive. Some billboards on 101 have been available for monthly rates in the $10,000 or $20,000 range, Laramie says, not the $50,000 that some companies expect.

And that spending seems to pay off. Hipmunk is happy with the results so far, Tanzella says. The billboard directs visitors to a unique website, so the startup can see exactly how much traffic it’s driving, and Tanzella has also seen posts on Twitter and Facebook praising it. Does that mean we’ll soon see Hipmunk billboards all around the country?

“It’s just an experiment,” Tanzella said. “We’re open to [more billboards], but we don’t have any plans.”