To hear out-of-home advertising executives tell it, Minority Report may be just around the corner. In Steven Spielberg's futuristic thriller, a flurry of moving, talking ads crawled across buildings, recognizing Tom Cruise's character and greeting him by name.
Far from far-fetched, technology is making interactivity between marketers and consumers very much a reality today, with some of the best-known brands around, including Sprint Wireless, Jeep, Land Rover, Absolut, Nike, Unilever's Dove and CBS Television, using functions like texting and technologies like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to communicate their messages to an increasingly wireless world via mobile phones, PDAs, laptops and touch screens.
Whether users are downloading selections from the latest Coldplay album via Bluetooth-enabled billboards in the London underground or "kicking" virtual teed-up footballs via interactive floor displays in the shopping mall down the street, it's becoming routine for consumers worldwide to engage with and fully immerse themselves in outdoor ad placements like never before.
Established players in out-of-home, including Clear Channel Outdoor, CBS Outdoor (formerly Viacom Outdoor), JCDecaux and Titan Worldwide, as well as newer, tech-based networks such as Reactrix, Ecast and Adspace, are bringing the latest technology to ads in shopping centers, transit hubs, even pubs. And while executives say they are just beginning to realize what the possibilities are, interactive outdoor technology could very well change the face of outdoor advertising in the not-too-distant future.
"As the technology improves and increases, and people become more comfortable with it, I can see it becoming the rule more than the exception," says Stephen Freitas, chief marketing officer at the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. The trade organization over the last two years has formed three committees—on digital, interactive and, most recently, narrowcasting—to explore the opportunities and challenges technology presents for outdoor vendors and advertisers.
Text-enabled ads have become virtually ubiquitous, as cell signals have become reliable "from New York to Duluth," says Freitas. Bluetooth is a less common capability, but is growing fast.
While accounting for a tiny fraction (less than 1 percent) of total out-of-home business, which is still dominated by old-fashioned roadside billboards and transit posters, interactive has designs on revolutionizing the sector, along with another small but swelling out-of-home subsegment: digital billboards, whose messages can be changed in the blink of an eye. While Europe and Asia, predictably, remain ahead of the U.S. in interactive executions, tech-driven outdoor appeals here are slowly becoming more visible. Over the next decade, OAAA's Freitas believes, interactive out-of-home ads could be popping up everywhere.
Meanwhile, others—including Michael Hudes, senior vp, corporate development at Clear Channel Outdoor—are even more bullish, predicting that we could see dramatically greater interactivity in out-of-home just a couple of years from now. "We are exploring all opportunities to bring interactivity to our real estate," says Hudes. "We feel an inextricable link between the handset and the 880,000 different touchpoints we operate globally." Hudes reports that Clear Channel has executed about 20 interactive displays in Europe, Asia, Australia and the U.S. on behalf of telecom, automotive and consumer goods clients.
Catching Consumers on the Go
While still small, it is a medium that is fast-moving. In only a couple of years, interactive outdoor has gone from "watercooler talk to a toe in the water," says Jack Sullivan, senior vp, out-of-home media at Starcom, who chairs the OAAA's interactive committee. The technology remains expensive because of still-slow demand, Sullivan points out. But "once we get over the threshold of a minimal amount of hardware, the prices will take a dive."
Not surprisingly, advertisers in tech and communications businesses like wireless, media and entertainment are taking the first dip; retailers and automakers also are beginning to experiment. It's interesting to note that spending on interactive out-of-home is not coming from outdoor budgets but rather interactive and TV allocations. "The expectation is that [interactive out-of-home] budgets will come out of interactive," says Jodi Senese, executive vp, marketing at CBS Outdoor. "Out-of-home budgets are growing, but the money relegated to out-of-home will still go to billboards and bus sides and rail posters."
A population increasingly on the go, as well as going wireless, bodes well for this outdoor ad revolution, execs say. "Consumers are out there with downtime on the streets. If you can get them to play, to interact with your sign, you are being invited into that decision-maker's lifestyle and they are opting in to share their personal time with you; it hopefully is having a heck of a lot more impact and is leading to increased sales," Starcom's Sullivan explains.
As interactive out-of-home catches fire, there are issues the industry must sort out. For one, how to measure audience, and how to charge clients for that exposure. The OAAA's interactive committee is considering "engagement, impressions, eyeballs—trying to figure out how we measure it, and which of these measurements is more important to clients," Sullivan says. The standard, he adds, most likely will turn out to be "cost per engagement"—that is, counting those who actually opt to "enter the experience" of an ad versus simply how many people pass by. As the out-of-home business overall explodes—with ad spending projected to grow 6.7 percent to $7.25 billion next year on top of 7.9 percent improvement this year, according to media investment bank Veronis Suhler Stevenson—marketers increasingly are demanding more sophisticated measurement of outdoor ad consumption. Research companies, including Nielsen Outdoor, which last year launched a GPS-based measurement service, are ramping up their efforts. (Nielsen, along with Adweek Magazines, is owned by VNU.)
Leaving It Up to Consumers
That consumers are willing to spend time not only looking at but engaging with ads is especially remarkable in a time of message avoidance and ad-skipping technology such as digital video recorders and pop-up blockers.
Again and again, execs stress that the only way interactive out-of-home will have a chance is if consumers opt in rather than, as Sullivan puts it, "walk down the street with their cell phone vibrating all over the place. We don't want the consumer barraged with messages, or we'll be heading into the quicksand." Adds Clear Channel's Hudes, "There is quite a bit of concern that people will ultimately make themselves not discoverable if they find that as they walk down the street, their phone is ringing off the hook because there are all these transmission points. One of the things as an industry we're doing … is to establish best practices and standards so we don't ruin the opportunity to use our real estate to strengthen the bond between our clients' brands and their customers."
Case in point: CBS Outdoor's Bluetooth-enabled campaign for its sister company, CBS Television, this past September in New York's Grand Central Terminal. Mobile users who opted in could download free video clips of the network's prime-time shows via five different ad units placed throughout the transit hub. Once mobile users chose to activate their cell phones or PDAs, scenes from the freshman series Shark, Smith, Jericho and The Class, as well as the returning hit CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, could be played instantly, and then saved or passed on to friends. CBS Outdoor teamed with Paris-based mobile company Kameleon Technologies on the campaign.
This was CBS' first interactive campaign at a transit center, although the vendor has carried other interactive ads at locations including Times Square, says CBS Outdoor's Senese. Because penetration remains low, interactive campaigns involve "a lot of buzz; but they're not completely a robust ad vehicle," she adds. "It's just really a fun adjunct for people who want to stop and try it. People have to feel compelled to take the next step." Senese says CBS Outdoor is still waiting to learn responses from the CBS TV ads.
Also in recent months, Titan Worldwide partnered with a leading home builder in Philadelphia to launch that market's first out-of-home ad campaign using Bluetooth technology. A month-long campaign from TH Properties kicked off in September, featuring 76 Bluetooth-enabled posters at a well-traveled transit hub. Consumers with Bluetooth-capable phones and other devices were invited to download 30-second video clips about THP and its ventures, reaching 442,000 commuters in the month.
JCDecaux recently showcased the latest in interactive outdoor in London, spotlighting more than 25 executions, including oversized digital posters, image-changing mirrors and Wi-Fi-enabled bus shelters.
In one ad, as a consumer approached a mirrored poster on a bus shelter, motion sensors prompted the shelter to ask, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?" The mirror then slowly transformed from the user's image into the face of a soccer star. Another ad prompted users to book their next holiday, and yet another offered sample tracks from the latest CDs via touch screen.
"As people spend more and more time out of home, the opportunities and the audience for outdoor media grow even stronger," says David McEvoy, JCDecaux's group marketing director. "This interactive experience shows how advertisers can reach people in a way that engages and entertains them."
Redwood City, Calif.-based Reactrix has for four years created state-of-the-art out-of-home executions in public spaces like shopping malls, movie theaters and transit centers for clients including Nike, McDonald's and Disney. Last month, it kicked off a campaign on behalf of client Sprint Wireless and its NFL Mobile offering, providing free NFL content to users. Reactrix enabled consumers to physically engage with projected images, instantly responding as they walked across or gestured over a huge, 6-by-8-foot display.
The Sprint ads began appearing on Reactrix's digital screens in August and will run through February, highlighting a variety of products from the wireless provider and placed in locations such as the Las Vegas Convention Center's monorail system. Reactrix also exhibited its technology at the recent NextFest, a festival highlighting innovative technologies and products, sponsored by Wired magazine.
The company has worked with clients including DaimlerChrysler, eBay, Hilton Hotels and Visa in major media markets including New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta, reports CEO Michael Ribero. "There is a host of brands looking to reach what is a very television-like audience who is willing to commit the extra amount of time with the medium and give it their undivided attention," he says. "We're seeing a trend where marketers and ad agencies are taking responsibility for making sure there are media options available to them in addition to the traditional ones, as they struggle to accumulate audience the way they used to."
More and more marketers and agencies, in an age of YouTube and iPods are introducing tech-driven media plans that are more "engaging, that feel more personal and relevant because the consumer plays a critical role in the experience," says Ribero. Outdoor is enjoying a resurgence because, he contends, "as television and other media are losing audience and the Internet continues to be saturated, the only logical place the consumer, frankly, has the time and the focus to be able to be engaged with brands in ways that result in profitable behaviors are places outside the home."
And it is an engaged target. Ribero reports that consumers spend an average 10 minutes with Reactrix's displays. An Arbitron ad-effectiveness study commissioned by Reactrix revealed that half or more of 310 consumers studied recalled seven of 10 advertised brands unaided. Aided recall increased that recognition rate to more than 85 percent. Most important to marketers, nearly half of those who recalled an ad said they would be more likely to buy the product after seeing it on Reactrix. Further, 86 percent of consumers thought the displays were "entertaining and fun."
A current, three-month campaign from San Francisco-based Ecast in support of DaimlerChrysler's new Jeep Compass lets users choose colors, wheel trim and sound systems to create their own personalized model while requesting more information about the Compass and other Jeep models via more than 8,000 touch-screen jukeboxes found in bars nationwide. Ecast reported that during the first five weeks of the campaign, it garnered an 8.3 percent click-through rate from the end of a paid song selection into Jeep's promotional mini-site.
While in the advertiser's site, they spent an average 53 seconds interacting with the brand, with nearly 3,000 people per week entering contact information using the data-collection function of the touch screens. The jukebox campaign, which involved Jeep's agency PHD, was designed to support the national print and TV "Bobblehead" campaign in support of the Compass.
"Our goal was to find a unique, out-of-home advertising medium that directly targeted Jeep's audience of active, young adults who are social influencers," says Marisa Russell, PHD's national media planning director for Jeep.
Ecast attracts young influencers with alternative/indie rock, Latin, punk and country tunes through licensing agreements with music labels including Sanctuary and Curb. (Further evidence that interactive out-of-home is roaring: Wall Street is taking notice and ponying up. A wave of investment is pouring into the medium, with the seven-year-old Ecast recently reaping a $20 million investment from venture capital groups.)
Technology has transformed the out-of-home market, but in some cases, resistance to technology has stunted the growth of interactive out-of-home, underscoring the difficulty of getting emerging platforms up to speed. As Ecast's vp of ad sales George Glatzis points out, some bar owners were averse to putting the company's digital jukeboxes in their establishments because they were wary about having to link to the required DSL line. So, the company now offers a wireless alternative, expecting the move to aid expansion. "We know we have this really strong tool for reaching a very distinct and desirable yet hard-to-reach young adult audience, particularly young adult males, with 360-degree marketing where they live, where they work and where they play," Glatzis says. "When they're interacting with our boxes, there's really no other media competing for their attention at that moment."
Not surprisingly, considering that more than 90 percent of the jukeboxes are located in bars, the first Ecast advertisers were alcoholic beverage brands—among them, Heineken, Stolichnaya and Southern Comfort. In the spring of this year came the first non-beverage client, Verizon Wireless, followed by Jeep.
Marketers are drawn to new technology such as that available through Ecast because of its flexibility and measurability, Glatzis says. "As we report back [data] from different areas of the country, different DMAs, we can give that information to our advertisers and they can change out copy instantaneously based on consumer reactions," he explains.
"Technology has driven the ability to interact with people in the out-of-home space in ways we couldn't have 10 years ago," Glatzis says. "The fact is, people will learn to consume media in different places because of technology, and they will seek out content in nontraditional spaces … [rather than] TV, radio and magazines. When people understand it's out there, they will seek it out."
Tony Case is a contributing writer to Mediaweek.