How Covid-19 Is Speeding Up OOH Advertising’s Digital Transformation

People are leaving their houses, and cars are on the road, but many buyers are skeptical about out-of-home (OOH) advertising’s role amid a pandemic. They have misconceptions about consumers’ traffic patterns and behaviors. So, the only way for OOH media providers to earn ad spend—at a time when many brands are tightening budgets—is to adopt data-backed, audience-based selling. 

Some OOH media providers have already moved beyond the traditional real estate-based approach in which advertisers focus on a specific region or even choose specific billboard locations. Instead, they are using data and technology to target specific audiences and measure the impact of their campaigns. For the laggards, the pandemic is proving a catalyst for overdue change. Let’s consider why OOH’s audience-based future is closer than ever as well as what is next for the industry’s evolution. 

Buh-bye, vanity plays

Historically, marketers have perceived OOH as a hard-to-measure medium and more of a brand awareness play than a performance marketing tactic. It was common practice for movie studios to advertise on billboards in neighborhoods where movie stakeholders lived, or for companies to buy placements near office headquarters to boost morale and foster investor confidence. 

These use cases aren’t getting greenlighted now. Those who hold the purse strings expect marketing dollars to drive measurable value. Frankly, the return on investment (ROI) on advertising in a place like Times Square has always been questionable. Focusing on reaching a specific audience, rather than the prestige of a ZIP code or vanity plays, moves OOH further down the funnel and makes it more interesting to advertisers. 

The need to adopt data-backed practices existed before Covid. But, as most marketers reevaluate their plans in response to the pandemic, every media provider needs to work harder to prove their value. This is particularly true for OOH, as the space needs to overcome the misconception that consumers are shuttered indoors 24/7. Certainly, traffic patterns and visitation rates are changing as people work from home more and adapt to new restrictions, but OOH advertising is still a unique and memorable way to connect with people and to break through the clutter of digital advertising. 

OOH also needs to challenge the notion that it is impossible to measure. Media providers are using digital tactics to improve attribution. Some are even retargeting people who have been exposed to an outdoor impression with a digital ad. This improves measurement as well as efficacy. Due to Covid, all of OOH is going to have to step up targeting and measurement, not to gain a competitive advantage, but because they have no choice. As more providers shift to this data-backed approach, it will raise the tide for the entire industry. 

The future of OOH measurement is cross-channel

All of advertising is evolving, particularly when it comes to measurement. Throughout the industry, measurement tools and methodologies differ between media types, and between media providers, agencies, vendors, and brands. OOH is particularly behind. The next step, as an industry, will be to develop multitouch attribution measurement programs so brands can see how OOH fits into a cross-channel strategy. When this happens, I believe OOH will experience a resurgence. Fans of the tactic can increase spending with confidence, and skeptics will feel comfortable trying it. 

Imagine: A brand runs a national OOH campaign targeting a specific audience, not ZIP codes. Media providers track who is exposed to each OOH placement, whether that is a digital billboard or a subway poster. Then, they retarget this audience with personalized ads on desktop, mobile, or even CTV. Now, OOH moves beyond a “traditional” tactic while retaining its old-school, offline charm. 

The infrastructure and partner network exists for every single media operator to sell this way. Honestly, the biggest roadblock for many media providers is internal. Audience-based OOH is a huge departure from how they have been selling, and they need to update strategy, processes, and maybe even sales teams accordingly. That is why it has taken a pandemic to shake things up. Change is hard, but people will make moves if survival is at stake. Companies have no choice but to evolve to more measurable tactics so marketers can prove OOH’s value and integrate it with their marketing mix. 

James Heller is CEO and co-founder of Wrapify.

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