Digital out of home: navigating the revolution of the oldest medium

Drawing on market trends from outdoor's second-quarter results, Primesight's Chris Forrester warns against an industry eating itself.

Chris Forrester: commercial director at Primesight
Chris Forrester: commercial director at Primesight

Outdoor (OOH) advertising has built its heritage and strength from the effective role it plays in generating brand fame.

With the release of the impressive Q2 +6.4% year-on-year revenue growth, which is the fourth-highest quarterly revenue performance of all time for the out-of-home industry, this role seems stable and well understood in comparison to the cauldron of changes that are affecting other media channels.

Yet when I look in more detail at these results, there are some important trends to note which could affect the future understanding of the effectiveness of out of home.

Whilst the roadside outdoor sector was up +2.3%, this growth was driven heavily by digital and non-standard growth. The vast majority of core formats (6, 48 and 96 sheets) were down as a group.

Digital outdoor has for a long time been driving growth in OOH,  and who can argue with what has been an impressive technological change over a relatively short period of time? Indeed, there is virtually no environment where people congregate on a regular basis, that has not been digitised, and almost always to great effect.

Given that outdoor is the oldest medium and this change has happened in less than 10 years, one could call it a revolution.

The digital roadside out-of-home revolution has created impressive displays in design and structure that few would argue have not added to the skyline of the cities they populate (unless your name is Charles, of course).

This has helped to create revenue growth through the delivery of new advertisers, at times new strategic positioning for OOH and has created fame for the industry – some sites are even asked for by name.

The Q2 data also shows that this growth has partly come along with cannibalisation of existing traditional outdoor formats – the unquestionable premium of most existing large-format digital sites means that they are on the expensive end of the media proposition.

The cannibalisation effect seems to be one of the reasons that display weights of traditional OOH broadcast activity are down. In that case, should we be concerned about this shift in campaign execution, if as an industry, we all judge our market success based on whether year-on-year revenue is growing?

Well, I believe we should be concerned and that this could be a problem in the making.

Byron Sharp, in 'How Brands Grow, stressed that brands grow based on scale, i.e. a high audience reach. This is in contrast to the trend of decreasing the core element of a traditional outdoor campaign in order to incorporate the much-desired digital outdoor add-on, which is resulting in a shrunken scale of exposure. Style is perhaps favouring substance.

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Additionally, Binet and Field in 'The Long and Short of It', identified the optimum split of brand building and activation advertising as 60:40 respectively, and reported that out-of-home delivers the most cover whilst demonstrating, along with TV, that it has the strongest brand-building effect. But the substitution of super-premium sites belies the fact that valuable cover build needs scale, not just stature, to have major effects.

As brands increasingly invest in understanding human emotions (in part driven by Daniel Kahneman's dual-process theory), we should be embracing the effects that traditional outdoor formats have. It's not that super-premium digital sites don't deliver this – they do, but not on the mass scale necessary, as identified by Sharp.

Scale delivers critical frequency. Primesight and Ocean have conducted neuroscience research exploring the effects of outdoor. Ocean's study revealed that the "Wow factor" is critical to the success of iconic outdoor sites and demonstrated a priming effect, creating a positive halo effect across a wider outdoor campaign.

Primesight discovered similar findings. Billboard size and stature act as a low level primer, but importantly, frequency builds familiarity, replacing deep-level processing. Familiarity, in turn, provides a precursor for brand trust, which delivers comfort and increases the chance for preference.

Outdoor made its name by making brands famous. In order to deliver on that promise, outdoor was required to serve the joint role of building high audience cover as well as ad frequency, often alongside high impact. A role super premium cannot serve on its own.

I feel that the next phase of digital roadside needs to move in a new direction. This next phase of the digital revolution needs to take a more complementary role, working better alongside traditional OOH and not, at times, cannibalising it. It needs to become more affordable and serve to amplify the existing purpose of the outdoor medium.

This is actually more than just a hope. It is part of our belief at Primesight in delivering the best results for clients and therefore, a part of our strategic development plan to grow the industry revenue. Therefore, we have recently launched Network – 50 identical digital roadside panels that will deliver brand building alongside our hardworking traditional estate.

If in five years' time, the future Binet, Field, Kahneman and Sharp are to determine that posters deliver reach, build brands and make them famous, then we need to make sure that our development of the new products and overall portfolio management doesn't mean we look back to discover we ate our own lunch.

Chris Forrester is commercial director at Primesight

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