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Just hours after the 16th-seeded UMBC men’s basketball team defeated No. 1 Virginia in the 2018 NCAA tournament, the school ran a message on digital billboards in the area congratulating the squad for pulling off the first such upset ever in the men’s side of the Big Dance.

Thanks to digital technology, the university was able to get the message up quickly, just hours after dispatching the Cavaliers. The signs added buzz to an already giddy Baltimore area high on making history.

And that timely messaging is something we’re seeing more and more of with the proliferation of digital billboards across the country. Whether a Boston car dealership wants to salute the New England Patriots on yet another Super Bowl victory or Netflix wants to congratulate Alfonso Cuarón on his Oscar win, digital boards offer a timely and attention-getting venue to do it in.

And, psst… they’re cheaper than television.

The combination of timeliness, value and availability has caught advertisers’ attention. Over the past few years, out of home has begun pulling dollars away from TV ad spending, note analysts. It’s a trend they expect to continue and even increase as technology improves and digital billboards become more widely dispatched.

“The medium is becoming so timely now that outdoor is able to compete with television for dollars, with newspaper for dollars,” says Gordon Borrell, CEO of Borrell Associates, which forecasts local advertising. “It’s one of the biggest trends in advertising that’s just fascinating.”

The Numbers: OOH Rises As Television Falls

According to the latest national forecast from eMarketer, out of home advertising will rise by 1 percent this year. At the same time, television will decline by 2.2 percent.

Borrell’s reports have noted a huge surge in local digital out of home spending, which now accounts for more than four times the amount it did just a decade ago.

Of course, the number of digital billboards has increased sharply in that time as well, giving advertisers more outlets. There are 7,800 right now, and that number is still growing.

Digital Billboards Offer Immediacy

The hallmark of television advertising has always been its immediate availability. You have a movie coming out next week? Great, you can jump right into the 6 p.m. news hour. You have a sale that will only last a few days? You can snag a spot on that night’s late show.

Traditional billboards don’t offer that same immediacy. Even if you can make a buy right away, which doesn’t always pan out, it takes weeks to get the creative planned, then ordered, then printed, then put up on the board.

That is not the case with digital. You deliver the creative to the vendor electronically. A buy can take minutes these days, and that makes it competitive to television.

“Say you’re a local retailer and you just realized you will have Valentine’s Day overstock. You can really push that through Valentine’s Day by buying a billboard,” says Borrell. “Years ago, billboards were out of the question because of the turnaround. Now they’re what people want. You punch a button, and it’ll be up tomorrow. You can put it up there 20 times an hour.”

Production costs for digital billboard content are next to nothing, too, another advantage of this medium.

A New Venue for News

Borrell believes the real promise of billboards isn’t just in challenging television for advertisers. It could also challenge for content.

“To me, with digitization and connection with the internet, billboards have become much more of a news network,” Borrell notes.

In many ways, that’s a continuation of the blurring of lines between advertising and content that we’ve seen in the digital age. This has become notable online, where content marketing has become a bigger part of ad budgets. Native advertising combines the two, with editorial content sponsored by advertisers.

The same type of thing may eventually come to billboards. You will see scores from big games and news flashes not unlike the bottom line on news networks. Digital billboards won’t take the place of television to any degree, but they will serve more as a competitor than a complement.

Training people to look for these things on digital billboards will bring more attention to the format—and greater demand from advertisers. For example, if you know a digital board on your way home will have the NCAA tournament scores from that day, then there’s less reason to turn on ESPN when you get home.

Pricing: Billboards Versus Television

Of course, what’s really near and dear to advertisers’ hearts is getting great exposure while paying less money. And here OOH really has an advantage. According to the investment banking firm PJ SOLOMON:

  • The median primetime spot TV CPM (cost per thousand people reached) is $33.85
  • The median network TV CPM is $24.76
  • The median digital billboard CPM is $20.50
  • And, just for the sake of comparison, the median newspaper CPM is $32.50

To the Future of a Digital Revolution for OOH

As OOH buying becomes more sophisticated, it will mount an increasing challenge for TV dollars. Part of what media agencies like about television is that it’s easy to purchase. Programmatic buying has made finding desirable inventory simple.

This is an area where out of home has long lagged other media, but that may soon change. The industry has been pushing toward greater automation. Though that day isn’t quite here yet, it’s approaching, and any improvements to technology will help OOH steal even more dollars from television.

A Rosy Outlook for Out of Home

At a time when every other traditional medium is seeing ad spending declines, out of home has managed to post gains. And that’s certainly no coincidence. The impactfulness of digital displays, combined with the impressive opportunities for creativity, make the medium stand out in so many ways.

We, of course, have always known it had big potential. Talk to us about ways you can make your billboards stand out and take advantage of the push from TV to OOH.

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