Why Billboards Make Perfect Sense in the Emoji Era

Can you name a form of communication that can convey a big message in under a second. If you’re a Millennial with your face buried in your smartphone you might be thinking of emoji, the cartoonish glyphs adorning text messages, Snaps, and Instagram comments.

But, there’s an older medium that is somewhat less diminutive in size that is also great for getting your message across at lightspeed.

Billboards, the crown jewel of out-of-home (OOH) advertising, those giant rectangles dotting highways and byways and permanently lighting up Times Square are the original speedy messengers.

Because they are getting passed at high speed, billboards have to be short and sweet, legible and understandable in mere moments. All you have to work with is a few words (typically seven or less), one or two big, bold images, and one, easily digested message.

They have to be smart and funny, but not too complicated. The goal is to hit passersby with a thought that they will immediately understand but that will stay with them even after the sign is far away in the rearview mirror.


Billboards Aren’t Just Surviving the Digital Age, They’re Thriving

Inbound marketing, drawing customers to you rather than seeking them out, gets a lot of attention today, but savvy marketers know not to get so caught up in the latest and greatest that they forget about the tried-and-true, and billboards are certainly that.

In fact, while other traditional forms of advertising are losing ground to internet-based channels, billboards are having something of a resurgence of late. Jeremy Male, CEO of Outfront Media, the third largest outdoor media owner in revenue terms told “The New York Times”: “Digital has been sucking media dollars out of press and radio, but our audience has been growing.”

Even new media is showing interest. Big brands like McDonald’s, GEICO, and Pepsi have long invested heavily in billboard advertising, but now newcomers like LyftMailChimp, and Snapchat are getting in on the act.

According to Kantar Media and the Outdoor Advertising Association of America OOH advertising revenue hit $7.3b in 2015, up from $5.9b in 2009, after 23 consecutive quarters of growth.

Why is a medium that is over a century old getting attention in the tech-obsessed digital era? For one thing “You can’t TiVo a sign,” as James Gross, a managing director at Barrington Research put it. Billboards don’t suffer from ad skipping or blocking technologies.


Generating Buzz On and Offline

Comedy Central took advantage of this network effect recently with a campaign to promote the 20th season of “South Park.”

Another reason for the growth of out-of-home advertising is that brands are quickly discovering that a smart billboard campaign can transcend its location and have a second life online. Thought-provoking ads get snapped by smartphone cameras and shared on social networks.

Comedy Central took advantage of this network effect recently with a campaign to promote the 20th season of “South Park.” Mobile billboards were placed in high profile locations like in front of the White House and Scientology’s headquarters in Los Angeles with cheeky callbacks to the many times the bawdy show courted controversy by lampooning those institutions.

The ads weren’t there for very long, but quickly became a trending topic online, generating just the buzz they were after.

Obviously, that was a special use of billboard advertising. More traditional outdoor advertising uses ‘bulletin’-sized signage (14 x 48 feet) and typically stay in place for 12 weeks, a lifetime compared to the timeframes of other media. For that reason, many billboards are used for long-term messaging, rather than specific, short-lived campaigns.

Those kinds of billboards are particularly useful for the pre-awareness stage of a marketing effort. On unfamiliar roads, billboards can become drivers primary means of finding lodging, food, and fuel. They are also great for promoting impulse buys. After all, the audience is already in their car, so if that Egg McMuffin looks particularly inviting they just might pull over at the next drive-thru.


Next Generation Signage

But, not all billboards are still mere static displays. Digital bulletins that can be updated or timeshared with other brands are growing in popularity, and they are getting smarter too, with built in geo-fencingsmartphone tracking, and even cameras to count passerbys. The days of just erecting a sign and hoping someone sees it are on the wane.

And because digital signage can be updated almost any time they can leverage other metric tools in the marketing arsenal: “Advertisers are increasingly looking to apply the data available from digital and mobile platforms to better target audiences with their outdoor media buys and improve the ability to measure their return on investment.”



Clearly, the billboard’s best days are still ahead of it. Here are seven tips for getting the most out of your OOH assets:

  1. Make it Short: 3 to 7 words is all people will have time to read at 60 mph
  2. Make it Legible: Use big, bold easy to read fonts; no ornate cursive or hard to make out novelty lettering
  3. Use Bold Colors and Sharp Contrasts: 600 square feet of art posted a hundred feet in the air is no time for subtlety. Make it pop with powerful and showy graphic design
  4. Don’t Overload the Art: Just like text, too many photos and designs will make it hard to take in everything in just a glance
  5. Be Clever, But Not Confusing: Great advertising can be smart, funny, poignant or all three, but just make sure you don’t overthink your billboard’s theme, the main idea should be readily apparent
  6. Be Different, But Not Distracting: You don’t have much time to separate yourself from the herd so find a way to stand out (e.g. go 3D like Chick-fil-A’s “Eat Mor Chikin” campaign), but don’t be so disruptive that it might lead to accidents (Wonderbra’s ads featuring a scantily clad Eva Herzigova were voted some of the most distracting of all time)
  7. Get Modern: Look into integrating your billboards with your digital infrastructure. Today’s OOH is increasingly connected to online metrics for better targeting and ROI analysis