What SEM Can Learn from Outdoor Advertising

A close friend, Brent Bolick, is VP of sales/marketing for Clear Channel Outdoor-Jacksonville. We frequently trade good-natured barbs about each other’s respective industry. He paints online marketers as obsessive-compulsive data junkies, unable to function without an Internet connection and an open spreadsheet. I often ask him what it’s like to work in an industry that reached its creative zenith during the era of Burma-Shave and Route 66.

Underneath the stale jokes, however, each of us respects the other channel’s ability to thrive in the increasingly unstable era of new media.

In case you think of outdoor advertising (yes, billboards) as neither thriving nor flexible, consider this: the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) notes outdoor spend increased 8 percent in 2005, with similar or greater growth expected for 2006. Outdoor is investing heavily in digital signage, which will offer advertisers unparalleled offline visibility choices, including dayparting.

As a result, Bolick and I share a laugh, because both outdoor and Internet marketing currently stand over traditional media’s decomposing body, picking over the once-vital remains of print, radio, and television.

This got me thinking about how outdoor and online, superficially polar opposites, are actually quite similar. So I asked Bolick for some high-level philosophy and was surprised that if you compare auto or train trips to online searches, the similarities are striking. Following are a few lessons online advertisers and marketers can learn from the staid discipline of outdoor.

Keep It Simple

This isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s interesting to see the reasoning in outdoor versus online. Bolick says to make an effective pitch in outdoor, “7 to 10 words is more than enough. The really effective outdoor ads tend to be on the small side of that count. Often, you have seven seconds to make an impression on a set of eyeballs.” So pitching your whole message, no matter how important you think it is, might hurt you. Just as your vehicle’s speed makes reading past a certain point impossible, so too is the speed of zooming eyeballs on a Web page.

Give Your Message Time To Sink In

Due to its metrics-heavy nature, people love the immediacy of online advertising and marketing. But don’t expect the long-term benefits of branding to be immediately visible in a keyword report. “I have a chart I show clients,” Bolick told me. “It illustrates that 25 percent of average consumers forget what they saw yesterday, 50 percent forget what they saw 48 hours ago, and 75 percent forget what they saw 72 hours ago. Outdoor is typically purchased in increments of four weeks. Its constant presence is what helps build reach and frequency. Multiple locations in the market help build reach, but daily traffic at each of those multiple locations is where the frequency is built.”

Just as people travel to and from work each day via the same route, people often perform online research in similar ways, using similar search terms many times before they’re ready to purchase, download, or click over. Seeing your message repeatedly builds mindshare. That’s a significant factor when they’re ready to pull the trigger. Consider this before implementing a sporadic, methodology.

Maintain Your Message, But Change Its Delivery

“We run a program in which a message moves throughout the market approximately every 60 days,” Bolick told me. “This is about when some consumers have seen the ad enough times that it no longer resonates. Moving it to a new location reaches new eyeballs not previously exposed to the message. But just as important, it provides an opportunity for someone already exposed to it to see it again.” If people don’t realize the ad’s no longer in the previous location, they may think the program is larger than it actually is.

In this scenario, different locations around town correspond to searches for different keyword phrases, sometimes similar to your core phrases, sometimes not. But what if you don’t want your signs all around town? What if you’re interested in just those folks along a certain path?

“For those clients who use a permanent bulletin [remaining in the same location for periods of 6-12 months], the idea is to dominate a specific geographical area day in and day out to build frequency within that area. However, keeping copy fresh and changing out every 60-90 days is paramount to continually reaching that target demographic,” he said.

So though your message requires time to sink in, the same message can become stale over time. Even if you have a core set of money terms, it’s important to regularly refresh message delivery.

Outdoor SEM?

As recently reported, one of Google’s recent patent applications concerns tying mall-based store inventory to revolving, digital ads within the mall itself. But don’t think that an increasingly digitized, outdoor infrastructure hasn’t crossed a few minds at Google as well. It’s good that SEM (define) and outdoor can learn from one another, because at the current rate of evolution for each, it may not be long before they’re a single discipline.

Join us for Search Engine Strategies in London, February 13-15, at ExCel London.

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