If your company often reaches customers through outdoor or out-of-home (OOH) advertising, the pandemic has probably left you wondering about its efficacy.
After all, should you use outdoor advertising when many states are still encouraging people to stay at home? On the other hand, people are often told that if they want to congregate, they should do it outside. And it isn’t like everybody is hunkered inside every minute.
So... Has COVID-19 changed the impact of outdoor advertising?
Outdoor Advertising: From Thriving to Shaken Up
Outdoor advertising encompasses more than what you're probably imagining.
“As a category, outdoor advertising is generally referred to [as] out-of-home (OOH) advertising, since it encompasses not only billboards and other outdoor advertising, but also indoor advertising such as inside shopping malls, office buildings, gyms and inside taxis,” says Brion Roberto, co-founder and CEO of Urban IQ, a New York City-based advertising firm specializing in digital out-of-home advertising.
This form of marketing has been around for a long, long time. Circus posters from 1835 are often considered the first foreshadowing of modern day outdoor advertising, according to the Out of Home Advertising Association. Advertisements appeared on streetcars during the 1850s, and the first billboard went up in 1867. (Before that, ads were still usually posters on city walls.)
After being forced to connect with each other solely through screens for the past year, most of us are more inclined than ever before to look up, rather than into tiny phone screens, when we're outside.
—Sam Mallikarjunan, CEO, OneScreen.ai
Since then, outdoor advertising has been a thriving form of marketing. That is, until 2020. A report from ResearchandMarket.com suggests that the outdoor advertising industry barely grew last year—$65.24 billion from 2019 to $65.71 billion, a press release in Business Wire stated.
According to the Out of Home Advertising Association of America, advertising revenue for outdoor advertising decreased 30.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020 compared to the previous year.
“As with most industries, COVID-19 did shake up the OOH industry quite a bit. When the shelter-in-place orders [went] in full effect, brands were hesitant to advertise,” says Candice Simons, the president and CEO of Brooklyn Outdoor, an outdoor advertising firm headquartered in Detroit. (The company is named after one of her dogs.)
Still, Simons says that outdoor advertising continued throughout the pandemic—it's just that some of the clientele changed. Streaming services and food delivery services have been advertising on billboards during the pandemic, she explains.
“While people weren’t traveling as far in distance, people were leaving their homes with the intention of making a purchase,” Simons says. “During the high points of the shelter in place orders, we were advising brands to reach people closer to their homes. Such as on the way to the grocery store or on their way to the bank.”
Every industry evolves over the years, and the pandemic has likely sped up some changes, according to Simons. She's seen a huge increase among clients requesting ads on digital billboards.
“Since the state of the nation—and the rest of the world—seems to be changing at the drop of a dime, the digital format makes it much easier to make changes and updates to campaign messages,” Simons says.
A Bright Future for Outdoor Advertising?
While businesses and advertisers were less inclined to go all in on OOH during the pandemic, Roberto says that research suggests a rebound will soon be in the offering.
“WARC, a leading industry consultancy estimated that in 2020, OOH revenue was 27 percent lower than 2019," he says. "In 2021, it will increase by 20 percent but will still be nearly 13 percent lower than 2019."
Obviously, that’s not pre-pandemic levels, but it does suggest that outdoor advertising can live to fight another day.
“Now that vaccination rates are on the rise and many businesses and state are reopening, you’ll see more general market coverage beginning to return,” Simons adds.
Technology has already transformed outdoor advertising in ways that you wouldn’t expect, and will continue to do so, she says. For instance, the industry has seen a lot of pairing between out-of-home advertising and mobile (e.g. when you see a giant QR code on a billboard, and you can use your phone to capture a discount).
“Think of it as big screens directing people to smaller screens,” Simons says.
Sam Mallikarjunan, CEO of OneScreen.ai, agrees that the future in outdoor advertising looks robust. His Boston-based company specializes in getting clients’ ads onto video screens.
Mallikarjunan says that in some ways, outdoor advertising is likely poised for more growth because of the glut of advertising on social media and television. Businesses are looking for different ways to stand out, he says, and customers are more receptive than ever to these different tactics.
“After being forced to connect with each other solely through screens for the past year, most of us are more inclined than ever before to look up, rather than into tiny phone screens, when we're outside,” he says.
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