codal insights

Smart Billboards & The Future of Ads

July 19th, 2017

Like paper maps, landlines, and CDs, billboards seem like an artifact of a past time, an era where advertising was passive, and companies could only hope you drove or walked by their postings to get your eyeballs on their brand.  

After all, today’s ads are engaging and dynamic, from the personalized pop-ups that interrupt your web browsing to the sixty-second ad assigned to target viewers of a certain YouTube video. Not to mention Facebook & Google selling your data to companies that can create entire campaigns tailored to the individual.

So it would be reasonable to assume the billboard, a staple of traditional advertising, has become another casualty of digitization. Yet in the face of extinction, the billboard hasn’t become some obsolete relic—it’s evolved.

Introducing The New Billboard

Unable to match the outreach of its digital counterparts — banner ads, pop-ups, and email blasts reach thousands more than a stationary sign ever could — the smart billboard’s innovation lies in more precise, granular targeting combined with accurate analytical data collection.

This trend can be traced back to the the first smart billboards, which debuted in the American market as early as 2008. These ancestors of modern advertising were equipped with small, inconspicuous cameras that could collect demographic data from passersby and display an ad tailored to that demo.

Smart Billboards & The Future of Ads

Block diagram & Flowchart for Yahoo’s latest smart billboard patent (Source)

While the hyper-specific targeting gave the billboard a serious upgrade, it was the empirical data collection that proved to be the real moneymaker.

It virtually eliminated the question on the lips of all advertisers: who’s actually seeing this ad and how are they interacting with it? Answering this was something traditional billboards couldn’t do, and even more high-tech ad methods can’t match in terms of complete certainty. With cameras equipped with facial recognition software, nearly all doubt is eliminated.

And this was nearly ten years ago. Billboards have since progressed significantly, infused with the latest innovations in tech. Ad agencies turn to digital UX design companies to craft these modern billboards that can integrate with mobile phones, act as big data analytic tools, and communicate with IoT devices.

Leveraging Tech In Advertising

The ability to interface with mobile phones means advertisements can jump from the billboard to the smartphone seamlessly. Suddenly, the once-stagnant billboard has become mobile, literally, all through the use of a simple QR code or NFC.

NFC capabilities in smartphones present exciting opportunities for advertisers to market their products. Consider the smart billboards introduced by innovative ad agency Clear Channel Outdoor, which let mobile users who approached a billboard promoting a movie release download an exclusive trailer and enter contests.

And with Apple recently unlocking NFC functionality for their iPhones (albeit only for Apple Pay), a future iteration of the smartphone could include full near-field communication capabilities, making these billboards even more useful for engaging iPhone-wielding consumers.

Smart Billboards & The Future of Ads

Smart billboard with mobile phone capability

For the design and implementation of this next-gen advertising, Clear Channel turned to a mobile app development agency to help construct the backend of their digital billboards. It’s an ostensibly unlikely partnership, but it’s helping craft the most engaging ads in the industry.

Data collected from marketing consultant Magna Globalcorroborates this growing trend of out-of-home advertising, with $7.3 billion spent on OOH channels like billboards last year. Research has found the smart billboards are truly engaging its target audience as well—another study found fifty-five percent of consumers can recall a digital billboard’s message after passing.

And this isn’t even accounting for the data analytic functionality these billboards can have. By connecting with other data streams, billboards can adjust their advertisements based on time of day, temperature, weather, and nearby activity.

In the future, we’ll see advertising follow the route of several other industries and venture into IoT technology, especially beacon-based ones. Powered by a BLE source, beacons are small gadgets that use Bluetooth to communicate with mobile phones.

Like QR and NFC, beacons enable the transfer of information and data to smartphones, but without the necessary LTE or Wi-Fi connections—an especially useful feature for billboards located in areas with spotty cell service, like subway stations.

The Path Forward

Magna Global’s research endeavors didn’t just reveal the enormous amount of capital ad agencies were spending on outdoor advertising—it also forecast the channel would hold a similar, if not greater, share of the market as far as 2019.

This means the modern marketing agency must embrace the convergence of smart tech and advertising, especially the evolution of the billboard. While the amount spent on print ads in newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals plummet, the billboard has adapted to the “smart” technology revolution.

Partnering with a Chicago digital agency like Codal, means tapping into the latest technologies before the competition and capitalizing on where the industry is actually moving, rather than just a fad or trend in the sector. Technology is making ads more engaging than ever before—it’s only a matter of time before everyone is leveraging it.

Sean McGowan


Sean is a technical researcher & writer at Codal, authoring blog posts on topics ranging from UX design to the Internet of Things. Working alongside developers, designers, and marketers, Sean helps support the writing team to ensure Codal produces engaging web content of the highest quality. When not writing about the latest and greatest in digital design, Sean can be found baking, watching movies, or complaining about the shortcomings of his favorite Philadelphia sports teams.


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