A Rising Tide

Two upstarts hope to usher digital out-of-home advertising into the online world.
Blip Billboards launched in June 2016.

Before I reported on the signage industry, I was a sportswriter who covered all levels of athletics for many years. Believe it or not, there are parallels between the two divergent domains.

In the world of athletics, there exists a constant, obsessive search for the next advantage over the competition – particularly on the professional stage because of the millions (and, occasionally, billions) of dollars at stake in player and broadcast contracts. The difficult part? Deciphering which trend is fit to last, and which is destined for a flameout. The rise of analytics in baseball and the proliferation of the three-point shot in basketball? Here to stay. Online-only broadcasting of games? Jury’s still out. The Wildcat offense in the NFL? Gone with the wind.

Which brings to me to the online buying of digital out-of-home (OOH) advertising. Will the rest of the OOH advertising industry – perhaps most critically, billboard operators and untapped advertising bases – join in? Change is on the horizon, but in what form – and to what degree? Well, that’s the million-, or billion- dollar question.

NO ‘BLIP’ ON THE RADAR

Blip Billboards (Provo, UT) officially launched on June 6, 2016, but its beginnings can be traced back to 2014 when eventual Blip co-founders James Munnerlyn – who was doing online digital marketing contract work for YESCO (Salt Lake City) – and Brent Thomson were chatting over dinner. The subject turned to digital advertising. “I’m a computer guy, so I assumed that these digital screens were actually just computer monitors – and that turned out to be true,” Thomson recalled. “My follow-up assumption was that I could assign an image file and they could put it up for me today and take it down for me tomorrow. And James said, ‘No, it has to stay up for six months.’ I said, ‘Why? Why should I have to commit to six months?’ There was no good answer.”

Months went by, and Thomson – a 2004 graduate of Brigham Young Univ. who did contract work with software engineering firms in college – couldn’t expel the thoughts of contract lengths from his mind. So, Thomson called Munnerlyn, who then arranged a meeting with Patrick O’Donnell, the president of YESCO Outdoor Media.

“We didn’t know if it was something he would go for or if it was too big a departure from the industry,” Thomson said. “About five minutes in, he said, ‘Yep, that’s exactly right. Let’s do it.’”

Blip’s inventory of 85 billboards is set to roughly double by November
Blip’s inventory of 85 billboards is set to roughly double by November.

Code writing began in August 2015 and in June 2016, Blip was unveiled on YESCO’s digital inventory in Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Utah. The results over the first year were impressive, per a Blip case study: Blip secured over 600 new advertisers and prompted an 11% increase in top-line revenue over the first year.

How does it all work? Blip allows advertisers to complete individual eight-second ad spots – referred to as blips or flips – to appear as often or as infrequently as they want, and also permits advertisers to target customers by geography, day of the week and time of day. Previously, YESCO experienced vacancy rates of around 30-50%, but with Blip slashing the minimum transaction size down to a single blip – remember: no long-term contract needed – Blip eradicated YESCO’s vacancies.

Blip, which is headquartered in Provo, UT, is beginning to expand in size (now with eight full-time employees) and stature. In August, the company struck a pair of deals, the first of which was announced with New South Outdoor (Opelika, AL), a digital billboard company with signs in eastern Alabama, that consented to run Blip’s marketplace. The second came with manufacturer Watchfire Signs (Danville, IL) that offers pre-sold advertising (through Blip) to a purchaser of a new Watchfire billboard, with 100% of the incentive received upfront. By November, Thomson said he expected Blip to be available on 170 billboards nationwide.

As far as the competition, Thomson doesn’t see anyone measuring up to Blip. “A Blip competitor would have to deliver thousands of untapped advertisers to billboards, eliminate billboard vacancies and maximize the operator’s revenue every flip of every day,” he said. “As smug as it sounds, nobody else offers what Blip brings.”

FIRST TO FLIP

Before Blip Billboards was ever conceived, Doug Robertson had already embarked on a similar path with his company, Fliphound. Prior to launching in 2013, Robertson was the CEO (and still is) of Atomic Billboards, based in Wichita, KS that owns billboard locations in Wichita and Oklahoma. Atomic was the first digital billboard enterprise to partner with Fliphound (also based in Wichita).

Fliphound, which claims it operates the largest online independent digital billboard network in the country, goes to great lengths to assist potential advertisers. Simply entering a zip code on Fliphound’s website reveals if billboards are available in an advertiser’s target area, and what a quarter-slot (ad appears about every four minutes for six to eight seconds), half-slot (ad appears roughly every two minutes for six to eight seconds) and full slot (every minute for six to eight seconds) could cost if the campaign is run for one, two or four weeks. Fliphound’s Billboard Audience Impact Calculator also computes an ad campaign’s “estimated reach” of a target audience in a specific market. “The bottom line is: Can you bring advertisers to the table?” Robertson said. “That’s the question.”

Fliphound’s Billboard Cost & Impact Calculator estimates impressions, unique viewers, view retention and other data for a potential advertising campaign.
Fliphound’s Billboard Cost & Impact Calculator estimates impressions, unique viewers, view retention and other data for a potential advertising campaign.

Fliphound advertisers can purchase ads in a handful of ways. Buying through contracting and/or packages nets guaranteed impressions and the ability to set up campaigns. Real-time bidding allows potential advertisers to launch campaigns with a click of their mouse.

Like Blip, Fliphound offers a wealth of analytics and data insights for advertisers while also featuring the backing of a notable manufacturer (Daktronics; Brookings, SD), a big reason why Fliphound is able to provide advertisers access to nearly 600 billboard locations in the US. “We have thousands of registered advertisers and hundreds of people who have bought ads on our network,” Robertson said.

PLAYING THE LONG GAME

“What they’re doing is interesting, [but] it’s still a relatively small part of what’s going on in terms of transactions,” said Stephen Freitas, chief marketing officer for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA), in reference to Blip and Fliphound.

Robertson realizes his company faces an uphill climb. “When you look at the advertising spend in digital/print/TV, 4% is spent on out-of-home. We’re battling that already,” Robertson said. “Ninety-six percent of the people have never tried out-of-home. What we’re trying to do and what Blip is trying to do is really expand the advertising base.” Blip’s research estimates that 98% of companies can’t justify the minimum purchase requirements of a typical OOH contract, which often require six-month, 12-month and two-year commitments.

There are a few roadblocks standing in Blip’s and Fliphound’s way. First, there just aren’t that many digital billboards to go around – OAAA leaders estimate that out of 341,409 billboards in the US, only 7,300 – or just over 2% – are digital. Second, Robertson believes that a lack of price transparency on the part of billboard operators isn’t helping matters. “We’ve got to demystify the process,” he said. “First, you have to enable boards, then we can have online buying. And most are not online-enabled. Second, we need to be comfortable sharing pricing online, because people want to do research online.

“What are you going to buy that you haven’t researched online? There’s a big reluctance from operators to do that.”

Per OAAA and Kantar Media (a market research firm) data, the top five OOH advertisers last year were McDonald’s, Apple, Geico, Chevrolet and Verizon. Rather than targeting these giants, Blip and Fliphound hope to entice small businesses and ad agencies that would typically never dream of OOH advertising. The new advertisers that signed on with YESCO through Blip spent an average of $19 per day and had not previously engaged in billboard advertising due to budget constraints. Similar deals can be found quite easily on Fliphound’s website as well.

Outdoor advertising behemoths are building their own platforms, too. Clear Channel Outdoor recently introduced RADAR, a digital-audience measurement tool for ad campaign planning that taps into mobile location data, helping advertisers understand customer exposure and post-viewing engagement. “This allows brands to more accurately plan and measure campaigns, whenever the goal is to drive customers to a physical location or point of sale,” said Jason King, vice president of corporate communications for Clear Channel Outdoor.

Freitas noted that the industry is still identifying the most effective strategies to both represent inventory in the marketplace and transact between buyers and sellers. “There are a lot of systems and software programs out there that are being developed that look at this question about transactions in different ways,” he said.

Robertson is optimistic that more digital billboards and advertisers are coming to advance the online buying of digital OOH advertising. “It’s a long process,” he said. “Eventually, it’ll happen.”

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