In a social media world, are Billboards a necessity or expensive exercise in vanity?

We all accept that the way consumers source and absorb data has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Instead of listening to brands and what they have to say about themselves, consumers now listen to other consumers and buy brands based on data sourced from those other consumers.

The way consumers partition their worlds is also changing and nowadays, consumers segment themselves into communities. For companies, this should be seen as an exciting development because it gives them the opportunity to communicate directly with consumers in pre identified commuities using content that resonates with those communities in a more personalised and dynamic manner and using tools that are widely available and relatively inexpensive.

But when we meet with prospects, they only seem to be interested in traditional tools such as print ads, TV commercials and billboards. And they soon lapse back into semi indifference as we suggest the future is not about these expensive, outdated tools that are increasingly closed out by consumers.

All prospects seem to want is reach, awareness and creativity to build a brand. The high profile, mass economy tools and creative stuff that looks good, reaches the most consumers, irrespective of whether or not the product or service is relevant to those consumers and wins agencies awards.

Even if it means spending millions of Ringgit on immeasurable campaigns that are lost in the fog of messages consumers are bombarded with every day. Even if it means they cannot measure the effectiveness of the campaign with real, actionable data that they can use to save money and improve the effectiveness of future campaigns. Even if the messages within the campaign make claims the company simply cannot live up to, they still prefer this route to less expensive, targeted messages with relevant content to specific communities based on the requirements for value of that community.

It’s as if they are reassured that they are getting value for money because they can see the print ads, the billboards, the TV Commercials and therefore, so can lots of other people. Sure, billboards can be an inexpensive medium to pass on a message to a large audience. Indeed one company BPS states in their marketing collateral, …”Perhaps it’s because they (billboards) reach more people for cheaper prices than any other type of media.” But is reaching more people for cheaper prices a sound strategy for a social media world? From this we deduce that if lots of people see the product or service on TV or on a billboard, then many of them will seek out the product or remember it and buy it when they encounter it in the ‘flesh’. This may have been acceptable in a more sedate world, with limited competition etc. But we all know that in today’s marketplace, this approach is no longer effective.

Is this an Asian thing? Or is it universal? Here in Malaysia, one mass economy tool that is really popular is the billboard. Billboards, and in particular getting a company on one, is fast becoming a national obsession. One prospect recently interupted our strategic proposal and asked us to find a number of billboards at strategic locations across the capital to raise awareness of the company (The company is almost 100 years old).

The belief is that if enough consumers see the product on a billboard, preferably a really big billboard alongside a really busy highway, then the success of the brand is all but guaranteed. This obsession is growing fast. Currently, out of home accounts for only 2% of ad spend in Malaysia, but it is growing at over 35% per annum and is now worth in excess of RM100,000,000 (US$30million).

But I fail to understand the logic in this. Because think about your behaviour when you are driving. Unless you spend your days splitting molecules or working on a vaccine for AIDS, driving is probably the most complicated daily activity you will do. Not only is it a complicated activity that requires great skill, but according to research, it is a skill that consists of more than 1500 ”sub skills”.

When we’re driving, there is no opportunity to relax (This is where a wry grin appears on the faces of Malaysians). Throughout the journey, we are navigating badly signposted and unforgiving roads and terrain that changes on an almost daily basis. We’re constantly scanning the environment (well some of us are) for cars that don’t signal, pedestrians who take their time crossing the road, despite the obvious implications of being hit by a ton of steel at 50km, motor bikes driving the wrong way and debris from a recent lorry puncture. Plus, we’re constantly seeking information that can help us.

At the same time, we’re trying to maintain our position on the road. We’re also constantly checking our speed and mirrors (well some of us are), making decisions (apparently, about twenty per mile), evaluating risk and reward, looking at instruments and, despite the obvious futility, trying to anticipate the actions of the white wira with a black door and five girls in the back.

Whilst doing all this, many of us, and you know who you are, are sending an sms, talking on the phone, sipping from a water bottle or thinking about ___________________(insert name of premier league team). Others are trying to stop yet another fight between irritable kids or starting one with a spouse.

Research from the USA carried out a survey on one stretch of road in Maryland and, “found that a piece of information was presented every two feet, which at 30 miles per hour, the study reasoned, meant the driver was exposed to 1,320 “items of information”, or roughly 440 words, per minute. This is akin to reading three paragraphs like this one while also looking at lots of pretty pictures, not to mention doing all the other things mentioned above – and then repeating the cycle, every minute you drive.” (source Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt). With all that going on, do billboards engage consumers effectively?

And billboards are not cheap. In Kuala Lumpur, the most expensive billboard in the country is on the federal highway, costs RM900,000 a year and reaches 252,000 cars daily. Less high profile billboards cost are around RM250,000 – RM500,000 per annum, depending on traffic. But branding requires so much more than reach today. Whilst reaching hundreds of thousands of consumers and creating awareness, especially for a new product may be an important step in the branding process of some products and services, it isn’t a goal, for any product of service.

Now I’m not suggesting for one minute that billboards are a waste of money. However, I am suggesting that you should get independent advice on whether or not it is the right tool for your brand. I’ve seen a number of billboards for B2B companies, one recently was selling shock absorbers. The major investment in that billboard and the production costs, would have been better spent on sales and marketing material to engage the automotive manufacturers and repair shops that purchase shock absorbers.

You also need to be careful how you chose the location. Just because 500,000 cars pass the billboard, doesn’t mean it is a good location. Equally important is the content of the billboard. Writing an essay will defeat the object of the billboard.

Some other questions you need to ask yourself include:

What role do billboards have to play in our brand strategy?
How can we measure the effectiveness of the campaign?
If we can’t measure it, should we do it?
What happens once we take the billboard down? How do we maintain momentum?
How can we leverage the impact of the billboard?
How can we make the billboard stand out?

It may be that a billboard will become a neccessary part of your brand strategy. But it is worth asking yourselves these questions first. Otherwise, your billboard will waste a lot of money that few companies can afford.

If having asked yourself these questions, you still believe billboards are part of your communications campaign, try to make them original. 3 dimensional billboards will definately get attention and so will digital boards. It amazes me when I see a photo of a watch on a billboard. We recently had a huge watch billboard outside our office. It was there for at least a month. No one in the office had ever heard of the brand so we decided to investigate it further to see what other communications were part of the campaign.

We couldn’t find anything so we can only assume that billboard was the extent of the communications campaign. As I write this, two months later, I have asked if anyone remembers the name. Nobody does. That’s probably RM200,000 wasted.

However, if that billboard had been digital and the watch actually worked, then we would probably remember the brand. Of course this doesn’t necessarily mean we would buy the product, but at least awareness levels would have increased.

This article has some great ideas for 3D billboards. A simple search of the Internet will uncover plenty more.


2 thoughts on “In a social media world, are Billboards a necessity or expensive exercise in vanity?

  1. Very well said. Totally agree. There is another theory to why social media and Internet marketing isn’t so “attractive” as compared to billboards – Tangibility. And you can also realize that sometimes the idea of rich media ads “work” much better for these people even if their ROI & conversions are lower than search or link traffic.

    As far our demographics are concerned, these are classic examples of why Malaysia isn’t ready for modern media at large. Or marketing/advertising for these matters.

    It’ll take people like you to prove them wrong – go large and find a big local brand/plunger who’s ready to take the risk. When your web campaigns grow large and successful, then only these people will start thinking twice about this.


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