The Pandemic Pivot: Accelerating Out of Home’s Shift to a Focus on Audiences and Outcomes

Ever since I arrived at Clear Channel Outdoor Americas (CCOA) five years ago, I’ve enjoyed being an active part of the reimagining of the out of home (OOH) medium. Through an aggressive rollout of digital OOH inventory, an embrace of mobile location data and integration into programmatic buying platforms, OOH has been moving away from its traditional “expected” role as a top-of-the-funnel branding medium that is planned and bought in silos.  As an industry, we have been making great strides in recent years, albeit slowly and more gradually than many would like.

And then, COVID.

The COVID-19 crisis has demanded us – and is still demanding us – to innovate in completely new ways to meet the ever-changing needs of our advertising partners as they manage through this period. It’s forcing OOH media owners to think of their businesses differently, and reimagine the way we go to market and articulate the true value of our medium.

The pandemic has created an opportunity for the OOH industry to make a fairly dramatic pivot. A pandemic pivot, if you will, one that forces us to embrace something I feel strongly to be true, even if it sounds counter-intuitive:

I don’t think advertisers buy ads.

Sure, they transact for ad space. And traditionally OOH has been bought and sold primarily based on the location of the billboards and the creative potential of the medium. But when they buy those billboards – just like when they buy TV, radio, mobile, social and other mediums – what they’re really buying can be summed up in two words: Audiences and Outcomes.

Marketers buy ads to deliver messages to certain audience segments in order to drive people to take specific actions. While it’s true that we would have no OOH industry without our physical inventory and structures, for marketers it’s not about the form or format of the display, or even the displays themselves: it’s about the people in front of them and how effective the ads are in influencing those people’s behavior.

So, as we move into 2021 and – hopefully! – a post-pandemic period of growth and safety, what changes can the OOH industry embrace as part of this Pandemic Pivot, in order to take control of our medium’s destiny? I think it comes down to a handful of key changes, all of which require us to honestly and collaboratively reflect on the reality of advertising today and truly consider how and why marketers make decisions to buy – or to not buy – OOH ads.

We’re in the People Business

With nothing but respect for the medium to which I’ve dedicated a not-insignificant portion of my career, and with nothing but love for the creative ways the medium can be used to tell impactful brand stories, in the COVID-era, a focus on location and creative isn’t enough. We need to embrace the “why behind the buy” and ensure we’re focusing on what really matters to advertisers – efficiently reaching specific target audiences in ways that drive quantifiable results and return on ad spend – as that is what ultimately determines whether they buy or not.

Data is the Price of Admission to Play

Even advertisers who buy OOH solely based on location or creative formats are expecting to be able to understand the performance of their OOH buys.  Nearly all advertising mediums, and importantly, all of the media channels that grew during 2020, provide marketers with data to understand and optimize performance. OOH media owners need to accept that without an investment in data, there is no way to demonstrate to customers that OOH delivers results. As important, a focus on data allows OOH media owners and agencies to proactively demonstrate the value and impact of OOH, a proven method of developing new business and bringing more activity to the OOH sector. And the beauty of this is, in 2021, there are a wide range of 3rd party data solutions available to media owners big and small. There’s no need to invest in building your own data platform or hiring a team of data scientists or software developers, but ignoring the critical role of data is a mistake that likely will create major challenges in the post-pandemic era.

Measure What Matters

Fragmentation of audience measurement is never a good thing for a medium, and Geopath has made great strides to improve the quality and relevance of the OOH sector’s currency. That said, we need to really embrace the implications of how marketers responded to COVID. When shelter in place orders led to large perceived declines in audiences for OOH, advertisers turned to the OOH industry to answer the basic question, “How many people is my OOH campaign actually reaching now?” And despite the great improvements in Geopath’s annual estimate of OOH audiences, the hard truth was that our measurement currency could not accurately answer that fundamental question. Moving forward, our industry urgently needs to unify around development of a contemporary approach to audience measurement that quantifies the actual audiences exposed to OOH ads, not just a predictive model.  We need an approach that is nimble enough to adjust and remain viable given the widely expected changes to mobile location data supply due to privacy regulation, changes to Apple’s data policies and the generally fluid nature of mobile location data. And we need to do so in ways that allow the OOH currency data to be integrated easily into other data sets and analytics platforms that our customers rely upon.  The data supply and data science are readily attainable to build such a platform, but only if our industry has the courage to accept that “good enough is no longer good enough.”

Leave the Silo Behind

Our industry’s focus on the unique, specialized nature of OOH has always been a strength, both the presence of highly knowledgable, tenured OOH sales people and the specialist agencies with which they’ve tradtionally conducted business.  But that specialization has unfortunately created silos that have effectively separated OOH from other mediums, allowing marketers and planning agencies to oftentimes think of OOH’s value as a “nice to have” instead of an integrated element of a broader media mix.  And these days, that media mix is driven by digital, mobile and video, all of which are planned and bought by people who have been taught to not prioritize OOH because of incorrect and outdated perceptions that OOH is “not measurable” or “too expensive” or “takes too long to execute.”

We need to urgently embrace that OOH is part of the contemporary media mix, not a siloed medium, and change our behaviors accordingly.  We need to not just show that “OOH works” but use data to demonstrate the role it plays in driving overall performance. We need to tell advertisers about the impact that OOH has in enhancing performance of mobile and digital media.  And we need to partner with the OOH specialists as they promote the medium within the agencies, while supporting them by also telling this story directly to clients, strategists and the broader media industry. 

Come Together

2021 is our opportunity to unify as an industry. Given all of the innovation and recent advancements in OOH, we cannot allow the public story of our medium to be about “OOH vs. DOOH” or “direct vs. programmatic” or other artificial constructs that are not productive. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that there is risk in fragmentation and divisiveness and there is opportunity in collaboration. The recently announced alignment between the major programmatic OOH SSPs to establish a consistent taxonomy of OOH media types is a small but important example of how collaboration can make the OOH medium easier to understand and easier to buy. 

As our nation deals with the implications of COVID and people continue to embrace whatever our “new normal” turns out to be, OOH has an opportunity to play a key role in how marketers communicate with consumers and help them navigate through the changed world around them. If media owners, marketers and agencies keep a focus on Audiences and Outcomes, understand how consumer behavior continues to evolve, and tell a unified story about the value of OOH in today’s digital era, I am confident that there will be a fast return to OOH as a growing channel that’s even more deeply integrated into marketers’ plans.  

It’s not an easy pivot, but it’s an essential one.