To bounce back from an unfortunate annus horribilis, brands and media owners must take a new, more localised approach to OOH advertising.

Among the ad industry’s bewildering encyclopaedia of three-letter acronyms, OOH is surely one of the least intimidating. Yet, the last few months have added a regrettable new context to the concept of being ‘out-of-home’.

The outdoor media industry began the year with a spring in its step. WARC Data forecast that the channel would grow by 5.9% globally in 2020, in large part due to mounting desire among advertisers for the addressability offered by digital OOH screens. In the UK, media owners including Clear Channel, JCDecaux and Posterscope united for an unprecedented study into the effectiveness of digital outdoor. Audience research body Route announced a new and more accurate system of measuring how many people view advertising when they’re on the move.

In reality, the arrival of a certain virus put paid to any hopes of a breakthrough year of growth. With civilization huddling indoors under government-imposed quarantine measures, road traffic was down by 60% during the peak of the UK’s lockdown, with rail and London Underground traffic down more than 95%. The humble poster became a curiosity from a world before coronavirus, spotted only during rare outings to a grocery store or during officially-sanctioned excursions for exercise.

Staring down the barrel of a 21.7% year-on-year decline in global OOH ad spend, one might have forgiven the industry for licking its wounds and lying in wait for better times. Instead, the lockdown months have created a new appreciation for the ability of outdoor media to generate social and PR buzz far beyond the reach the paid media site. Take the witty creative by snack brand Emily, bemoaning the unfortunate timing of its media investments.

Yet there is only so much scope for virality – ultimately, OOH media must return to delivering effectiveness against its core purpose, namely among those consumers passing by its sites, whether on foot, in public transport or travelling by car. And with consumer movement set to remain altered for some time to come, this demands a growing understanding of the importance of local messaging.

Global ideas, made locally-relevant

As Western countries slowly re-emerge from lockdown, it is becoming clear that the economy will be changed for some time to come.

Unemployment is likely to peak in the coming months, after the conclusion of government job protection schemes. Many roles can be executed perfectly well without the need to spend two or three hours commuting each day. City-centre offices may be reinvented as sites for specific, collaborative activities, rather than locations for employees to clock in and out each day.

This, in turn, will mean more working-age consumers spending time on their local high streets, and spending more money with local businesses – a change in behaviour that marketers would be wise to take note of.

Speaking during Lions Live last week, Luiz Sanches, jury president for next year’s Outdoor Lions, urged advertisers to use OOH to deliver a “human connection”. Outdoor media is uniquely placed to share a global idea through a local lens, he added, rather than dwelling on innovation for innovation’s sake. “Since we’re not going to be travelling too much, we now have to make our ideas travel,” said Sanches, partner and chief creative officer at AlmapBBDO.

The best outdoor campaigns are driven by “emotional” rather than “rational” ideas, he added, as well as a creative “simplicity” that defies the use of “fireworks” to make up for an absence of insight.

Writing for WARC, Claire Kimber – group innovation director at UK media owner Posterscope – insists that outdoor media has long demonstrated its willingness to ‘think big’ in recent years – from integrating mosquito-killing technology into billboards, to extracting pollution from the air.

“OOH is already more than simply a billboard, or a bus, or a roadside 6-sheet,” she writes. That same site can also double up as a “community noticeboard”, a “vital information communicator” or a “helping hand when waiting in the supermarket queue”.

Another recent WARC article by Talon Outdoor’s Sophie Pemberton and Emily Alcorn observes that OOH media can play an important role as consumers return to normal outdoor habits. To maximise the benefits of the channel, they argue that advertisers should explore the ways in which they can tailor OOH ad content to different locations and times of day.

“If you are not utilising context in your OOH creative you are severely hindering your communication potential and media investment,” they write. “Let’s use the disruption experienced across the market to come up with fresh strategies and new ideas.”

The latest Advertising Association/WARC Expenditure Report predicted that UK’s OOH industry will bounce back in 2021, with 16.6% year-on-year growth. However, for the channel to make a full recovery from COVID-19, advertisers must appreciate that audiences have changed – potentially for good.

Using addressability to reach people on-the-go is no longer purely about contextualising the message to suit that particular consumer’s place in the purchase funnel; it is also about acknowledging the community that he or she is a part of as well. And that means thinking local.