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Why OOH Is Essential for Ad Strategies in 2021 as Brands Recover From the Pandemic

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Intersection CMO Esther Raphael on the versatility and opportunity of out-of-home advertising

Esther Raphael

By Esther Raphael

Editor’s note: This piece is part of our Columnist Network series, which explores the tactical thoughts and actions from Adweek’s community of high-level experts. Today, Intersection’s Esther Raphael describes the role of OOH advertising in reaching city dwellers throughout and after the pandemic. Below, she exemplifies the initiatives that met consumers every step of the way.

People often ask me what out-of-home (OOH) media’s role was during the pandemic. They are usually asking with the assumption that the screens were dark and the streets were empty. On the contrary: OOH played a critical role in keeping people informed and safe during each stage of the pandemic.

I like to refer to the stages as follows. Stage one was “reconsidering,” when we had to think through everything we were accustomed to doing and reevaluate. Stage two was a period of “re-entry” as cities reopened and consumers decided their comfort levels and calculated risks. And, lastly, stage three, where we currently are, is “revenge” as we’re demanding the need for satisfaction for all that we have lost.

Let’s look at OOH’s role during each of these stages.

Reconsidering

As cities were hit by Covid and the necessary safety requirements were enforced, cities and public health organizations began focusing on ways to share and disseminate information about the pandemic to urban populations. OOH became an important, turnkey platform for broadcasting real-time, critical messaging to the masses. 

We also saw partnerships form to bring innovation and data to city streets, like the one between Intersection and Foursquare. Think about one of the greatest everyday stressors we have all experienced over the past year: getting groceries and supplies. Using Foursquare’s aggregated location data, Intersection was able to display the average hourly traffic levels for nearby grocery stores and drugstores on thousands of screens, giving consumers relevant insight on the best time to shop to avoid the crowds.

When this data was paired with the convenience of digital OOH screen locations in the heart of neighborhoods, it provided an undeniable utility and helped people address the challenges of living through those times.

Re-entry

As cities began to slowly reopen, getting outside the home became a novelty. The time we spent over videoconferences and constantly in front of screens caused extreme digital fatigue. Three-quarters of surveyed Americans complained that they were spending too much time online, which caused them to tune out their onscreen digital ads.

Conversely, research about consumers showed that they were becoming more aware of the outdoors, and OOH media specifically, with 69% of consumers in urban areas noticing OOH more than prepandemic. 

In response to this sentiment, brands started welcoming back customers and other businesses on OOH screens as a sign of positive movement for all. One of my favorite examples was Facebook’s Support Small Businesses effort where they funded advertising to promote small businesses, giving them free OOH ads in close proximity to their brick-and-mortar locations to drive local commerce. Other brands, like American Express, have also run OOH campaigns with the intent of welcoming back small businesses.

This period also invited OOH screens to be alongside restaurants, what we’ve coined as “on premise.” OOH media was now a companion to your menu, inviting you to check out new beverages or providing inspiration for your next outing.

Revenge

For brands, this is an opportunity to call old and new customers back in-store, for movie studios to announce new releases, for Broadway to shine the spotlight back on stage. OOH screens are being leveraged to promote the promise of new adventures.

As a great example, DraftKings capitalized on the return of fans to Wrigley Field in Chicago with a home-of partnership at Addison station. The brand created a first-to-market experience for Chicago Cubs fans hopping off the Red line en route to see the Cubs play after a year away from their beloved team. Riders here are not only excited to return to baseball, but they’re also the perfect audience for DraftKings to engage with branding and offers.

OOH has always been central to brands obsessed with context, and as consumers exact their revenge on 2020, there’s literally no better context than outdoors. As consumers travel to city centers, meet friends at neighborhood cafes or take their first trip to the airport, OOH is there, reaching them in a noninvasive, hyper-relevant way. Further, the evolution of content in public spaces has only made the connection stronger, incentivizing consumers to turn to OOH for desired information (e.g., public health info, top headlines, weather, transit updates), naturally bringing attention to the ads that surround this content.

As the pandemic lockdowns forced the industry—and, more broadly, brands—to reconsider how consumers engage with and ingest media in public spaces, these lessons will provide a clear path forward for the medium in the years to come. For now, the next step is for advertisers to reimagine the connection between OOH audiences and brands to build on what we’ve learned and chart a path forward. 

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