Outdoor Ads That Get Results

You can't just slap a few words on a giant sign and expect people to respond. Here's how to craft your outdoor ads for optimal results.

By Roy H. Williams • Feb 2, 2011 Originally published Aug 8, 2003

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Q: I'm thinking of doing some outdoor advertising. What can you tell me about it?

A: Outdoor advertising is an appealing option due to its ability to target geographically and its extremely low cost per person reached. The problem is that billboards can easily become invisible. How many billboards do you drive past each day without seeing them? Yet others will seemingly smack you in the face. Today I'll explain the difference.

But first we'll need a brief definition of terms. The term "billboard" is generally applied to two different sizes of postings. The most common of these is the 30-sheet poster. Measuring 12 feet by 24 feet, posters are applied in strips like wallpaper, and the space where they're posted is contracted in 30-day increments. Most communities are pocked with posters, with monthly costs typically ranging from $350 to $650 per location, plus printing. Poster printing is rather expensive when you wish to print only a few copies, but when the volume exceeds a few dozen of the same image, posters usually cost between $85 and $125 per board.

If your need for exposure isn't time-sensitive and you're not fussy about locations, you might approach your local outdoor company with an offer to purchase unsold space on a stand-by basis at a reduced cost, usually about 40 to 50 percent off the published rates. To purchase on a stand-by basis, you'll need to keep a supply of posters available at the warehouse of the outdoor company and give them blanket permission to post your showing without first having to call and get your approval of locations. The general theory of stand-by is that you can have a double helping if you're willing to eat scraps, but if you want to order off the menu, you get to pay the prices on the menu.

The primary benefit of posters is that they stay in one location for only 30 days. One of the reasons that a billboard will become invisible is that your brain becomes used to seeing it there. This is why you're most likely to notice a new board immediately after it's posted. Usually within 30 days, it will have become invisible. If an outdoor company tries to persuade you to leave your posters at each location for longer than 30 days, be sure to tell them no. Chances are, you'll get a free ride at the end of your 30-day contract anyway, due to the fact that no one else was waiting in line for your locations.

The second type of billboard is called a bulletin. Measuring 14 feet by 48 feet, bulletins have a much longer profile than posters, similar to the aspect ratio of a movie screen when compared to a television screen. Bulletins aren't paper, but are usually a single sheet of vinyl with the message printed by a machine that resembles a huge ink-jet printer. You should budget $1,500 to $2,000 for printing each vinyl bulletin. Fortunately, these vinyl faces have at least a two-year lifespan before they begin to fade.

Unlike posters, bulletin locations can be contracted for periods of 12 months, though I don't recommend this unless your billboard is a directional, providing driving instructions such as "3 blocks ahead on your right." A rotating bulletin is usually a good plan, as it moves your message to a new location each month. Monthly bulletin costs can range from $1,000 per month to $4,000 or more per month in high-traffic areas.

Speaking of traffic, don't be fooled by so-called "daily traffic count." A neighborhood location and a highway location may have similar traffic counts, but the neighborhood location is counting the same few people at least twice a day, every day, while the highway location is counting mostly new people each day. Consequently, a highway location may have reached 50 or 60 times more people at the end of a month, though "daily traffic count" was the same as for the neighborhood location.

Generally speaking, billboard locations lower to the ground are better than those that are higher, since the eyes of drivers are focused at windshield height. Likewise, closer to the road is better than further away from the road, and right-hand boards are much better than left-hand boards, since drivers are unconsciously watching for cars to enter the stream of traffic from their right. Expecting a driver to notice a billboard on the opposite side of oncoming traffic is ludicrous. The only purpose of such a board is to reach the passengers in a car. Consequently, it is of significantly less value. I would expect to pay at least 30 percent less for a left-hand read than for a right-hand read in the same location.

Now for the hard part: Your billboard design must include a riveting picture, and your message cannot exceed eight words. The most common mistake made by new outdoor advertisers is that they will attempt to use billboards to deliver longer messages than billboards are capable of delivering. Have your board designed by an experienced outdoor artist, and you'll be fine.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.

Roy H. Williams

Roy Williams is the founder and president of international ad agency Wizard of Ads. Roy is also the author of numerous books on improving your advertising efforts, including The Wizard of Ads and Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads.

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