Every day of our lives we see tens or even hundreds of billboards. One of the earliest forms of mass advertising in America, billboard advertising spend continues to grow at 5% (not bad for a 150 year old industry) to $8B annually.
And while today’s advertising is dominated by pixels, our curiosity of billboards led us to see what may happen if the rigor behind digital marketing was applied to the physical world of billboards.
Let's face it—online ads are easy to buy, easy to test, and easy to iterate. Everyone wants contract-free deals and the option to A/B test any combination of copy and design. Digital ads have spoiled us, so we've given up on other equally-effective channels of advertising. Billboards, once America's premier advertising platform, have not become any less effective. In fact, 71% of drivers have reported that billboards directly influence their buying decisions. And the same scientific method of researching, testing, and iterating can be done with billboards. While billboards might seem like an archaic medium, their constraints will actually force you to buckle down and think deeply about the message you're delivering. To send a message that sticks, you have to take a much more careful, scientific approach, tapping into consumer psychology and nailing down your brand's voice. The result will not only make for a killer billboard, but will trickle down to affect all facets of your advertising. Here's how to take a scientific approach to designing your billboard for a lasting impact.
Because cars drive past billboards at fast speeds, you have only 6 seconds to say something memorable. The top notch design and catchy brand name that would work with online ads aren't enough to make the sort of lasting impression that's necessary with a billboard. People who pass by have to remember your message the following day, or even week, for you to earn them as a customer. Take a systematic approach to narrow down the perfect pairing of color, design, and copy that will deliver a cohesive message that sticks, and sticks quickly. To start, you need to draw from psychology to understand what design will trigger reactions that will lead consumers back to your brand. You need to draw out the right emotions and associations that will bring your product to mind at a later time.
Drivers have only a tiny window of time to decrypt your message, and that's just not enough time for “clever.” Studies have shown that clever billboards with implicit messages actually increase the number of car accidents that happen as a result. You want people to notice and remember your message, not get distracted from the road. That means avoiding clever, and being smart. Clever copy means:
A Boston University study found that taboo words—such as curse words—are much more likely to be remembered than more neutral words. Participants were asked to look at a list of 36 words, memorize as many as possible, and then fill in the blanks for sentences with missing words. Recall for taboo words was 39% higher.
The researchers attributed the results to the emotional arousal that offensive language induces. Taboo words flare up the amygdala — the part of the brain responsible for emotions— which affects the adjacent part of the brain, the hippocampus, responsible for memory. It's the same reason you remember where you were standing during a traumatic event, but don't remember anything about the week before or after.
This doesn't mean that you have to load your billboard up with curse words and innuendos. But it does mean you can apply the same principles in your copy—appealing to the audience's emotions. Shock them with surprising imagery, tempt them with the potential for a life they don't have, or move them with the downside of never experiencing your product.
Having the right kind of color contrast on a billboard has been proven to improve recall by 38%. Cognitive psychologist Jonathan Flombaum revealed that humans have a tough time remembering specific hues of colors. Even though we can distinguish millions of different shades of colors when we look at them, our brain can store only six basic colors. So if the colors on a billboard are too similar, our brain will lump them together and make it impossible for us to retain a visual memory of the ad.
DuckDuckGo has kept their banner simple and to the point. Their catchy slogan in clear black on white is readable from any distance and increases the likelihood that a viewer will remember the brand. All the best design and clever copy will never land if a consumer can't even read your brand's name. Make sure that passersby have a name with which they can associate your message.
There's a saying in advertising that half of every ad dollar goes to waste—you just don't know which half. The unsexy truth is that, even with all the research in the world, it's never obvious which design and copy will work best for your particular brand. The only way to be sure is to test your hypothesis by conducting a controlled experiment. Regardless of what approach you take, there are a few things to consider before beginning:
Here are a few ways to simulate a scientific experiment to test the design for your billboard.
You can always send around surveys to test your design before putting it up, but creating a focus group will help you figure out why your billboard message is or isn't effective. Participants can tell you not just whether your ad is memorable, but what really sticks out to them and how it makes them perceive your brand overall.
If you don't want to go through the trouble of conducting this kind of experiment in-house, consider outsourcing to a company like Survata. They can put together a focus group based on your specified criteria to test your visuals and copy.
Online ads are a great and cost-efficient way to check whether your creative can attract attention. Thanks to the rise of banner blindness, you know that if people respond to your online ads, then they'll certainly respond well to your billboards. Here are a few places where you can test your billboard copy:
Here are the metrics you should be testing to learn whether you've created an impactful billboard message:
As with any creative medium, a century and a half of testing and experiments have yielded some hard-and-fast rules for making impactful advertisements. Neglecting to follow these can make you look like a rookie and sink your strategy, no matter how much research and copy testing you've done on your own. Here are the time-tested rules for putting together great billboard ads:
Keep these in mind, and you'll be sure to avoid rookie mistakes when it comes to your billboard.
It's tempting to be safe and stick to online ads that you can change up or cancel at any moment. But online ads serve a different purpose from billboards—they send traffic to your website. Billboards, on the other hand, magnify your brand's reach and imprint a lasting impression of your entire company. Although that is harder to put a number on, it's just as—if not more—important.