EDGE Signs of the times: Digital boards offer new versatility to billboard industry

EDGE Signs of the times: Digital boards offer new versatility to billboard industry

Most outdoor advertising still remains printed for brand recognition

April 1st, 2018 by Allison Shirk in EDGE

Chattanooga Fairway Outdoor Advertising's Justin Diedrich stands below a 14- by 48-foot double face billboard near Moccasin Bend and Interstate 24.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

When news broke that Stephen Hawking had died in the early morning hours of March 14, Fairway Outdoor Advertising had 10 billboards up across the greater Chattanooga area commemorating the world-renowned physicist just a few hours later.

The changing face of outdoor advertising in the past decade has made it possible to reach more people in less time — even when they are on the move. And unlike other forms of media, figures provided by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) show outdoor advertising, which includes billboards, has seen a steady increase in revenue over the past nine years.

Steven Miller is general manager of Chattanooga Fairway Outdoor Advertising.

Steven Miller is general manager of Chattanooga Fairway...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Steve Miller, who recently took over as general manager for the Fairway regional office in Chattanooga, describes the medium as being in its "Renaissance" era.

"If you really take a step back and look at media in general, the whole horizon is changing," Miller said from behind his new desk at the company's office near downtown Chattanooga.

Fairway is the nation's largest privately held outdoor advertising company with over 17,000 bulletins, posters and digital billboards across the Southeast, Southwest and Midwest. Fairway took control of the Chattanooga outdoor advertising market after buying LaFoy and Hall outdoor advertising agencies in 2015.

"The viewership or readership is so much different than it was a decade ago," he said. "Outdoors is truly mass media."

Revenue has increased in billboard advertising, also referred to as out-of-home advertising, since 2009, according to numbers provided by OAAA. In 2009, there was an annual revenue of $5.9 billion across the country and that number steadily increased to $7.6 billion in 2016, which is the last year that figures are available from the association.

In contrast, advertising revenue for other forms of media has fallen in recent years as more and more consumers are moving to their phones and social media for news and information. The Pew Research Center reports advertising revenue for U.S. newspapers fell an estimated $30 billion from 2006 to 2014.

A digital Chattanooga Fairway Outdoor Advertising sign displays weather in the 500 block of Market Street in downtown Chattanooga.

A digital Chattanooga Fairway Outdoor Advertising sign displays...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Although Fairway's operations are based in Chattanooga, the company has billboards scattered through southeast Tennessee, north Georgia and into North Carolina and Alabama, too. More than 1,500 of their boards are static and printed on vinyl to be displayed for a longer period of time. Only 43 billboards are digital and can display up to eight advertisements in under two minutes.

With that kind of ratio, it's obvious that digital billboards won't be outdoing print ones any time soon. Cynthia Beiler, a Fairway's corporate consultant, said whether a client chooses to use print or digital billboards depends on a number of things, like how long they want it to stay up, where they want it to be, what they want to spend and what they want to promote.

For example, a heating and air conditioning business would find it more effective to place an advertisement on a digital billboard that is triggered by weather changes to display the company's business information when temperatures get below freezing in the winter or start heating up in the summer. An organization putting on a summer concert series might also want a digital advertisement if the venue and band changes every weekend.

For companies looking for longtime branding and wanting to reach as many eyes as possible, they might choose a static billboard off the interstate in a high-traffic area, like the ridge cut on Interstate 24. Beiler said Chattanooga is a great outdoor advertising market because of all the major thoroughfares and tourism industry. Fairway helps to produce the Ruby Falls' billboards that can be seen throughout the area and in north Georgia.

When it comes to price, most of the larger billboards, or bulletins, in Fairway's inventory, range in price from $250 to $1,250 weekly based on location. Smaller billboards, called posters, have an average weekly price of $200 per location, and digital billboards range from $375 to $750 weekly.

Clark Byers stands near the first barn he painted to promote Rock City in 1936 on Hwy. 41 near Chattanooga. Byers traveled the country for years painting hundreds of barns with Rock City's distinct branding message, one of the region's earliest billboard success stories.

Clark Byers stands near the first barn he...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Digital billboards are also less labor intensive and there aren't the added costs of printing vinyl. Miller said the cost has decreased for digital billboards as technology has improved over the last decade, and they can be changed with the click of a button. Static billboards take a crew about 20 minutes to change if they are smaller and about one hour for bigger ones located along major roadways and interstates.

Each city, county and state poses different issues when it comes to regulations for billboards, though. Beiler described outdoor advertising as a heavily-regulated industry when it comes to placement, lighting and sizing. For digital billboards, advertisements must be displayed for at least 10 seconds before transitioning to the next one to ensure drivers aren't distracted by constant movement while driving.

But Fairway does have the advantage of having less competition with other forms of media because they are out of the home and on the go.

"All the other media are our clients – television, radio, even print, are customers of (Fairway)," Beiler said. "I think it's because our medium plays well with others in the sandbox — we leverage them."

Fairway in Chattanooga's future includes more digital advertising and partnering with some public stakeholders to improve community messaging, Beiler says. These messages can range from public safety announcements and Amber Alerts to displaying information about community events. For the past two years, Fairway has also combined advertising on the big screens with advertising on smaller screens — mobile phones and computers — for clients.

"We can combine the outdoors effectively with other mediums," she said. "I look at it as the truly perfect mix."

This story appears in the April issue of Edge magazine which may be read online at timesfreepress.com/news/edge.

Contact Allison Shirk at ashirk@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6651.