Roadside billboards are used for out-of-home advertising. Technology is now able to measure who is passing these sites. Picture: THE TIMES
Roadside billboards are used for out-of-home advertising. Technology is now able to measure who is passing these sites. Picture: THE TIMES

AFTER years of estimating the efficacy and reach of out-of-home (OOH) advertising, companies hope a new, satellite-based measurement tool will provide them and their clients with an accurate picture of their industry.

The Out of Home Measurement Council (OMC), a joint initiative to source accurate data required for proper planning, has contracted two research companies — SA-based Ask Afrika and Spanish specialist Cuende Infometrics — to design a custom-built measurement model for SA.

Cuende’s technology, using (motor) traffic flows, satellite imagery and travel patterns, is already in use in several other countries including the UK, and the firm has previously developed a planning tool for the South African Audience Research Foundation.

Out-of-home advertising is what it says: commercial messages that reach consumers outside their home. But while the most obvious example is roadside billboards, it also encompasses vehicles, buildings, bus shelters, airports, shopping malls, waiting rooms, and toilets. The advent of digital technology is extending the reach of out-of-home advertising.

So diverse has the sector become, its contribution to advertising in SA is something of a mystery. According to official figures, it contributes about 4% of total SA advertising spending, or adspend. But according to Primedia Outdoor executive Terry Murphy, one of the OMC’s main drivers, this figure grossly underestimates out-of-home’s value. She thinks the true figure is closer to 12%, and even that may be short of the real mark, because not all companies differentiate their out-of-home from other forms of advertising.

Lyn Hill, of JC Decaux (formerly Continental Outdoor Media), says: "There is some reticence. They don’t see why they should share this information."

Consequently, she says, there has been "some guesswork" about the scope of the sector. Once, she says, there was a naive marketing assumption that someone living near a billboard would see its message in the normal course of their daily travel. "Logical, but simplistic." Modern measurements want proof of observation.

"Now, for the first time, we will have empirical measurement of who is going past billboards."

Murphy says: "Some methodologies from decades ago are still being used as a guide."

With its access to satellite and other forms of technology, Daniel Cuende says his company can provide more detailed information. Ultimately, it is about harnessing the power of "big data" and analysing it in a way that benefits clients. It has partnered overseas with navigation, traffic and mapping firm TomTom.

In Pakistan, he says, some cities have given his company access to traffic cameras.

In SA, some vehicle-tracking companies say they are looking for outlets for data collected daily by the millions of cars carrying onboard location devices. Daniel Cuende says data collected by his company is already bigger than that on Facebook.

By drawing on Cuende Infometrics’ expertise, the OMC expects to gather a clearer picture of out-of-home "reach, frequency, duplication, impacts and cost-per-thousand". For the first time in SA yet, it hopes its measurements will be as accurate as those of other advertising formats.

A series of seminars across SA in the past week has introduced the programme — Outdoor Industry Audience Research — and the new software that will make it possible. Media owners will be able to buy the software to access the information. Amelia Richards, of Ask Africa, says they will be able to see which areas and sites "will give them the best impact for specifically defined target markets".

Cuende says users will be able to identify every billboard, along with audience numbers, profiles and demographics.

They can do this "on the fly" and change advertising images and messages accordingly.

Most of Cuende Infometrics’ previous markets have not presented the challenge of SA’s vast, underpopulated spaces. Cuende says his system, being tailored specially for South African conditions, will measure activity in every conurbation with a population of more than 8,000.

"We will have to calibrate our measurement system for every one," he says.

Murphy says that will encompass about 24-million people.

There are plans later this year to take the model to several sub-Saharan countries, where out-of-home can account for up to 30% of total advertising.

Murphy, however, says: "It’s hard to know how accurate these figures are. Research in most of Africa is very fragmented. It does not allow for a lot of comprehensive study."

Daniel Cuende notes: "Research is the seed that starts transformation." His SA model will start with billboards before going on to commuter advertising and then indoor advertising.

"We will work in stages and learn as we go."

Murphy adds: "This is definitely a game-changing opportunity for out-of-home."

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