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Mudd Insights | Vacation: Reading Between the Signs

I had the opportunity to take my family on vacation this past week and we piled in the car and drove through six states for three destinations. Started east, then two days later southeast, then spent six nights south in the Appalachian mountains. So enjoyable.  We have family in these areas so the drive is very familiar.

I noticed some differences on the drive this time. Outdoor signage. Billboards.

First off, I could not believe the remnants and vacancies this time. Not as much when you were near towns, but those that strung along open interstate – so many with “Rent Me” on them.  I thought that maybe this is metaphoric for businesses who continue to trim their ad spend budgets to allocate more towards digital space. They are literally trimming back billboard space until you get closer to the actual location.  That outer ring of signage is getting spent somewhere else. Or nowhere at all. (I’d love to find out what other hypothesis you may have).

The next thing I thought about, which is not surprising, the great and not so great ads on the billboards.

Billboards are used for immediacy. Turn here, go there, stop here…they are directional, promotional and for branded awareness.

Creative Message for Billboards

I was once told to think of it this way – “Seven words, Seventh Grade.”   After developing my sense for what copy works on billboards, I added one more – “Seven Seconds.”

This in no way means they should insult an eighth grader’s intelligence. What this means is, for the safety of drivers and the effectiveness of your message- you should be able to convey what call to action you want to happen in seven words and be understood in less than seven seconds and so simple, even a seventh grader would fully understand.

If you time the moment a billboard becomes legible on a highway to the point you drive by, you’ll probably count around seven seconds. For in town traffic areas, if you observe the newer digital billboards, you’ll notice they rotate advertisers every eight seconds.  That’s about how much time you have for each set of eyes on your sign.

More often than not, hotels, restaurants and area attractions get it right.  I think McDonalds has the easiest billboards ever. They throw some golden arches up, list an exit and whether or not they are open late. Done.  Outside of Indianapolis, I actually saw a billboard – probably a 12X28 – divided into three sections. Three sets of arches, three exits to choose from. Unbelievable.

Fireworks. Lots of Fireworks once you enter Indiana and Tennessee. Most had it right, but a couple tried to list inventory on it and it was a dud. No pun intended. Sort of.

So after restaurants, hotels and fireworks – I noticed a pattern. Automotive dealerships, RVs and Injury lawyers covered a lot of vinyl space.

I will only mention the injury lawyers briefly because they focused heavily on the lawyers’ faces.  Some were partnered firms with two, others were one man/woman fighting to get you a settlement.  The further south I went, the more I saw them.  It stood out, because many auto dealerships also focused on a photo of the owner on their sign.

I am a firm believer in “humanize to advertise.” I think it’s important to have a person because it helps create your identity. It’s a tried and true method – especially in automotive. That’s why so many commercials and billboards have the person cross-promoted in all mediums. You need a personality.

Placing your Billboards

When you decide to rent a billboard, whether you secure a permanent location or buy a rotation program (Some billboard vendors will allow you to rotate your sign throughout their inventory every 3 months for a lower rate) there are many things to consider.

1.  Who else has signage?  Look around your market and see what is out there and where they are placed. If every dealer or lawyer or doctor in your area is using a business suit headshot to push their place, you could be just another saturated face. Challenge your agency to get creative with the personality and qualities that differentiate you.

2.  Location of signage. I realize you may have multiple locations in many cities, so ask a member of your team to physically drive to the locations of choice. There are two reasons for this. First – I see stealthy businesses secure a billboard next to the competition to redirect them to their spot. I’d much rather help a client do this than see their competitor do it to them.  You may want to secure the sign closest to you to let customers know they are almost there or soon to arrive.  The second comes with billboard laws. You are not supposed to alter nature for the purpose of outdoor advertising. What this means is, just because you are sent a picture of a location that does not mean a tree spent five years growing in front of it. Make sure your sign is visible and clear of “nature”.  Another part of location – lights. Does it have lights on it at night (if not digital).

3. Price. All things are negotiable. Depending on the length of the contract you want, the amount of signs you need and how creative you are going with design (Extensions to the sign?) you can always try to get a better deal. Perhaps free printing of the vinyl or discount for frequency or you notice the sign is currently filled with donated space/remnant.

4.  Message. Remember – short, sweet and to the point. At the most, you should have 3 things. Even less is better. Three things could be name, location and hypersite URL. Or it’s a date, event and time. Try to keep it as three things.  You only have seven seconds.  Be creative.

At the end of the day, a great billboard in a traffic area is effective when you clearly have a point to make or a brand reminder.  Doing your homework prior to placing one allows you to get the most out of it.

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