As weird as fiction?

There are many tantalising aspects to the evolution of digital technology outside of home. Google glasses, 4G; each year it gets less and less fanciful to discuss the ‘internet of things‘.

Extrapolate to an age of complete connectivity of objects and one can imagine a comprehensive dataset for people and stuff, and many weird-as-fiction scenarios for the future of outdoors.

Strangers could become a thing of the past, as could getting lost, or evading the police. In the more boring world of marketing, attribution could become much less of a headache, as we know where people are, and even precisely what they are looking at, if not what they are thinking.

In the future of audience analytics, there may no longer be a sample or a survey, but real-time, absolute data. Eventually a model of cost-per-‘impression’ (set of eyeballs) outdoors is no longer fanciful either. 

Of course, this is a long way off, and until then, increased range, depth and accuracy of data in the grubby world away from the internet is very useful indeed. 

Route’s latest outdoor measurement survey 

Here enters the latest measurement survey by Route. It’s huge, and seeks to define who interacts with media outdoors. Route provides this data so that sellers of ad space can trade on it and ad buyers can inform their purchases.

360,000 frames (bits of ad space) are analysed, both their visibility, with eye tracking studies, and the audience size and demographic that come into contact with the ads.

28,000 people were interviewed and then tracked across the UK by GPS. Part of this involves traffic studies, too. For those that get a kick out of numbers, see the bottom of this post.

It’s a large amount of useful data, and lets brands get a lot more selective with, effectively, poster space. The brochure is sort of funny, as it contains lots of photos of the audience, the survey being audience-focused of course, and leaves you wondering where exactly the ads are, waiting scarily out of shot, a bit like the direction of a horror movie.

Anyway, this is no place to get into pop culture studies.



Jokes aside, here’s a variety of uses for the data that at least point towards a vision of the future.

  • Digital posters, at the roadside, underground and in malls, can allow for day parting. An obvious one being targeting the rush hour for the business marketer.
  • More accurate numbers allow advertisers to compare outdoors to TV, press and web.
  • An advertiser can attempt to plan by audience more accurately, with audience data tied to geographical areas and even specific ad spaces.
  • Avoid wasting money purchasing ad space that, for example, is estimated to be barely seen on weekends. 

The data throws up more interesting snippets, such as singles being more likely to visit malls than those married.


It’s still essentially a survey, an estimate, however large and passive (GPS) a study. The demographic information still comes from actively questioning the participants, and there will always be heuristics at play, in the statistics and in the minds of the audience.

One of the speakers at the launch of this dataset referred to grasping the nettle, moving towards a comprehensive view of out-of-home advertising, with greater transparency about audience interaction, irrespective of what the results threw up.

This is a little disingenuous, as the study showed 14% more travel by the population since the last results. Grasping the nettle is easy when it turns out to be a tulip. The population continues to increase and in particular in important markets such as central London, even if consumer spending is hit by the recession.

Advertising might become our biggest export, sort of like the reverse of protectionism.

The inexorable link between research and its uses in the market means that the data in studies such as this will always be sliced nicely. There might be some frames (ad space) that appear undesirable when in the light of a new study, but of course these can then be priced accordingly.

Furthermore, the real sweet spots – enormous ads, visible from every angle in heavily trafficked areas – are never going to come down in price (braces for backlash). 

So the network of frames is still going to bring in lots of revenue, but it’s going to be divvied up in ever more accurate and representative ways. So in the end, the media buyer out-of-home will be surer that they are getting what they pay for.

And we’ll move ever closer to the idea of a cost per impression out of doors, whatever that cost may be. 

Smartphone scourge

Smartphones and tablets are the elephant in the room for this kind of study. Until Google glasses are widespread, we can’t be sure someone has looked at an ad, and so staring down at one’s phone, albeit a phone that vastly enables the user and could potentially enhance the advert in question, ultimately takes out larges swathes of eyeballs (a strange image).

Some of us (granted, a specific demographic) are more ‘locked in’, despite travelling further.

Route estimates smartphone penetration in Q1 of 2013 to be 65%. Eye-tracking studies can probably ascertain that the ad at the top of an escalator gets viewed (as we look up to alight) but are much less accurate at determining how often the ads up the sides of escalators are viewed.

These studies obviously also take into account everything but the creative i.e. they account for the position, the lighting, the size, the type of display etc, but not how funky the words and pictures are. 

Outdoor ads as art

Intuitively (and the word heuristics was used a few times at launch) I think we all know of the effectiveness of adverts out-of-home. You only have to think of the sides of buses, roadside adverts, adverts on the underground, to recall creative for upcoming films, for new tech and for fashion brands.

I think recall is a lot slower when trying to think of the same experiences online.

The allure of out-of-home ads is precisely that of their unaccountability. The creative must be great, and oftentimes is. Even then, the reaction, if brilliant, is large parts qualitative, and can help inform our approach to great creative online.

In short, out-of-home ads are the industry’s original and purest art form.

As we move toward the point where ad buyers can pay for audience, the industry will inevitably change. Prepare for more and more analysts and statisticians, paid better wages, and working towards this goal of transparency.

As for creatives – if you’re good, you’ll be ok, but likewise prepare for less of the Nathan Barley types (archetypal watery creatives), as they no longer manage to crouch down, with a bag on their heads, behind the unknowns of the outdoor ad market. 

Some stats from Route

  • 28,000 people were included in the GPS study.
  • 3.5m pathways were mapped.
  • 160m records in the dataset.
  • 241km travelled in a week by the average person (14% more than previous estimates).
  • 1,600 towns included in the survey.
  • We are fastest at 5-6am on a Sunday (32.8 kmph).
  • And slowest at 10-11am on a Tuesday (16.48 kmph).
  • 45-54 yr olds move fastest.
  • Men travel faster overall, and go further than women – 288km vs. 197km.
  • We spend an average of 12.2 hrs travelling every week.
  • Three quarters of travel is during the week.