Consumers are no longer looking at billboards in the same way they did 20 or 30 years ago. While billboards may still be considered premium advertising space, many consumers are more tuned into their smartphones, radios, and other driving distractions. Drivers' eyes are often distracted or down at a stop, making it hard to grab their attention.
However, that doesn't mean billboard advertising should be discounted or ignored. Billboards are everywhere, and even though we may remember just a handful, they can still have a powerful branding impact. As a whole, out-of-home (OOH) advertising, of which billboards are a significant part, posted 35 quarters of growth through the end of 2018. And tech brands such as Apple, Facebook, and Amazon have been leading the charge.
This means that outdoor advertising is getting increasingly competitive, even in the digital age. So it’s important to know how to make your advertising count.
Seven Words or Fewer
Considering people are usually on the move when they read billboards, there's not a lot of time to make your message stick—five to 10 seconds at best. Many billboard design professionals recommend no more than seven words.
You can push this to a few more words depending on their length and ease of reading, but as a rule of thumb, less is more. That means if you have a complex brand, product, or service, you probably should stay away from billboards.
Get Noticed Without Distraction
Most of the time, billboards are aimed at drivers, bikers, cyclists, or pedestrians. It causes an interesting dilemma for the advertiser. You want to get noticed, but you don’t want to be responsible for major, or even minor, accidents. So, while being distracting is paramount in many media, it’s a fine balance with the billboard.
Avoid Direct Response
There are some truly awful billboards covered in phone numbers and website addresses. A billboard is a secondary advertising medium, which means that it’s ideal for brand-building and supporting a campaign, but it cannot do the heavy lifting.
If you want a more intimate conversation with your target audience, use print advertising, television, radio, flyers, websites, and direct mail. Billboards are the wrong medium for anything other than a quick message. However, if your website or phone number is the headline, and makes sense, then you might have an exception to the rule.
Be Smart (But Not Too Clever)
A boring billboard will be ignored. A smart billboard will grab attention and leave a lasting impression. A billboard that’s trying to be too clever will simply get lost on the audience.
As a rule, you don’t want billboards to make people scratch their heads and wonder what is going on. Dense visual imagery or complex metaphors are no good here. They say advertising should be like a puzzle to solve and should give the audience a sense of fulfillment to know they figured it out. But billboards should be much simpler than that. You’re in the business of advertising, not showing off how clever you are.
More Is Better
One billboard is not cheap. But it’s also not very effective either. Every billboard has a rating, called Gross Ratings Points (GRP), based on traffic, visibility, location, size, and so on. This rating gives you a showing score between one and 100. If it’s 50, it means that at least 50% of the population in the area would see one of your boards at least once a day. If you have only one board, your impact chances are less than if you have four or five.
You want to get close to a 100 showing, but that’s not going to be cheap (and may end up being more annoying than impactful).
Show, Don't Tell
Get creative with your billboard ideas. A flat billboard is standard, but it doesn’t have to be the norm. You can go 3D, use moving parts, have people interacting with it, and even make your billboard animate. There is no reason that it just has to be a large, simple print ad.
A billboard is your opportunity to do something eye-catching and memorable, so go for it. The upside to this is it can create additional press, for free.
Consider Logo Size
One of the most parroted pieces of client feedback ever given in advertising is "make the logo bigger." The reason for that is easy to understand. The client is paying a lot of money to advertise their brand and wants the consumers to walk away with that brand planted firmly in their heads.
However, there is a balancing act that has to be played. Too big—it's horsey and distracts from the message. Too small—it's a clever ad for a brand no one connects with.
Do the Arm's Length Test
So, you've followed all the rules and designed one fantastic billboard. It's interesting, clean, concise, and has contrasting colors. But will it be seen? Will it be read and understood?
Here's a quick test to ensure you are not wasting everyone's time and money. Print out your billboard to the size of a business card. Now, hold it out at arm's length. Are you still getting everything you were when it was displayed on your 27-inch monitor? If not, go in and refine it. It needs to pop. Remember, you have, at most, 10 seconds to get your message across.