These New Billboards Talk To Your Smartphone

For today’s marketers, plain old visual outdoor advertising just isn’t enough.

Clear Channel Outdoor, one of the world’s largest advertising companies, has a vision: smart billboards enabled with NFC and QR codes that beam content to the phones of passersby with a bump or even perhaps just a nod. These high-tech billboards, part of a project called Connect, debuted in Europe earlier this year. And now, they’re headed to the United States and Canada.

CCOA Connect Tag

While Clear Channel wouldn’t comment on initial advertisers using the high-tech billboards in North American markets, brands that tried phone-centric campaigns in Europe over the past through month using Connect include Disney, Google, McDonald’s, and Levi’s. The billboards, which are intended for street-level placement in heavy foot traffic venues like shopping malls, hotels, and train stations, are being tested in 29 different cities. In the New York metropolitan area, the billboards will only be in Westchester County; other major markets include Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and most other big cities.

For brands, the big boost the billboards offer is the chance to engage with customers on the spot, and have an advertisement jump from a billboard onto a user’s phone. Clear Channel Outdoor CEO Suzanne Grimes gave Fast Company the example of a French campaign for Disney’s Maleficent. Interactive programs for the movie aired on approximately 600 billboards across France; users were then able to download a movie trailer to their phone or engage in Facebook contests. This has obvious potential for advertisers looking to find out who exactly is engaging with their ads; Grimes added that, “The entertainment industry is enthusiastic and has a high appetite for it. This is a natural for companies like Disney, Paramount, and Warner Bros.”

The back end of the Connect billboards is being constructed with the assistance of Blue Bite, a small New York-based mobile marketing firm with a background in beaming content like coupons and music files to smartphones. Depending on the individual market and local demographics, content is ported from billboards to phones either by NFC contact or by ominpresent, semi-loved QR codes; advertisers also have the option to initiate transfers by text message as well.

Clear Channel has also stated publicly that it plans to integrate beacons–Bluetooth-based gadgets which beam content to nearby phones–in the near future. Beacons also have the bonus capability of allowing much more detailed counts of foot traffic and nearby smartphone users than the routers which are commonplace for free Wi-Fi in malls or airports. And unlike NFC, they’re compatible with iPhones.

For now, there’s one snag, however: Connect depends on either active Wi-Fi connections or solid 4G and 3G access. This limits its usefulness in places like subways and buildings with spotty phone access. Josh Kruter, a Clear Channel executive, says that means a priority for the company is placing the advertisements on the street, in malls, and in other places with consistent 4G and 3G.

Clear Channel and rivals like JCDeaux have been trying to boost NFC-enabled billboards for the past few years, but the relatively slow adoption rate for NFC in the North American market has been a hindrance. If Apple indeed integrates NFC into the next iPhone, as rumored, it could mean a lot more billboards like these in the future.