Online advertising transformed in a flash. It wasn’t long ago that banner ads and pop-ups dominated the web, with Internet advertisers taking an approach not dissimilar to that of TV ads–widely blast content that’s relevant to a fraction of people and hope it sticks. Now, online ads are barely noticeable. When they are, they’re often targeted and specific enough to be welcome.
The ads that dominate our offline lives have evolved very differently. You can’t track consumers’ eyeballs the way you can clicks, and programmatically buying ads to reach someone at the exact right place and the right time doesn’t translate in the parameters of an offline world. For instance, it’s not uncommon for someone to see advertisements for a local lawyer, Banana Republic, and the newest Bond flick right after one another on billboards along a small strip of highway–something you’d never experience online unless you happened to mention all three in your last email. Consumers have come to expect more, and these spaghetti throwing tactics aren’t cutting it.
If advertisers want to continue reach people in the “real world” they are going to have to mimic the experience we have online: interactive, in-context, and highly personal. But without technology to make that happen automatically, they’ll have to get creative. I don’t just mean better billboards. As cities across America struggle to keep up with the demands of new technology and the infrastructure needed to support a new digital age, advertisers have the opportunity to step in and use their ad dollars to sponsor transformations in our home towns. And if they do it right, consumers might actually thank them for it. Because what’s more engaging and personal than that?
Consumers have become adept at ignoring ads they don’t want to see. To put this into (somewhat ironic) context, TiVo users skipped 73% of ads that aired during Mad Men. Not only are people avoiding marketing, it may sometimes have the opposite effect: According to a 2014 McCarthy Group study, 84% of millennials don’t trust advertising. Marketers need a better way to earn customers’ trust and to get their message to stick.
One way marketers have achieved this is through native advertising: ads that that match the form and function of the platform on which they appear so closely that consumers feel the ads belong. Native advertising is successful because ads aren’t simply slipping into the background, but rather are giving people what they want: brand-driven content in the context of something they care about. According to a 2014 report, more than half of consumers who click on native ads do so with the intention of purchasing something, compared with just 34% who click on banner ads.
Other advertisers have taken a completely different approach to get consumers to care with ambient advertising, or identifying places and situations where consumers would never expect to see an ad, and taking strides to get them to notice and interact with it.
These tactics are moving the needle, but are they really standing out? Even when native ads provide “useful” content for viewers and readers, they can only reach an audience of a particular publication or website. Zany ambient ads capture eyeballs, but only so many times until they become commonplace.
What if marketers were to think differently about this problem? Instead of worrying about how to make their current outdoor advertising more relevant and useful, a-la native ads, why not start with pinpointing issues that people think about and face every day, and then asking how their business can help solve those? Rather than trying to complete an impossible task of personalizing content for each passerby, get to the heart of what’s really personal about them–the significant challenges they face in the communities where they live and work–and start there.
The challenges are manifold. It’s no secret that the U.S. is struggling to keep up with current infrastructure needs. The country’s roads, bridges, and dams are rated D+ by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The U.S. was ranked 25th on overall infrastructure quality in a survey of international business leaders published as part of the World Economic Forum’s 2012-2013 Global Competitiveness Report.
This is largely due to the lack of resources allocated to repairing and building infrastructure. Federal infrastructure spending is at a 20-year low, and when the government is spending money the majority is funding critical, but basic, needs like road and bridge repair.
Cities are struggling to keep up with maintenance, let alone create a backbone that will support new, more sustainable technology. Since the government is not poised to step in, America’s private sector, namely brands with money and power, have a huge opportunity to make a dent in this problem. By sponsoring the repair and development of our cities, brands can connect with consumers by affecting real change in their hometowns, and making their lives easier and better every day.
Some brands have stepped up to the challenge and are already making a huge difference in the cities they are helping rebuild. What’s more, they’re seeing a positive impact on their brand reputations as a result:
Citibank launched New York’s first formal bike share program, making 6,000 shared bikes available across 330 locations in the city. As of July 2016, the program has 86,700 members and plans to double the number of bikes offered by 2017. The bike share program fits squarely with Citi’s mission of enabling progress and has inspired the company to try new forms of marketing, Citi’s director of brand and advertising told AdAge.
In a partnership with Cisco and the city, Sprint is building a Wi-Fi network in Kansas City around 93,000 street lights in the city. The network will allow the city to manage parking, traffic, lighting, water and waste management. While the partnership is still in the works, it has received major kudos from the mayor’s office and citizens alike.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation needed to cut costs, but at the same time, motorists needed more reliable assistance for small accidents and breakdowns on the highway. State Farm stepped in to sponsor the initiative, and the now-dubbed State Farm Safety Patrol saves the government 11% a year with its sponsored roadside assistance and highway debris removal. A testament to the program’s success, community members are posting about the positive experiences they are having with the brand, and the insurance agency is now running similar programs in 15 states throughout the U.S.
Consumers are clamoring for solutions to daily issues and roadblocks in their communities, and marketers are searching for real ways to connect with customers. There is a huge opportunity for brands to step in where municipalities aren’t, and bring fundamental shifts in how we think about who and what are supporting our cities. As consumers start to see brands bringing about change that local governments can’t, they will begin to think of marketing–and the brands that sponsor their cities–in a completely new light.