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People love Instagramming billboards–and it’s great for advertisers

1 in 4 Americans has posted an image of an outdoor ad to the platform, according to Nielsen–and the industry is taking notice.

People love Instagramming billboards–and it’s great for advertisers
[Photo: Vivek Prakash/AFP/Getty Images]

It just takes one. One billboard, in one city, with a message can travel the globe in an instant. Remember Deadpool‘s Valentine’s Day magic? 20th Century Fox made a single gag billboard positioning the superhero action flick as a romantic love story, and it went around the world as soon as star Ryan Reynolds posted it to Instagram.

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Back in April, Spotify turned one New York City subway stop into a worldwide art exhibition when it transformed the Broadway-Lafayette station into a David Bowie tribute, tying into the David Bowie Is exhibit at The Brooklyn Museum.

According to Spotify, it reached more 50 million people on social channels–with no paid amplification.

Both are examples of the influence Instagram is having on both the placement and creative strategy of outdoor advertising.

As digital advertising’s path to prominence began a decade ago, more traditional ad forms like TV, radio, print, and outdoor saw their cultural relevance deflate, both in attention and the shift in ad budget allocation. But as they realized that our attention wasn’t stuck to one device or another, but constantly moving between media, brand and ad began to more effectively create work that complements itself across different platforms. With social media’s meteoric rise, the opportunity to use outdoor space to attract not only eyeballs but active engagement–like posting photos of billboards, posters, wall murals, digital installations, and more–became clear.

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“For us, [outdoor advertising] has become a social channel, and we trust that if the creative is compelling enough, people will do the work of amplification for us,” says Spotify’s global executive creative director Alex Bodman. “When we do a station takeover like the one we have at Union Square for our annual Wrapped campaign, the measure of success for me is seeing people stopping to take note of the creative, and then taking out their phones to snap a picture. That’s when we know we got it right.”

Spotify’s senior global brand director Alex Tanguay says that as the company has started developing more creative work in support of artists and their record releases, it’s the billboards that generate the most excitement. “For them, these billboards are iconic moment that they celebrated, often with a post on Instagram,” says Tanguay. “In turn, our media investment takes on a life of its own inside the earned-media world of Instagram for artists and their fans.”

Recent research by Nielsen reports that 1 in 4 U.S. adults surveyed have posted a photo on Instagram after seeing an outdoor advertisement. That’s higher than almost any other advertising traditional media–TV, radio, print, or digital banner ad–and it’s also the best bargain. According to the report, outdoor advertising on Instagram is seen by three times as many people, all for the same price as other forms of advertising. The ad industry calls unpaid news coverage of its work “earned media,” so getting your ad spread around Instagram for free by passersby is essentially earned social media.

Kym Frank, president of Geopath, a not-for-profit organization and industry standard that uses audience location data and media research to analyze out-of-home advertising, says that social networks and outdoor advertising are two platforms that have a natural synergy. “Technology is changing the game for [outdoor advertising], and with social networks being everyone’s go-to media for trends, it’s no surprise that Instagram, the place for all things photo and visual, is making waves,” says Frank. “In fact, despite the smaller portion of ad share garnered by [outdoor advertising], it was the top advertising platform to drive Instagram posts across all offline media and banner ads.”

Ad agency Cossette won the Cannes Lions Grand Prix for outdoor advertising this year for its work with McDonald’s. Cossette Media’s chief strategy officer Wes Wolch says outdoor is one advertising environment that can still reliably reach consumers, and Instagram and other visual platforms are completely changing the opportunity for brands.

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“We are living in an era where people are going out of their way not to consume ads–whether that’s using streaming services, unplugging their cable, or using ad-blocking technology,” says Wolch. “Creating a great outdoor campaign is no longer about devising a way to get a strong key message out in seven words or less. As we think about how to use out-of-home space, we need to think of it more as an art installation than an ad.”

For cannabis brand Tweed, Cossette partnered with experiential agency Behavior and multimedia artist Trevor Wheatley to design a series of outdoor art installations that featured large, sculpted letters spelling the word “Hi.” Through lighting and design, they could adjust the each piece to work for the context of where it was and how people interacted with it. At this summer’s Field Trip music festival in Toronto, the installation complemented the act onstage and acted as a meeting point for people trying to find their friends and snap photos with them. Wolch says it helped Tweed reach the No. 1 awareness position among cannabis brands in Canada.

Measuring the effectiveness of outdoor ads on Instagram is still rudimentary, but Franks says the platform’s impact and influence is driving more innovation. “Currently, measurement of the amplification of [outdoor] advertising as a result of posts on social networks is done in a variety of ways as an ad hoc solution,” says Frank. “Typically, this includes manual social monitoring via hashtags or keywords, although many in the industry are investigating image recognition technology to better measure lift.”

Of course, the staple of outdoor advertising–the billboard–has long been a figure of contention, often called a form of visual pollution. Vermont, Maine, Hawaii, and Alaska all ban billboards, while San Francisco banned off-site billboards (billboards not on the property of the business being promoted), and the Brazilian city of São Paulo famously banned billboards in 2007, removing more than 15,000 billboards and 300,000 oversized storefronts. By creating outdoor advertising that aims to also impress on Instagram, advertisers can also potentially improve the quality of brand presence in public spaces.

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@downtowndaniel Delivered That Funk. #alwayshandpaint

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Ultimately, much like restaurants and retail spaces, brands are increasingly thinking about how their outdoor advertising can attract and encourage Instagram users to become a more personal form of earned media–the key word being earned. Instead of interrupting your sightline with some random billboard, a campaign must earn your attention–so much so that you actually might take the time to post it. The rise and popularity of firms like hand-painted mural specialists like Colossal Media signal that more marketers are seeing the potential.

“When you consider the Instagram factor, outdoor campaigns become less about creating ads and more about creating culture,” says Wolch. “How do people interact with content in public spaces? The key is to consider content and context–moving beyond the idea of filling a blank rectangle on a building.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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