Google And The Great (Digital) Outdoors

The coverage of Google's recent patent application has sparked an avalanche of speculation regarding the implications of digitizing outdoor advertising. What untapped potential will the ROI oracles of online unlock for an advertising industry starving for access to attention?

It's a valid question. And the anticipation is understandable. At first thought, the mind races with the infinite possibilities generated by replacing painted cardboard with wirelessly connected high-definition displays. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's all take a deep breath. The sky may be the limit for outdoor (literally), but before it reaches those heights, there are daunting technology, operations and, most important, societal complexities to be addressed.

These questions can be distilled into one overarching question: What about next-generation digital outdoor advertising is going to make the world a better place? For those of you who have read my past Spins, you know that I firmly believe Google is what it is today because its mission was to make the world a better place by organizing the world's information. This ended up including information contained within advertising, and Google ended up with a multi-billion-dollar business. There is nothing I hold to be truer than this: Building successful business models for tomorrow's advertising will mean first, and last, evaluating how to improve the entire eco-system you are attempting to enter. The billions will follow.



With this goal in mind, consider the obstacles Google or any other would-be player in digital outdoor will be facing. Advancements in digital signage cause many of us, including search visionary John Battelle, to conjure visions of futuristic films like "Minority Report," where we are assaulted by customized promotional messaging triggered by our presence and seen and heard only by us. Setting aside the fact that this scenario would make most of us very uncomfortable -- we wouldn't consider this a better world -- it also wouldn't achieve the goal of having digital signage relevant to each individual. Also, what we see/hear, everyone else in proximity sees/hears. So, for messages to achieve the infamous relevance of their online counterparts, they would need to achieve a sort of community relevance. This means entire freeways of drivers, stores full of shoppers, sidewalks full of pedestrians--and on and on.

From an eco-system perspective, consider: How will the ads provide value for people forced to view them? How do the ads become part of the landscape they interrupt? How is this space efficiently distributed, not only to the highest bidder, but those with the messages we want to see (no more keywords -- say it ain't so!)? Will someone find a way to automate what is aesthetically pleasing from one community setting to the next? I think most would agree there is a level of artistic expertise required to ensure that digital advertisements are not eyesores. And even those clean 16-word text ads by Goooooogle would cause more than a little slowing if every one on the 405 slowed to read them.

The question I had as I read the various write-ups regarding Google's most recent patent application was: Why is tying advertising to what's in-stock relevant? Sure, I can see some areas where it meets the criteria for relevance, but doesn't that presuppose that the retail location you are in has what you are looking for? Can the information provided really have consumers' best interests in mind if it's just trying to push the inventory that's available?

With outdoor advertising, both traditional and next-generation, on the rise, there has been backlash. Recently there have been a number of examples of increased regulation and, in some cases, outright banning of outdoor advertising. Public concern, and therefore regulation, will only increase as more of these advertisements turn digital. I mean, who really wants to see every town look like Vegas (and this is coming from someone who loves to visit Vegas).

Despite all of the obstacles, next-generation outdoor advertising will provide increased opportunities and revenues even in the short run (maybe not 10x, but something closer to 2-3x). Eventually, someone will master the complexities facing the outdoor digital advertising industry, but they won't be mastered by attempting to make the most money possible from whatever attention outdoor digital displays are able to steal. Rather, the answers will be discovered by the company looking to improve the role outdoor digital displays play in people's lives. The billions will follow.

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