By Dr Sarah Barns

Let’s rethink outdoor media as public space media. As Australian cities open up after COVID-19, let’s explore the potential to use outdoor media as a way to communicate important messages and provide connection within communities.

The year 2020 has been a bumpy ride for the outdoor media sector. As cities open back up, it’s a good time to rethink the potential of digital out of home (DOOH) media to connect with communities in public spaces.  

Do you remember when outdoor billboards started to actually move?  First, the bus stop billboards began to rotate between advertisements – before there was one, now there were two! Then, more and more print-style billboards began to be replaced by digital screens. Suddenly, the space occupied by one asset could be sold to not just one or two buyers, but more.

A boom in advertising revenues quickly ensued. In fact, outdoor media saw a doubling of revenues between 2013 and 2019 – as the sector began to blossom into a fully-fledged digital ecosystem, known in the industry as ‘digital out of home’ (with the somewhat unfortunate acronym DOOH). 

By 2020, the sector had become a mix of hybrid digital-physical interfaces, intermediated by ‘supply side digital platforms’ (SSDPs) and ‘demand side digital platforms’ (DSDPs). Think of these digital platforms as the Ubers and Airbnbs of outdoor media, creating digital ecosystems that let buyers and sellers trade outdoor advertising space ‘programmatically’, based on granular, data-driven insights, including location, demographic data, time of day and more. 

There’s now more and more companies gearing up to play a part in this evolving digital ecosystem. Google sister company Sidewalk Labs has a stake in it via Intersection, a company on a mission to “connect digital and physical worlds” to elevate the urban experience. To put it a bit differently, Intersection uses data intelligence to more efficiently connect buyers and sellers of advertising space outdoors. 

After years of steady growth and moves toward data-driven optimisation, the Covid-19 pandemic arrived and hit the sector hard. Advertising budgets were cut, and stay at home measures saw consumer eyeballs locked onto screens indoors. Some billboards in major cities were empty – a rare sight indeed – while outdoor media companies like Ooh!Media populated their assets with advertisements about themselves. 

But as cities open up after lockdowns, there’s an opportunity for us all to rethink the role and potential of outdoor media in public spaces. Local governments are investing in ways to activate their public spaces, and bring people back into CBD spaces. The important role of public spaces as shared spaces – for creativity and inclusion – is stronger than ever.  

In this context, it’s worth considering an expanded role for our cities’ digital out of home (DOOH) infrastructure. If DOOH companies really do want to ‘elevate the urban experience’ through outdoor media, how can these services actually benefit communities in public spaces, rather than simply selling advertisements? 

Evolving the DOOH environment from one that is purely advertising-driven, to one that facilitates a mix of creativity, local content, and brands, offers the potential for an expanded ecosystem of publishers and audiences and can only mean good things for the reputation of the sector as being at the forefront of the smart city revolution.   

In Parramatta this year, the STORYBOX platform launched as a showcase for ‘public space media’ – a reimagined outdoor media offering that actively contributes to the quality and experience of a public space. 

STORYBOX introduces a partnership model between precinct partners, media and arts organisations to connect innovations in hybrid digital-physical design with an inclusive and collaborative approach to local storytelling and engagement. 

Here are some of the ways we’re rethinking the potentials of outdoor media as public space media:

Connect with people, not just consumers 

As digital platforms transform the way outdoor media operates, it’s time to think more carefully about how citizens can be brought meaningfully into the equation. DOOH targets its audiences purely as consumers, using inventory to sell brands. But what if digital screen networks outdoors engaged with audiences as citizens, who are part of local communities? 

Working from home measures have seen more and more people work, shop and play locally – described by Neighbourlytics as the ‘New Local’. This provides an opportunity for DOOH companies to support more localised campaigns as well, but also to think about their outdoor assets as being a service that supports local community creativity and resilience. 

This might mean supporting more not-for-profit campaigns that facilitate community connectedness, or highlight local issues. As an example, STORYBOX invites two-way dialogue by inviting contributions from audiences in the form of ‘Tiny Stories’, short written work under 120 words that are animated for exhibition outdoors. 

Let’s see data used for good

Increasingly, data will be fundamental to how this industry operates. But can this data-driven revolution be engineered in ways that benefit local governments and citizens? 

Local data can be used for much more than targeted brand messaging. What about health advice, targeting local postcodes showing higher rates of obesity? Or what about using localised data to shape creative visualisations of things like heat mapping, or urban canopy? 

Clearly DOOH operators access wide audiences through their prominent public positioning. Let’s see this used to promote greater awareness about local environmental risks. 

Innovation in business models for public benefit, not just screen resolution?

Digital disruption means platform business models are reshaping outdoor media in fundamental ways. But as we’ve seen in the social media space, there is a need to think carefully about the ‘ecosystem’ impacts of digital platforms, particularly if platforms engineer their architectures in ways that mean profits flow disproportionately away from content creators towards platform owners. 

In the outdoor media space, the shift towards digital provides an opportunity for more public interest content to be showcased, supported perhaps by revenues from ad sales. This is essentially the model that has shaped the commercial broadcasting industry. Broadcasting regulation required commercial TV networks to reinvest ad revenues – the money made by occupying valuable broadcasting spectrum – back into local content and children’s content. 

Those regulations reflected the fact that broadcasting spectrum was essentially a ‘public good’ and therefore those who profited out of it should give back in some way to the public. That’s how Australia’s regulatory environment for television fostered a vibrant television production sector for many years. 

Now, as digital disruption reshapes outdoor media, it’s time for similar thinking to be applied to the way digital out of home networks occupy important public spaces. If we don’t do this, we’ll be left with a kind of commercial TV network occupying our cities, where the only thing on is advertisements. That’s a bit like what Shell tried to get up and running in Australia, when it toured the ‘Shellevision’ version of television in the late 1950s. 

We need to rebalance expectations of programming on outdoor digital screens, in ways that reflect the highly visible positions they occupy in public spaces.  

Ultimately, deeper engagement of the innovative potentials of outdoor media as public space media should spell better outcomes for cities, communities and creatives. Ooh! Media used their dormant inventory during lockdowns to showcase artworks during the Melbourne lockdown, showing an appetite for creative engagement one hopes will continue. 

In the months and years ahead, let’s hope there’ll be more creative collaborations like this. And let’s demand more from this exciting and quickly evolving digital ecosystem – ensuring local communities and diverse voices have a role to play in shaping the future of outdoor. ‘Elevating the urban experience’ should mean, more than ever, connecting and supporting those who are in need, leveraging the inclusivity of public spaces as spaces that enhance a sense of place and belonging. 

And while we’re thinking about new possibilities, it might be time to think up a new name for this DOOH environment. 

Dr Sarah Barns is an urban media strategist with experience in smart city strategy, strategic design and digital placemaking. In 2020 she launched STORYBOX as a public space media platform with anchor partners the ABC and City of Parramatta Council. Sarah published her first book, Platform Urbanism: Negotiating Platform Ecosystems in Connected Cities with Palgrave in 2019 and leads digital design initiatives as Director of ESEM Projects.

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