Does Outdoor Advertising Still Work?

As one of the oldest forms of marketing, outdoor advertising has been around since Ancient Egypt! Out-of-home (OOH) advertising ranges from billboards to bus shelters, from blimps to train stations, and from bridges to city benches. Its popularity continues to grow each year, with about 5,000-15,000 billboards added to US highways every year. But does this form of marketing still work? Or has today’s digital world forced outdoor advertising to become obsolete?

OOH advertising offers a very low CPM (cost per thousand impressions). And yes, it can work – but only if it’s used correctly.

  • For the right audience. If you’re targeting people who use mass transit, placing advertisements on the buses or subways just makes sense. That’s why you’ll see plenty of ads on mass transit that are aimed at people with lower incomes, or at teens who don’t drive yet, like ads for cell phones and vaping products. (In metro areas where even high-income people use mass transit, like New York, London, and Tokyo, the ads would tend to be more inclusive of other groups.) 
  • For the right products. Outdoor advertising is ideal for impulse purchases. Billboards on the side of the highway for food or lodging tap into the tired driver’s need for food and sleep, and jewelry ads right before Valentine’s Day tap into a different type of urgency.
  • For the right purpose. For most other products or services, it’s hard to put a concrete, enticing CTA on a billboard or other outdoor surface. That doesn’t mean that outdoor advertising won’t be helpful for these industries, though. An out-of-the-box concept that grabs the attention of passersby can cause your brand recognition to skyrocket – especially if it gets shared on social media. Billboards can also be helpful for nonprofits or similar businesses who are trying to spread awareness about an issue, rather than to sell a product.
The Colorado State Patrol used this 3D billboard to warn drivers of the dangers of tailgating.

Creating the Perfect OOH Advertisement

It’s easy to think that OOH advertisements are simply larger versions of other types of ads. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Outdoor advertising is tailor-made for viewers who have just a few seconds to glance up while they whizz by. It needs to catch their attention in a very short amount of time, sending them a clear and precise message that they will remember. 

The problem is that designers usually create and share their ad prototypes on a gorgeous, big-screen desktop computer. On the screen, the ads look great – but that’s not at all how they will look in real life. To make sure that the message fits the medium, you need to print each ad out, tape it to the wall, and imagine you’re glancing at it as you walk, bike, or drive by. 

In a nutshell, most OOH ads should contain…

  • A compelling image. This is often the most important part of the ad, since text alone rarely catches the attention of drivers speeding by.
  • No more than 7 words. The fewer that you need to convey your message, the better.
  • Your name or logo. There’s nothing worse than a fantastic OOH ad design that leaves viewers with no idea which company or product is being advertised.
How much of this billboard would you be able—or even tempted—to read, while you’re speeding down the highway?


While this billboard is bright and clear, it’s hard to tell at first glance what exactly is being advertised. And in this medium, one glance is all you get.



Design Tips

Use high-contrasting colors that catch the eye, rather than muted or pastel tones. Also, consider the colors of the surrounding area. Stay away from sky-blue blimps, cement-grey subway station signage, or leaf-green billboards over a grove of trees.

Make sure that your text is vivid, and your graphics are larger than life. Err on the side of easy to read; that means large font sizes, simple font styles, plenty of bold, and all-caps.

Which of these billboards does a better job of catching your eye?

Consider Your Message

Your message should be conveyed as clearly as possible, with as few words as possible. Think about your audience, and peel away everything in order to get to the most essential part of your message.

This luggage producer wanted to get across the idea that its products would outlast anything. They conveyed that message brilliantly in this almost text-free billboard.

Note the Location

Consider whether you can take advantage of the billboard’s location to maximize its impact. That might mean referencing a local sports team, tourist attraction, or inside joke that those in the area will appreciate.

This billboard is sure to catch the attention of those who often drive down Michigan Avenue in Downtown Chicago.

Made You Look!

The more creative your idea, the more likely it will get picked up on social media. Experiential advertising is especially thought-provoking and sharable, naturally engaging your target audience.

Fantastic optical illusion at the foot of an escalator in Brazil. The 3D drawing of a crocodile emerging from the water may have given escalator-goers quite a shock – but it also became a viral sensation when many of them shared it, publicizing the new television program “Wild World with Richard Rasmussen.”
This ad for the local zoo uses a bus as the perfect “vehicle” for its simple message.

Go Digital

Nowadays, virtual billboards and other digital advertising can take your marketing to the next level. When you combine the high visual aspect of OOH advertising with a digital component, the sky is the limit.

Take a look at this ad, put out by British Airways. It can sense when one of the airline’s planes is flying overhead, emphasizing how many places the airline can bring people.

So does outdoor advertising still work? Sure it does – if you do it right. Keep it bold, keep it simple, keep it memorable. And most importantly, keep in mind that in today’s world, the more sharable, the better.

This is part 3 in a series that addresses various marketing media that might seem old-fashioned, irrelevant, or ineffective. But when used correctly, they work very well — maybe better than more trendy marketing media. This post examines whether out-of-home advertisements are becoming obsolete. Part 1 asked the same question about print in general, and Part 2 about direct mail. See all the articles in the series here.