August 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

When billboards meet web sites, watch out

If you build a web page on an outdoor billboard, will people come out and look at it? Jewelry retailers Ed and Christine Dahlkemper have good reason to say they do. The Internet makes billboard advertising more effective and cost-efficient than in the past, they say.

If you build a web page on a billboard, will people come out and see it? Dahlkemper’s, a jewelry store in Erie, Pa., has good reason to say they do.

“We like to be on the cutting edge of advertising technology,” says Ed Dahlkemper, who runs the single-store Dahlkemper’s Jewelry Connection Inc. with his wife, Christine. “The electronic billboard has become an important part of our marketing because of its flexibility and affordable cost.”

When Dahlkemper’s had tried billboard advertising in the past, it found the medium too costly and inflexible. But now that it can quickly change its ad images over the Internet, billboards are back as an important marketing tool, Ed Dahlkemper says.

Dahlkemper’s works with its marketing agency, Jamestown, N.Y.-based Advertising Advantage, to prepare computerized image files of products and the store’s brand. Advertising Advantage uploads the images to web-based software from Watchfire Digital Outdoor, Danville, Ill., that manages ad content on electronic billboards. Advertising Advantage also owns the billboards on which Dahlkemper’s runs its digital ads.

Six seconds of fame

Each electronic billboard has its own IP address, says Darrin Friskney, director of outdoor advertising for Watchfire. Each billboard typically carries digital ads for about six advertisers at any given time. As the billboard constantly scrolls through the series of ads placed by all current advertisers, each individual ad flashes on the billboard for six to eight seconds at a time. Advertisers can arrange to insert several different ads throughout the day to coincide with timed promotions as they or their ad agency insert them on the fly through a web browser, Friskney says.

The cost to the advertiser is based on an estimated number of motorists who view a particular billboard. Using a formula established by the Traffic Audit Bureau for Media Measurement Inc., which figures an average of 1.38 persons per motor vehicle, the average cost to advertisers is from $2 to $4 per thousand ad impressions per month, Friskney says. The Traffic Audit Bureau is a not-for-profit industry organization that measures consumer traffic related to outdoor advertising.

Differing costs

The cost to advertise on a traditional vinyl billboard is about $1,500 to create the image, plus $1,800 to $2,000 per month to rent the billboard itself, says William Loomis, director of operations for Advertising Advantage. A typical campaign on a web-based electronic billboard, including several versions of an ad appearing at different times of day, can cost about $2,000 per month per billboard without any additional design costs, though the cost will vary with the amount of traffic, he adds.

The placement of billboards themselves is critical to the success of any advertiser’s billboard campaign. “I don’t care if the cost-per-thousand is a penny, a billboard ad in a bad location isn’t as valuable as one in a great location,” Ed Dahlkemper says. The retailer is running ads on two billboards in Erie, each near enough to its store to help keep its brand top of mind with customers and prospects, he adds.

A billboard strategy also works best when combined with a broader marketing campaign, the retailer says. Although the rate of growth in sales at Dahlkemper’s has increased since the retailer started using web-based billboards 18 months ago, the growth has been driven by several marketing initiatives.

But the web-based billboards are becoming more important as a tool for capturing eyeballs at a time when consumers are turning less to other traditional forms of advertising, says Christine Dahlkemper. “People don’t view TV ads as much as they used to, and newspapers are going by the wayside, but when they’re driving in cars, we’re in front of them with billboard ads that change throughout the day,” she says.

There are about 450,000 advertising billboards in the U.S., and about 600 to 700 are web-based, Friskney says. Watchfire expects to convert 500 or more traditional billboards to the web-based design this year and continue conversions at an accelerated rate over the next several years, he adds.

paul@verticalwebmedia.com

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