Out of Home (OOH) advertising took a big hit with the country’s widespread COVID-19 lockdowns in March and April 2020, but that’s changing. As a recent Apple Mobility Trends Report shows, car traffic might be back to near pre-pandemic levels soon. And as evidenced by patterns in Wuhan, China, lingering skittishness about public transportation might actually push car traffic to new highs in the near future. 

That means a likely resurgence for OOH ads—especially for the flexibility offered by digital billboards. But if you’re going to enter the digital OOH realm, you need to do it right. Here are 5 tips to maximize the effectiveness of your digital boards. 

1. Understand the advantages and challenges of digital.
Digital billboards deliver several advantages over traditional vinyl boards, including lower rates and overhead, shorter commitment times, greater versatility within your strategy, and the ability to switch them out in less than 24 hours. But they also come with some challenges and nuances. If you’re going digital, you need to know the location and resolution of your boards and how often you can change them (e.g., can I  vary the display for a.m. vs. p.m. commuters?). As we’ll see in some of the items to follow, designing for OOH is its own art form, and designing for digital is NOT the same as designing for analog.

HINT:  OOH can be the perfect complement to radio advertising.  Consumers hear you, then see you – this combination can have huge payoffs.  If you are unsure that OOH is for you, test it.  Digital boards are a fraction of the cost of bulletins or posters, and you can cancel with less notice.


2. The goal is clarity, not clutter.
Whether your billboard is vinyl or digital, one fundamental design principle applies: How clear and engaging will my board be to a driver who has 6-8 seconds to view it while driving 60 m.p.h.? This is always a challenge, but many graphic designers make it worse by building digital boards the same way they create a print ad or even vinyl boards. Traditional boards look generally the same in the field as they do on a computer monitor. Digital boards don’t. For example, white backgrounds can work great on vinyl boards, but on digital, they display poorly and can make other design elements hard to see. In addition, depending on the resolution of your digital board, subtle background elements may not show up at all. In the digital realm, it’s best to use clean backgrounds with a clear color contrast from your foreground. The same principle applies to fonts. Traditional boards are more forgiving when it comes to eloquent typography. In the digital world, stick to clean and bold fonts.

 HINT:  Applying a thin black outline to the font will help the text pop and make it more visible.  This may not look as aesthetically pleasing as you want on your design screen, but it will make a significant difference on the digital board.


3. K.I.S.S. (Keep it super simple.)
The biggest mistake people make with billboards is jamming too much information onto them: logo, headline, subhead, imagery, URL, hashtag. Think of the most memorable billboards you’ve seen. I’ll bet the one thing they have in common is their simplicity—one dominant image, or maybe a few words against a clean background. When you critique a billboard design, you have unlimited time. In the real world, remember that drivers only have 6-8 seconds. They ignore complicated boards, because their brain says, “There’s no way I’ll retain all this.” Not everyone can be Apple or Nike and get away with showing just a product with their logo. But no matter how much brand recognition you have—and especially if you’re going digital—your boards should stick to 2-4 elements and 8 words max. 

HINT:  If the goal of your board is to drive leads, consider creating a dual headline that is also your call to action.  And remember, people driving will not retain a phone number, so unless there are legal or compliance reasons to display a phone number or address, save space and leave that out. 


4. Create a visual hierarchy.
It’s easy to want everything on a billboard to be prominent. But that’s not how the eye works. Especially with a digital board, viewers need to know what to look at first, second and third, otherwise their brains will ignore your board. So what’s #1: the headline, the image, the logo, the URL? It can’t be all of them equally. Go through each element and assign a value. Then take a step back and see how they fit together. Are any too close together? Is there enough negative space? Is there room to make one or several of elements bigger? It’s a delicate balancing act, because you want legibility and prominence, but you also don’t want elements to feel cramped. Bottom line: You need to make it easy for your viewer to perceive where one element ends and another one begins, leaving them with a clear and memorable impression in a very short amount of time. 

HINT:  Be sure your logo or call to action is large enough so consumers can see it.  Many companies make the mistake of creating the perfect design, but it’s not clear what company is advertising.  Don’t be afraid to give your logo a higher value in the hierarchical organization of your design.


5. Take your board for a test drive.
One of the biggest advantages of digital boards is that you can look at them “in the field” before they officially go live. An OOH company would never go to the trouble of installing a vinyl board, then let you make changes and have to create and install a new one. But they WILL do that with digital boards—usually in a lesser trafficked area for about 30 minutes. This is the best way for you to see your board like a typical consumer. If you’re stuck between a few design options, it’s also the best way to make the right choice. Why will OOH companies let you preview digital boards? Because it’s easy. Plus, you’re the client, and they want to keep it that way. 

HINT:  Changing out vinyls can be extremely expensive.  It’s unlikely that the OOH company or your agency will offer a free test drive your creative on digital.  Request that as part of your contract upfront, or if you are already locked in, insist on a digital preview option before launching your next design. 

Billboards and other OOH advertising are likely to experience a resurgence in the coming weeks and months. If you want to take advantage of that, consider tapping into the power of billboards, and the added advantages of digital boards done right. 

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