When will digital technology change up the boring ads we see on our daily commutes?

photo[2] My commute into Manhattan consists of a round-trip ride on Metro-North to and from Westchester. Since I’m in the advertising business, I’m always on the lookout for interesting ads that stand out in a sea of others that we are exposed to each day.   Like so many of my other colleagues who come into New York aboard Metro-North, New Jersey Transit or Long Island Rail Road trains, I get annoyed staring at the same ads over and over, day after day, week after week in a classic 4-week Out Of Home ad cycle.

Given how digital has made its mark on OOH in Manhattan, it made me wonder why more digital ads weren’t appearing on trains and in stations.  Why isn’t the 4 week OOH ad cycle on commuter rail lines a thing of the past?

I checked in with two of my colleagues to get some answers.  One works at CBS Outdoor and has been in the Ad business for 25+ years.  His argument was that because of long standing MTA contracts that don’t include digital, making the switch would mean taking a hit in profits while those digital platforms and their appropriate contracts cycle into place. After all there are 2000 MTA Metro North/Long Island Rail Road trains, not to mention the numerous stations.  It would be, according to him, a massive undertaking.

He also pointed out that a 4 week showing can actually consist of more than 4 weeks of activity since it takes a couple of days to put up and then take down the ads.  If the manpower isn’t available, or the outdoor company doesn’t have a new advertiser to run, they can be up even longer, giving clients bonus impressions.  But should advertisers consider that “added value” or is it wasted frequency “talking” to the same commuters with the same message day after day?  Yes, there are new people to reach beyond the habitual commuters who generally take the same morning and evening trains.  However, the incremental reach seems minimal and doesn’t justify the exceptionally high frequency levels achieved over the 4-week cycle.

My colleague also commented that digital ads require Wi-Fi infrastructure that most MTA trains and stations don’t have.  And although there have been proposals to rectify the problem, there are logistical hurdles to implementing service-wide Wi-Fi.

Another colleague of mine who has 10 years of experience in digital also agreed that infrastructure has something to do with the lack of innovation.  He also pointed to the industry’s lack of knowledge on how to create dynamic content, inability to shed its old school way of doing things and the relationship capital needed to switch over to digital.  Also, in the same way many print reps were burned in digital’s early days by direct translations of ads from analog formats, seasoned OOH executives can fail to take advantage of the nuances of digital media with digital OOH, he said.

He thinks traditionally-minded ad companies are overlooking a big opportunity, since the transit authorities are looking for money to bridge tight budgets, and digital ad sales are ripe for growth. The technology is available, cost-effective and also provides the consistent ROI numbers advertisers have come to expect. With the right proposals in place, he thinks the MTA is ready and willing to build the digital infrastructure to make digital ads as prevalent as commuter coffee cups.

I hope my digital ad colleague is correct.  After all, digital ads have so many more targeting capabilities.  Think about what’s possible with some basic daypart targeting: early train ads can be targeted at business people, while early afternoon train ads could be directed at tourists and theatergoers.  Plus, the variety of dynamic content that could be offered would certainly make for a more enjoyable train ride.

Ads showcasing out-of-date events disappoint commuters while offering no value to the advertiser.  Can you think of the benefits digital technology could bring to advertisers promoting shows, plays, conferences and other events?  The ability to run ads for shorter durations and then shut them off the day after the event makes the medium more palatable for event marketers.  And that’s without the benefits of lower production costs for materials and shorter time to market.

Despite the hurdles, it’s time to do away with the 4-week OOH ad cycle when it comes to commuter stations and trains.  It’s an outdated concept, and advertisers and commuters alike deserve an interactive environment where the ads are dynamic, efficient and effective.

With over 30 years of experience in Integrated Media, Cindy Seebeck is a formidable practitioner with her fingers in every medium from spot TV to Digital OOH.  She plans and executes holistic media campaigns for Underscore Marketing across a wide variety of clients.