Growth

What I Learned Buying Billboards for a Startup

What I Learned Buying Billboards for a Startup
Illustration by Luc Chaissac
By Alex Kracov
ex- VP of Marketing at Lattice
Scaled Lattice from seed to 2,000+ customers like Slack and Postmates.

I still remember the first time I visited San Francisco as an adult. Driving down the 101 and seeing every billboard feature a different startup. It made me feel like I was in the startup mecca. And I thought how cool it would be to one day have my startup on one of those billboards. 

During my time at Lattice, I got the chance to realize this dream and run several outdoor campaigns. It was really fun and drove great results for the business. I had never bought a billboard before, so it was also a huge learning experience for me. This post shares some of the lessons I learned along the way. 

My Experience with Outdoor Advertising

I ran a few different outdoor campaigns at Lattice.

2018

At the end of the first crypto craze, we decided to troll the city of SF. We placed a few billboards across the city and on the 101 with a playful message, “Invest in your people, not crypto.”


The campaign lasted a couple months and the billboards were spread across SOMA and the 101. This was our first foray into outdoor ads and we spent ~$100k on these ads. 

Later that year, we ran another campaign in SF from September to October. At the time, Lattice’s main product was performance reviews, so we wanted to run a timely campaign right before the end of year review season to drive awareness. 

2019

In 2019, we decided to invest more into outdoor advertising. We were scaling our revenue engine and we wanted to get Lattice’s name out there in a big way. We decided to run more ads in SF, expand to our second biggest market, NYC, and also run a small test in an unproven market, Atlanta. 

In SF, we decided to leverage the bus stop shelters that you can see across the city. In this campaign, we bought 50+ units across the city. These ads are great for driving brand frequency. For someone living in the city, it truly feels like your ads are everywhere. 


At the time our platform was expanding, so these different ads showed the wide range of different possibilities with the Lattice product. 

In NYC, we targeted commuters via subway ads. If you’ve ever been to NYC and rode the subway, you’ve probably seen companies like Seamless, Casper and more targeting New Yorkers riding the subway. These ads are shown to a captive audience which makes them perfect for building brand awareness. 

As you can see, we tried to play the creative off of a known trope around the directness of New Yorkers. 

In Atlanta, we placed a couple billboards on major highways around the city. We wanted to see what would happen if we got any lift in a market where we didn’t really have a presence. 

The total cost for the 2019 campaign was ~$500k for the media buy. We spent around ~$30k producing the creative, but did a lot of the work in-house as well. 

Why Buy Outdoor Ads

Simply put, outdoor advertising builds brand awareness. Billboards get your brand in front of a high-volume of people within a specific geography. 

For a startup who nobody knows, outdoor ads are a blunt force way to reach a large number of people. Billboards make startups feel bigger than they actually are. They make startups feel like a legit company. It might be silly, but many consumers think, “If they can buy a billboard, I’ll consider trusting their product. They must be far enough along as a business.” Billboards help startups do jedi mind tricks with their audience. This dynamic helps to drive sales, but also attracts investors. 

As companies scale, the purpose of outdoor advertising shifts to increasing brand frequency. Most people are not ready to buy your product.  So it’s important that you stay top of mind. When they are ready to buy, you want them to think of you.

Outdoor ads that people see daily are a great way to increase brand frequency. This is why some of the best forms of outdoor ads are targeted at commuters -- people who drive on highways, ride the subways, take the bus, etc. Throughout their commute they likely drive by the same billboard or see the same subway ad multiple times a week. This frequency helps to build the brand up in that person’s mind in both a conscious and subconscious manner. 

Billboard Gameplan

The first step for outdoor advertising is to figure out a plan. It really comes down to four factors: Location, Budget, Timing and Creative. 

  • Location: What city? What neighborhoods? 
  • Budget: How much are you willing to spend? 
  • Timing: When do you want to run the ads?
  • Creative: What are you going to say? What will the ad look like?

Location

Outdoor campaigns should always start with a location you’re trying to target. 

Pick City

Start by picking a city where you’re trying to reach more customers. At Lattice, we were selling to mainly tech companies, so San Francisco was a natural place to start with outdoor campaigns. Companies like Uber and DoorDash will start doing outdoor advertising in new cities where they operate. 

Identify Neighborhood

The neighborhood will narrow the type of person you will reach. If you place outdoor ads in the suburbs you’ll reach families. But place them in a downtown financial district, you’ll reach business people. When picking a neighborhood, it really helps to know the city. For example, in SF, I  know that I can reach a ton of startups in SOMA and people commuting to big tech companies on the 101. When placing ads in an unfamiliar city, you can do a lot of online research to try and figure out the best location, but nothing beats talking to a local. Work your network to talk to someone about where to place your outdoor ads. 

Budget

Founders and marketers are often scared to dedicate budget to brand programs like billboards because it can be hard to attribute direct revenue to these activities. But it’s important to remember that healthy marketing programs have a mixture of direct and indirect spend. 

Direct spend are programs that have a straight line to revenue things like search ads, email list buys, outbound emails, etc. It’s really easy to track the demos that come from these activities. The problem is that there’s usually only so much scale within these programs before it becomes too expensive. This type of marketing is also very transactional, you either get the demo or you don’t. 

Indirect marketing are programs where someone interacts with your marketing campaign and then eventually comes back to demo the product later. These are activities like listening to a podcast, attending an event, seeing a billboard, reading a blog article, etc. These programs often have infinite scale as you add more capital. I’ve also found that indirect marketing maps closer to the buyer journey, as the majority of people are not quite ready to buy your product just yet. Indirect marketing is typically more about building a relationship with the customer and building up your brand in the person’s mind. 

The budget for any outdoor advertising should be determined in context with the overall marketing and programs budget. In creating your overall budget, it’s important to have a healthy balance of direct and indirect marketing programs. Importantly, you also need to make sure you have the basics covered before you start spending money on big brand spends. Make sure you have a team, website, etc. before you buy billboards.

Keeping this all in mind, I’ve found that spending ~10% on big brand advertising is a good rule of thumb. I define big brand advertising as activities that will reach a large number of folks like outdoor ads, homepage takeovers, TV ads, etc. For any outdoor campaign, I would say the rough minimum is $50k. That’s likely enough to get one marquee billboard or two solid boards for a month. Given this math, it only really starts to make sense for companies who have a marketing budget of $500k+, but I personally wouldn’t start spending money on billboards until my marketing budget was north of a million. 

Timing

When it comes to timing, you need to figure out two details: 

1) How long do you want the ads to run for? 

2) When do you want the ads to run? 

Campaign Length

As mentioned earlier, frequency is key for outdoor advertising. You need your audience to see the same creative multiple times in order for brand awareness to increase.  

As a result, it’s important that your outdoor advertising is live for a long enough period of time. The minimum buy for most placements is a month, which is a great forcing function. I personally recommend doing a minimum of two months to really drive brand frequency. 

I’m also a big fan of how companies like Salesforce and Twilio have approached outdoor advertising. They have had the same placements around SF for years, which makes their ads almost a part of the city skyline. This sort of repeatable brand advertising makes sure your company is always top of mind and familiar to your audience. 

Obviously, this takes significant budget and business confidence, but it’s something startups should aspire to. 

Campaign Timing

The next step is to figure out when in the calendar year you want to run the advertising campaigns. 

Generally, you want to place billboards when your customers are just starting to think about the problem. For example, tax companies should put up billboards in Jan-March ahead of tax day (April 15), but it would be less effective for them to put up outdoor ads in July. For Lattice, we tended to place outdoor ads at the end of Q3/Q4 right before our busy season. 

Another factor that might influence timing are other external events. The main example is a big customer conference where you know a bunch of your target audience will be in a specific town. For example, every year in SF, you see billboards targeting Dreamforce attendees. 

Creative

Outdoor advertising needs to stand out. The majority of people will be driving, walking, on their phones, as they go past your ads. They’ll be distracted doing something else and it’s your job to catch their attention. Make sure your ads are memorable.

The best outdoor advertising has some combination of a catchy headline, bold colors and/or an engaging image. Here’s a few examples: 

Importantly, outdoor advertising doesn’t need to tell your whole company story. You just need to tell enough to get people interested. Don’t clutter your ads with too much information. 

Another factor to keep in mind is that everyone will see your ad. People from a wide variety of professions and backgrounds will see it. By definition, outdoor advertising reaches a broad audience. As a result, you need to find the right balance between being specific enough about your company, while also making sure that you're relevant to a wide audience. 

In the Lattice example above, we chose to lead with a question, “How was your last performance review?” in order to appeal to a wide audience. Even though we only sell Lattice to HR, we knew that most professionals have had a performance review, so no matter who you are, this question would make you think. And you would intuit that Lattice has something to do with improving the performance review process. 

Ultimately, the message and creative you pick should be a message that you have confidence will resonate with the market. I’d recommend using digital channels (social and email) to test different messaging with your core audience. I’d also recommend creating a few different directions and showing them to your customers and around the company. You want a message that will get customers and employees excited. 

How to Buy Outdoor Ads

Many marketers will work with an agency or third party website to place billboards. These groups will usually take a cut of the overall media buy. Instead of working with a third party, I worked directly with the billboard vendors. 

Vendors

In the US, there’s two big vendors, ClearChannel and Outfront. There’s others, but if you’re trying to place ads in major metropolitan areas then you’ll likely work with one of these vendors. Just reach out through the website and you’ll get connected to a sales rep who can guide you through the process. 

Billboard Selection

The vendors will give you a spreadsheet with tons of different options for billboards. There will be pricing, estimated impressions, inventory availability and more. 

The game plan you crafted will ultimately determine which billboards you select, but it can often be hard to tell whether you’re getting the best billboard. 

The best way to select outdoor advertising is to go see the placement yourself. The vendors will give you the cross streets and GPS coordinates, so you can go visit in person. I would have never known to place subway ads in NYC without riding the subway first. And when we were placing the billboards around SF, I’d walk to different locations and/or drive around the 101 to try and find the different billboard options. When you see the placements in-person, you really get a sense of what billboards are more valuable and it becomes easier to make decisions. 

If you can’t go see it yourself, ask a friend to go for you and take pictures. And if it’s a big enough media buy, get on a plane and go see the placements. There’s nothing better than seeing what you're actually buying.

The second best way to select outdoor advertising is to use Google Maps. Take the GPS coordinates that the vendors give you and add them to Google Maps. From there, use street view to get a sense of the billboard. 

My favorite thing to do was to pretend  I was in a car to see what it would be to approach the billboards. 

Negotiate

There’s usually some room to negotiate with the vendors, especially if you're doing a big enough buy. I’d recommend trying to get the vendors to add in a couple of additional smaller placements. The vendor's ability to negotiate really depends on market demand. There’s only a finite amount of inventory, so the market power dynamics can swing to the vendor or buyer depending on the moment in time. 

Plan Ahead

Plan your billboard campaigns ~6 months ahead of time. This will make sure you get the best inventory available. 

There’s only a finite amount of inventory available and big companies like Apple get priority inventory. They are buying billboards at the national level and will often buy placements for years into the future. 

The earlier you're able to plan these campaigns the more high quality inventory will be available.

How to Measure the Impact of Outdoor Ads

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don't know which half. - John Wanamaker

The most common question people ask is how to measure the results of outdoor advertising. The truth is that it's really hard to directly measure results in the same way that you can a digital ad. You need to accept this reality and use a few different proxies to measure effectiveness. 

An important signal is the anecdotal feedback from friends and sales calls. Every time we placed outdoor advertising, we’d get a flurry of texts and responses from friends who lived in the city. Your employee’s friends will start to reach out with photos of the billboards. This dynamic is especially strong for early stage startups where a billboard can be a delightful surprise. 

At the beginning of every intro call, our sales reps will typically ask how the prospect heard about the company. When you place billboards, you’ll start to hear more and more responses like “I saw your billboard when I visited SF.” (You should track these inputs in your CRM)

The level of anecdotal feedback that your company receives gives great signal into the impact of the billboards. You’ll feel the energy among your friends and prospects. You’ll also really feel the energy among your employees (especially if they can see the billboards IRL). Every time we ran a billboard campaign, Lattice employees got super excited and it created this feeling of company momentum. To be honest, even if the ads didn’t drive a single lead this internal buzz and confidence was probably worth the investment. This is a good segue to another benefit of outdoor advertising which is recruiting. Outdoor ads are a great signal to potential employees that your company is doing well, while also getting your brand name out there in the world. 

Beyond the soft ways to measure outdoor advertising, the main way to try and quantify the impact of billboards is by measuring “lift.” The amount your numbers increase in a specific geography.

Every time we placed a billboard, we’d see if there were changes in our website traffic, demo requests, campaign metrics within a specific geography. We’d measure the average ahead of time and then see if there were any lifts. When we placed the billboards in Atlanta, we noticed our web traffic and demos spiked in that city. Something was clearly working. Importantly, measure this lift against a group of control cities where you didn’t place any billboards to see if the campaign made an impact. 

The Trick to Getting Outdoor Ads to Drive Revenue

Outdoor ads are a phenomenal way to drive brand awareness, but you need to run other campaigns to capture/drive demand. My favorite analogy is War. Outdoor ads are like the air force dropping bombs, but you still need soldiers on the ground to actually win the battle.

In order to capitalize on the heightened brand awareness, you need to run an integrated marketing campaign. Never run outdoor advertising in a silo. Make sure you pair the outdoor ads with direct mail, field events and digital ads geo-fenced around the city. This integrated marketing campaign will start to drive tangible results and make it feel like your brand is everywhere. 


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