FEATURE10 February 2014

Time to pursue a different route?


Route, the UK’s outdoor media measurement system, has proved itself as a media planning tool. But it falls short in fully capturing the dynamics of consumer behaviour, says Talon Outdoor’s Nick Mawditt.


Have you ever bought something expensive, something you thought you wanted, only to realise after you’d paid for it that you might have needed something a bit different? It’s a situation the outdoor media industry finds itself in, according to Talon Outdoor’s Nick Mawditt. The ‘something’ in question is Route, the £19m outdoor media measurement system that was launched to great fanfare a year ago

Route sought to revolutionise outdoor media measurement through the application of big data. In the run-up to launch, 28,000 people were given GPS devices to track their locations every second of the day for nine straight days – creating a database of more than 19bn records. GPS data was then overlaid on a map which plotted the UK’s 450,000 outdoor advertising locations, while eye-tracking studies were used to work out how likely it was that the average person would see any given ad.

The resulting data certainly provides a more accurate picture of outdoor media exposure than the previous system. But it still doesn’t fully capture the complexity of the outdoor media market and people’s engagement with it, says Mawditt, Talon’s director of insight and marketing. 

“The reason outdoor media agencies like Talon exist is because of that complexity,” he explains. “The outdoor buy isn’t like television and it isn’t like print in that you’ve got pre-set products like Coronation Street or the Sunday Times – fixed products to sell where the audience characteristics are fairly similar across the country. In our business you’ve got a poster in a street in London and in a shopping centre up north, and they have got completely different characteristics, so it’s quite a complex process to plan and buy those panels and liaise with the media owners.”

Mawditt’s feelings towards Route have little to do with its value as a media planning tool. From that point of view, he says, the system is “as good as it can be”. In a blog post to mark Route’s first six months, he wrote that: “We’re excited by planning data that reflects real behaviour and Route’s ability to calculate cross-format campaign coverage and frequency whilst optimising audience, format and geography to deliver real value and net campaign impacts that take account of panel position, visibility and a realistic opportunity to see.”

However, he added: “It’s far from the whole solution for outdoor, regarding improved strategic planning, innovation and driving ROI. The world has changed and the media landscape demands interface with data and analytics derived from real, dynamic behaviours and those technology-led insights that bring better planning by true measures of behaviour and location.”

Nick Mawditt

“The industry has bravely invested £19m so far in Route. But do we carry on with that kind of investment to support the data we have, or do we make more of a leap of faith to go into something that’s more dynamic?”

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One of Mawditt’s major bugbears with the Route data is its lack of sensitivity to events that might affect the amount of time people spend out and about. “From a consumer planning point of view, it lacks a lot of dynamics and real insight. What was the impact of the hot summer, for example? What’s the impact of a high-spending Christmas? Inevitably more people will be on the streets, spending money – whether it’s shopping or leisure or socialising. But we cannot pick up that granularity unfortunately.”

Route does collect data on a rolling basis, says Mawditt. “But they only add blocks of people every quarter, and the problem with that is that it’s not responsive enough to pick up on monthly changes or seasonality. We, as a medium, currently operate on a two-week posting cycle. We’re actually offering daily advertising opportunities as well, but there’s no real understanding of whether Cyber Monday in the run up to Christmas is going to double footfall on the high street or halve it, or whatever.”

This problem is exacerbated for digital ‘frames’ – the industry’s term for outdoor advertising sites. Digital now makes up about 25% of the market and, of course, the advantage of digital is that ads can be updated more frequently. Theoretically, if you knew what type of audience was likely to be passing a digital display at a certain time of day, you could buy ads to appear at those times only. Except the data is not there to support it. 

“Some media owners, like Ocean, Clear Channel and JC Decaux, are trying to mix up the way they sell their inventory and do it on an hourly basis or a day-part basis, but it’s kind of a leap of faith in terms of the accountability from our point of view,” says Mawditt. “Some of them have been clever, in that digital sites might well have a camera in them to measure contacts. But if you use that data alone, then you’re taking the science out of the research that Route has just invested in, because Route is not just about people who pass the sites, but also about visibility factors. So not everybody is counted every time you go past a poster site, which is important.”

Of equal importance to Mawditt is an improved understanding of consumer dynamics; not just who passes what site and whether they see it, but of “how they’re really going about their lives”. As he sees it, mobile operators are well placed to fill that knowledge gap. Talon has a sister company, called Blis Media, which is a mobile ad serving business – and it has access to mobile operator data that would be of great benefit to the outdoor industry. 

“We’re actually trying to work alongside them to access the kind of data that exists when you move around with your phone,” he says. “So we might know where you are now, we know you’re spending an hour in this location, that you’ll go down this road, maybe hit the Tube or public transport. We might infer what sort of person you are based on the websites you visit on your phone.”

This data – which offers insight into real behaviour at scale – poses a dilemma for the outdoor industry, says Mawditt. “The industry has bravely invested £19m so far in Route, but we’re at a real fork in the road now. Do we carry on with that kind of investment to support the data we have, or do we make more of a leap of faith to go into something that’s more dynamic, something that tells us more about real people and their behaviours?”

1 Comment

11 years ago

Really interesting article. Outdoor billboards have always had a major problem with measuring reach, but outdoor planners were incredibly defensive and rarely talked honestly about it as a problem. As with online, though, the development of a comprehensive tool helps to illuminate the next steps required to properly finesse it - this is still a hugely positive step, even if it's not quite perfect yet

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