How the Outdoor ad industry measures itself – and what it tells us about our morning commutes

This is an article I wrote for The Media Briefing about the work I did for Route Research Limited. It can be found on Media Briefing here. They commissioned me to ‘find the stories’ in their data and the commuting story was one of those. Route’s MD, James Whitmore, also visited ad agencies and media owners with a presentation I prepared called ‘Out and About and Under the Influence’. It told the commuting story and more. The presentation can be found here.

Outdoor advertising literally moves with the times. Digital screens can be programmed to show different creatives at different times of day. It increases advertisers’ ability to target audiences when they’re out and about.

The way Outdoor advertising is measured has had to keep up. The Outdoor industry, through Route Research Ltd, has invested £19m in the ‘Route’ study, which can analyse advertising effectiveness by day part. As such, it is a useful tool for advertisers and ad agencies planning to use Outdoor.

For example, it reveals some fascinating facts about our morning commutes and how different types of commuters are exposed to Outdoor advertising.

Route offers a single measure of the efficiency of Outdoor advertising in all types of environments – roadside to rail, tube and light rail to airports and more.

It is also person-centric – based on 30,000 plus respondents carrying GPS devices that track them. Where GPS can’t reach, journeys are meticulously modelled.

GPS data is “big” – it creates billions of data points. It’s also passive – not reliant on respondent recall. Cognitive biases cloud our perceptions of time but GPS data has no such human frailties. GPS records the extra time it took to pick up a coffee or sit out the delay you forgot about.

To link respondents to advertising Route overlays their journeys on a map of the zones within which each of the nation’s Outdoor frames are visible. It reveals who sees what and when (only registering a frame as ‘seen’ if the respondent is travelling in an appropriate direction).

It tells us that commuters see 31 frames on average during their morning commute. For 10% of time they are within sight of a frame.

Upmarket, educated urbanites are the people most successfully targeted by the outdoor ad industry. Here are three, perhaps unexpected, reasons why:

  1. Grade ABs commute for five minutes more than C2DE commuters and see 12 more frames.
  2. Young graduates have a 6-minute longer commute than young non-graduates and see 83% more frames.
  3. London commuters see twice the average number of frames and are within sight of a frame for 20% of their commute. – A short walk through Oxford Circus tube station exposes a commuter to as many Outdoor frames in a few minutes (71) as an average Brit sees in a whole day (also 71).

Economists won’t be surprised that the upmarket and ambitious have longer commutes. They estimate a 20% increase on current salary will offset an extra 30-minute commute. Also according to economists, upmarket commuters invest a consistent 13% of their annual wage on commuting even as they earn more. It allows them to travel greater distances in only a small amount of extra time.

Workers with long commutes drag the average to 37 minutes, according to Route. In fact, most are under, or around, 30 minutes. Even two-fifths of London commuters are at work within that time.

Academics believe people in multiple societies and throughout history have typically travelled for an hour a day – in commuting terms, 30 minutes each way. It is a phenomenon called Marchetti’s Constant and dictates the size of cities – they extend only when people can travel further in 30 minutes. Think London during the Victorian railway-building era.

The Marchetti effect is evident in Route data. When all commute times are mapped out there’s a discernible dip immediately after 30 minutes. People have deliberately found work less than 30 minutes away. There’s also an element of ‘dashing for the line’ too.

There’s a similar dip after 45 minutes. Those unable to hit 30 minutes evidently see 45 minutes as the next best goal to aim for when choosing where to live. Their longer commute may be offset by other rewards but the Marchetti theory suggests they’ll adopt innovations that shave time off.

Two-fifths of Londoners have a commute in excess of 45 minutes. London also has a rich history of commuter innovation – from overgrown scooters to foldaway bicycles. According to TfL bicycle journeys in London have risen 150% since the Millennium. Bikes account for 28% of the vehicles crossing London’s bridges northbound every morning – the same number as private cars.

The new wave of technologies that combine crowd sourcing, mapping, GPS and mobiles will also shave time off commutes. That potentially poses both challenges – and opportunities – for Outdoor advertisers.

Waze, for example, is an app that uses crowd sourced speed data and GPS to direct motorists away from clogged roads and through clearer rat runs.

Such innovations won’t just shorten journey-time; they’ll create new flows of traffic around cities. Attentive Outdoor media owners will, no doubt, observe these and place new frames on those routes.

Route will log their effectiveness.

Route is a research study with a similar toolbox to these new technologies. As such it’s well suited to the future of Outdoor advertising measurement. As traffic flows change through the day and over time – Route has the ability to keep up. It’s going to be fascinating to see what sort of impact it has.

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