Are small towns the big market for digital billboards?

June 2, 2010 | by

With a network of five digital billboards in a market of just 25,000 residents, Ardmore, Okla., just might be the digital billboard capital of the universe.

It's also a perfect example of how small towns are perfect markets for digital billboards — as small-town billboard network operators are able to undercut competing media ad rates and target their ads more specifically to certain geographic and time-sensitive sectors.

While conventional wisdom says that digital billboards are best suited for high-traffic areas around cities where advertising rates can justify the cost of the billboards, we're finding that independent operators all over the United States are installing digital billboards in small towns, and advertisers are fighting for display space.

The reasons for this are many, including low advertising costs for small town businesses, the ability to network billboards for expanded coverage and a willingness to duke it out with local newspapers and radio stations.

Digital billboards are significantly more affordable for small town businesses than other local media, such as television, radio, Internet and newspaper. Depending on traffic patterns, most small town digital billboards have a Cost Per Thousand (CPM) ranging from $2 to $5, compared to radio, newspaper and television, with average CPMs of $14, $22, and $30, respectively.

Ardmore's Chris Cowlbeck, of LOOK Advertising LLC, built his five-digital billboard network to appeal to small businesses in the area by offering better rates than they could find on other forms of media.

Interestingly, Cowlbeck hired a consultant to determine the viability of using digital billboards in Ardmore, and the consultant told him the market could handle fewer than two. Cowlbeck did his own number crunching and wound up installing three digital billboards in July, 2009.

LOOK turned on its first three digital billboards without pre-selling or pre-announcing them, and by the end of September the boards were 120 percent of pro forma, with a waiting list.

The company quickly added two additional boards to keep up with demand, and after just 45 days the new boards were nearly 75 percent of pro forma.

Cowlbeck's "rotary" network program enables advertisers to rotate their ads among all five digital billboards to achieve maximum exposure. Since many feeder roads surround Ardmore, strategically locating billboards along these routes provides excellent exposure when ads are rotated among the boards.

The company's advertising packages allow LOOK to offer the lowest dollar point for any type of advertising in the Ardmore area. In fact, for just a couple hundred dollars a month, an advertiser can be featured in 5,000 spots per month.

And knowing that viewers will quickly grow tired of seeing the same ads over and over again, Cowlbeck also offers free ad creative as a way to encourage advertisers to frequently change their content.

Roland Advertising in Cookeville, Tenn. has three digital billboards in a small town of about 30,000 residents. Company president Dave Roland tells me he's received tremendous feedback from local advertisers who say low cost and fast turn-around times are the key benefits of digital billboard advertising.

Roland, who doesn't require long-term contracts, sells ads of nearly any duration, including just a single day. He's even had a local sports team take out an ad for a couple days to announce tryouts.

Again, Roland also says digital billboards can be particularly effective for small businesses and organizations that cannot afford to advertise in newspaper or radio.

Roland cites a small knife retailer as the perfect example of how digital billboards benefit a small town business. The retailer was located about 100 yards from one of Roland's boards and put an ad on the board for six weeks leading up to Christmas. A truck driver who had a regular delivery route right past the store stopped in and told the owner that, despite driving right past his store for years, he never knew they were there until he saw the digital billboard — and that year the retailer had its highest sales in nearly three decades and the single best sales day in its history. And the only change in the knife dealer's advertising strategy was advertising on a digital billboard.

In some small towns, digital billboard operators have been quick to step in to fill the void left by the reduced circulations of larger newspapers and to compete with smaller local papers. With advertising flexibility that rivals that of newspapers, television, Internet and radio, small town digital billboards have found an entirely new list of potential advertisers.

Examples we've seen of small town businesses taking advantage of digital billboards include retailers advertising sales events, real estate agents listing specific properties, restaurants promoting time-specific menu items and specials and banks updating mortgage rates and loan products in real time, among others.

The ability to daypart ads on digital billboards, once something only television and radio could do, also offers significant, timely audience impact for small town advertisers. They now have sophisticated and targeted marketing tools for a fraction of the cost of major media.


Darrin Friskney is director of Danville, Ill.-based digital billboard manufacturer Watchfire Digital Outdoor, which has been in the outdoor sign business since 1932. He can be reached at

Topics: Digital Billboards

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