Digital Signage in Times Square – Opportunity, Cost, and ROI


When we think about digital signage, most of us think about impact. Impact in signage can be the result of bigger is better and it can also relate to sheer numbers of displays and impressions achieved. Combine size and numbers with a veritable flood of potential viewers and then you have reached the holy grail of digital signage.

With the concept of impact as the point of discussion, two geographical areas come to mind. One is certainly the Las Vegas Strip and the other is Times Square in New York City. If we toss in the differentiator of a limited geographical area then, Times Square wins out hands down. It has an average of 350,000 visitors per day and 460,000 on busy days. All of them are exposed to a barrage of digital signage from small to medium to large. With this fertile ground as the playing field, it begs the question of what are companies getting out of putting up all those video walls and showing digital media content in this setting?

Ultimately it is about return on investment (ROI) but this takes on an expanded meaning from the traditional dollars spent to dollars returned calculation.  In this case, the payoff is a return on objective (ROO). In other words, the purveyor of the content sets forth a dollar value they hope to earn in terms of the combination of location, visual effects, and impact of the content on the viewers. Of course, one question we are always asked is what does it cost?

According to the Wall Street Journal, it costs between $1.1 million and $4 million a year if you want to advertise on one of those huge digital signs that light up New York’s Times Square. As a point of reference, the owners of 1 Times Square, the tall tower at the confluence of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, makes $23 million a year from the billboards that cover it. In terms of advertising, believe it or not, it is relatively cheap compared to say a Super Bowl 30 second spot that costs up to $3.8 million for one quick showing. As a friend of mine admonishes, “think outside of the rectangle” of the obvious costs of exposure. Signs on Times Square are exposed to over 100 million viewers per year in terms of foot traffic but there also are a myriad of appearances on TV and for New Year’s Eve alone, they reach over 1 billion people worldwide.

In terms of numbers of displays in the Times Square area, there are more than 55 giant-sized LED displays currently and new ones going up all the time competing for your attention. That’s just a fraction of the 230-odd total billboards sprinkled throughout the Square. The bottom line is that the viewers are there and so are the displays so how is the impact measured?

The short answer to that question is measuring impressions. Frequently, these are measured by Cost Per Mille (CPM), referring to cost per 1,000 impressions. Impressions can be looked at (pun intended) as any interaction with content and a viewer. For example, when you see an advertisement on TV, that counts as one impression. When you drive past a billboard on a highway, that counts as an impression. To the first order, ads are sold on impressions but that only tells us so much. What we really want to know is: was a brand’s message seen and more importantly, was there a response to a call to action on the advertisement.

In advertising overall but especially in digital signage, limiting the evaluation of the ROI of a sign to the number of impressions does not give a sufficient view in terms of dollars spent and value received (ROI or ROO). With such a high dollar investment in the infrastructure as well as the content creation side of the equation, it is not enough. As one advertising executive opined, “Impressions are only the very top of the funnel – much more has to happen after an impression of an ad is served or a story is displayed. Just because someone has driven by a billboard doesn’t mean they will remember it. If you’re not hungry, chances are you aren’t going to pay attention to a fast food restaurant sign”.

Some might call the next phase recall, but what we really want to measure is engagement. Interaction can take many forms and we see a flurry of interactive signs in the Time Square area. A sign might have a camera built into it and promote a two-way relationship with the viewer showing the viewer on screen or conversing via a mobile device and showing text messages in real time. Under the heading of a call to action, it requires the viewer to do something beyond viewing. A sign is typically used to promote a brand and/or a store and it may show a promotion and a website to visit. There may even be beacon technologies that download information to your mobile device as you look at an ad on the big screen.

The final (and most meaningful) measurement is what is known as conversion. Did the viewer do what you wanted them to do in the call to action? Did they visit the store? Did they buy the brand or a specific product? Did they visit the website and maybe even download your app? Do we want to measure impactful things that advance the business? This is proof of your ROI far beyond impressions. It answers the question as to whether the viewer did anything after seeing the ad.

It all begins with first impressions and they do matter. They help set up the engagement and conversion that (hopefully) comes after. The key to impressions is the immediate impact. Without that, ROI is difficult if not impossible to achieve.The impact may be achieved by the size of the sign and while that is important, it is the quality of the content that encourages the viewer to want more. A big sign with poor content will not sell and a small sign with good content that is not noticed will not work either. It is truly a balancing act of location, size, and content.

One of the best examples of creating impact is the new Cocoa Cola 3D sign that debuted this August on Times Square. It is called an electro-kinetic sculpture and stands at 68 ft. tall and 42 ft. wide, and is the latest in a line of Coca-Cola Times Square signs dating back to 1920. Guinness World Records has awarded the sign the title of the “first 3D robotic billboard”. The billboard was designed using 1,760 LED screens, which can move independently of one another with programmed choreography. The shifting advertisement changes images with a motion like a slow wave of water, providing viewers with an engaging transition that literally suck you into the experience. It adds the dimension of 3D to an already dynamic experience. It is a marriage of location, size, and content and by adding that other dimension, they achieve impact, engagement, and conversion; a perfect trifecta.

In terms of brand recognition and advertising promotion, the competition for a viewer’s attention will continue to grow exponentially whether it is on Times Square, in Las Vegas, or a city near you. Success for those of us in the digital signage community will be measured in our creativity in design and hardware infrastructure as well as content creation.  The payoff will be the return on investment for those who have the faith of their instincts and convictions.