Pumptop pushing the accepted boundaries on what constitutes DOOH content programming

One of the things I tend to rail away about is how few network operators spend much time considering their content programming, with the result being endless variations on a mix of weather, news headlines, sports scores and soft content.

As stated in the past, content is an after-thought – the stuff between the ads.

Not enough people, though that’s changing, have come to grips with how content is the reason people will bother looking.

Very targeted vertical networks are sometimes, but not always, an exception to the norm as they develop and deliver programming – like health and wellness messages in medical settings – that is contextually relevant to the viewers.

Guys like Onestop Media Group in Toronto have done some very interesting work with writers and film shorts – though most of the mix people see on the subway platforms of Toronto is the usual busy screen news and weather thing.

Then there’s Pumptop TV, which has about 7,000 screens on gas pumps in 15 DMAs in the US – and has spent the past year or so really pushing the accepted boundaries on content for this medium. There will be other people and companies I don’t know about, but as far as I have seen this company more than any other DOOH network operator in North America has really gone away from conventional programming.

Doug Woo, Pumptop’s chief strategist, says his company was doing programming like everyone else until about a year ago – when they looked at the marketplace and saw how media was shifting … with mobile and online, in particular, transforming the way people consume content. Woo says they had a choice of watching it evolve, or becoming part of that evolution.

The company, with consultant Arlene Zeichner, looks at its work as part of the effort of developing a new art form intended for the dynamics of audiences that in this  case are captive, but only for a matter of a few minutes. The net result is they have pretty much dropped data feeds from news and weather providers, and also dropped any notion notion of using material from mainstream broadcasters who don’t get this medium and just think TV programming fits anything.

While some other large footprint networks are doing content deals with NBC and the other TV networks, Pumptop has been making arrangements – under a variety of terms, and often quid pro quo – with online video entities who are looking to extend their brand awareness and reach. Instead of Katie Couric staring down and telling people squeezing the gas nozzle what’s on the evening news, Pumptop has 30-second custom shorts for things like fitness, fashion, technology, healthy lifestyles and wine – the latter with online wine advisor Gary Vaynerchuk.

Zeichner describes the material as “discovery content” – stuff people didn’t know. In other words, the programming delivers value, as opposed to just being something to pass the time as the fuel pours in.

Woo says the company has had far more luck working content deals with these sorts of companies than with mainstream media firms. One of the reasons they are able to get attention and action is because their footprint is national and they have a lot of eyeballs.

There’s a core content strategy team of three people, including Zeichner, and four motion media producers/editors working on the programming. Some video material comes in and Pumptop re-touches it. More and more material comes in ready to go, based on Pumptop’s parameters and the content producer’s interest in working in a new, very different medium.

So does it work?

Probably, but there’s nothing yet to really quantify that. The research that’s done on the network (aka the money spent) is on measuring and validating audiences, and recall rates were already high prior to the new focus on good content. Zeichner says they are turning to other tools like social media to try to understand audience sentiment and generate feedback on what they are doing.

I watched the demo reel and I generally like the approach. Pumptop has the notable advantage of being able to use audio, and longer form 30-second spots because people need to stay put as they pump gas. Most DOOH content is silent by necessity.

The result are quick, to the point vignettes from online personalities and from other material. They are effective and often have stinger message at the end noting the spot is specifically for Pumptop. Thirty seconds is not a lot of of time but it’s possible to convey useful and entertaining messages.

There are sponsor and message banners on the bottom of the screen and to the left, creating that classic “L” screen layout, with video in the big window. Some spots go full screen. I understand the argument that modern media almost always now requires visual and mental multi-tasking, so having multiple screen elements is therefore OK and good.

I just don’t buy it.

When people are looking at one thing, they are not looking and ingesting the other thing. Why introduce elements that compete for attention?

That said, I have a lot of appreciation for what Pumptop is doing. More than anyone, as far as I can tell, the company is introducing online and user generated content into this medium, and starting to change some really tired ideas about what people want to and should see on DOOH screens.

If I was organizing industry conferences and summits and so on (and Zeichner spoke at Kioskcom, but I didn’t catch the session), I would be getting these folks in to tell their story and experiences. I’d also pay more attention, in general, to what they are doing. It’s not perfect, and they know it, but it’s moving the medium in the right direction.