Ocean Outdoor’s Head Of Insight, Steve Bernard, On Using Neuroscience To Better Understand DOOH Ad Audiences

May 24, 2023 by Dave Haynes

A lot of digital out of home media is marketed mainly on the basis of reach – essentially the scale of the aggregated network and the audience reach that’s realized. It’s more about math than science.

But the UK out of home media company Ocean Outdoor is very much interested in the science of advertising, and over the last decade, Ocean has commissioned a series of studies that measure brain activity and how people respond to the visuals of advertising and other mediums like social media.

While a lot of audience measurement is about counting people and characterizing behaviours, Ocean has commissioned five studies that take participants into a lab, put something like an electrode cap on their heads, and measure how they respond to campaign visuals.

The newest study, called Digital Out Of Home: The Vital Ingredient, looks at how digital out of home optimizes the use of social media. The research found that using socially amplified digital out of home, changes how brands are perceived, and the value of their role in the media landscape.

I got a rundown on the background and the findings of this research from Steve Bernard, the Head of Insight for Ocean.

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Steve, thank you for joining me. For those people who don’t live in the UK and maybe aren’t in the media business, can you explain what Ocean Outdoor does, its footprint, and that sort of thing? 

Steve Bernard: Of course. So Ocean started its life about 15 years ago, and we exist in the UK out-of-home media industry. So what that means is that we are selling premium digital screens to a range of advertisers across the UK. As I said, the business started back in 2008 with just a handful of sites, but in the period between then and now, we’ve grown our portfolio sites significantly. We now have well over 600 locations in total, and that’s largely digital out-of-home screens. So some of those are static digital screens that show static imagery on them. Some of them are moving images so we have the ability to display moving images to the public, and whilst many of those screens exist on what we call roadside locations, so typically to the side of roadways and also on pedestrian pavements, that kind of thing, sidewalks, we also have several screens within internal environments so shopping malls are one of our big sort of environments that we exist in and what marks Ocean out as different from its competitors is that it’s very much focusing on selling to advertisers that premium network of digital out-of-home screens. 

And indeed, the environments in which those Oceams screens are located, for example, those shopping malls I referred to a moment ago, are often the most premium environments that exist in the UK. So, for example, we have a contract with Westfield, which is one of the largest shopping mall brands globally, and they have a significant footprint in London. So we have the advertising space on the external side of Westfield’s locations: two locations in London, one in Stratford and one in White City, and we also have screens in the Edwards and James Mall, which is a premium shopping mall in Edinburgh in St. James’s quarter, and we also have a footprint at Canary Wharf Mall. So Canary Wharf, for those who don’t know, is quite a key business environment within London which typically has financial businesses. So by having our advertising screens in a location like that, we know we’re reaching a very high-end premium audience.

And very quickly we have just started putting screens in Battersea power station which is again, another new premium shopping environment in the heart of London. So what works us out differently is our premium in inventory, and it’s very much about digital out-of-home screens.

We’re talking primarily because your company has put out neuroscience research, and I’m guessing at least that one of the reasons you’re investing in that level of research is because you do have premium properties, and you’re selling your advertising at a premium so there’s probably a higher demand for proof of impact and proof of audience on all those things. Is that accurate? 

Steve Bernard: Yes, very much so. We always need to identify different methods to measure the effectiveness of premium digital out-of-home. One of the things about the out-of-home universe, if I may call it that, is that it’s fairly varied in terms of the formats, in terms of the size, in terms of whether they’re digitized or whether they’re static posters.

There’s a variation in environments as well, and so we know that not all out-of-home sites are the same in terms of the kind of impact that they deliver, and because we specialize in the premium end of the out-of-home universe, yeah, we need a methodology, which not just marks us out as different from our competitors who use more conventional, if I can call it that, research methods, but also something that is going to truly measure the impact of that premium out-of-home space.

So with neuroscience research, what are you doing? I realize that you’re not doing it and that you’re commissioning a third-party company, Neuro-Insight to do that work, but what’s involved? 

Steve Bernard: So ultimately, what we’re trying to elicit is how people are thinking and feeling about a stimulus that’s presented in front of them and to move that into the out-of-home context, what we’re fundamentally trying to show is that by running premium digital out-of-home prior to other media channels for any given brand or any given campaign, that primary effect, that first impact is going to have a profound outcome in terms of how the audience discerns those other media channels. And we call that the priming effect, and during the course of the neuroscience studies that Ocean has run over the last decade or so, it’s always been about trying to elicit that priming effect of premium digital out-of-home on other oot-of-home formats, for example, which was the neuroscience one or on other media channels completely like television or mobile campaigns.

That’s ultimately what we’re trying to show is that by leading with premium digital foam, a brand is able to ensure that how people take away the message on the other channels that they’ve run is fundamentally different compared to if they weren’t running that premium digital out-of-home beforehand.

So what happens? You’re not taking people who are participating in the research out on the street or anything like that. This is in a lab or something, and you’re putting a brain or a skull cap on of some kind?

Steve Bernard: Correct. These studies are largely done in laboratory settings and controlled settings. And yes, as you’ve described there, the participants are made to wear these kinds of headsets, which are able to measure the various cognitive functions that are coming to the fore, as I say, when that participant is exposed to a particular stimulus or stimuli, be that digital out-of-home advertising or a brand in digital out-of-home advertising or seeing a brand in another context entirely so a TV advert or other out-of-home campaigns or indeed social media campaigns, which will I’m sure I’ll come on to in a moment. 

So what did you learn? Did it validate assumptions, or has the research surprised you guys? 

Steve Bernard: I think we’ve always had this view that the effect of premium digital out-of-home and not just, can I say pre premium digital out-of-home, but also iconic out-of-home. One of the sites we also have in the UK is Piccadilly Lights. So that’s at London’s Piccadilly Circus. It’s like a mini version of. Times Square in New York, if you can imagine Times Square in New York, Piccadilly Circus is a sort of a version of that, and we’ve always had this sort of expectation and this view that those kinds of sites are clearly eliciting different emotional outcomes for brands advertising on those platforms versus other more conventional formats.

As I said earlier, it’s a very varied sort of universe. But clearly, the way in which someone consumes a message displayed on Piccadilly Lights, for example, or any of these other premium digital out-of-home sites that I’m referring to is gonna be different from how they consume that message on a bus shelter poster, for example, or a more conventional roadside billboard. So we’ve always, as I said, had that expectation of difference. 

So the research is validating. But I think in respect of the lace neuroscience study that we’ve just launched in the UK and in some of our other European territories, which Ocean is based, we’re able to show actually quite an interesting relationship between digital out-of-home and social media and a relationship, which I think for advertisers has yet to be fully realized, and hopefully, with this study, we are drawing attention to the closer relationship that these two platforms have. Digital out-of-home on one hand, and social media on the other, and as a result, getting advertisers and their agencies to think more about how they plan these two media channels together.

Can you give me an example of how they, how the two mediums intertwine, and how digital out-of-home primes social media channels or social media interests?

Steve Bernard: Absolutely. So to set the context a bit on this, typically within the advertising industry, you can put different media channels. So traditional media channels like television or radio, newspapers, magazines, and out-of-home and newer media channels such as mobile advertising or social media, you can have those on a sort of access, and you can look at that access based on how strong those channels are delivering what’s called performance. So highly measurable, highly targeted on one side, and the sort of more intangible effects, so branding effects, brand equity awareness, fame, consideration on the other end of that spectrum. 

So you have performance on one side and branding on the other, and you would typically see social media at one end of that spectrum on the performance side, and digital out-of-home and out-of-home are widely on the branding side of that spectrum because the view has always been that they do very different jobs. One is highly measurable or highly targeted, and the other is about reaching huge numbers of people in a public space. So one to many versus one to one. 

What we have noticed over the last two years, it’s probably been going on for longer, but over the last couple of years, is more and more examples of famous people, if I could put it that way, celebrities, influencers on social media, et cetera, promoting out-of-home content on their social media channels. So you’ll typically see examples of famous actors or pop stars or musicians generally Tweeting or Instagramming a picture of themselves on an out-of-home canvas. That could be a banner site, or it could be a digital out-of-home screen. but very much promoting themselves on that platform, and we would contend that they wouldn’t necessarily do the same thing if they saw themselves on a magazine page, or even in a television advert because a television advert is overtly a marketing function. Whereas the interesting thing, the unique thing about the digital out-of-home and home more widely is that its public furniture, I guess you could say, it’s a public message in a very public space, and so I think that’s why there’s this relationship between known public figures and communications in the public space and that’s the out-of-home space.

So that was happening over the last couple of years, we really wanted to explore that more deeply. On the other end of that is that more and more advertisers themselves are promoting their content, their out-of-home content, I should say their brand from a digital screen, on their social channels and we’ve seen examples from Amazon and Meta and a range of other advertisers who are who are increasingly looking at these kind of really exciting executions that they can deliver on the digital out-of-home space, and rather than sharing on their social feed, on their Twitter or Instagram a conventional advertising message, they will utilize that out-of-home content within the social media space. So you’ll get Amazon Prime Video, when they’re advertising a certain program, they will have performed an execution on an iconic site or a premium digital out-of-home site, and then they will tweet or Instagram the out-of-home campaign on their social channel, and that’s really interesting because that represents a significant step change for our industry.

It’s not necessarily just about reaching all of these people who walk past our sites on the ground every week, every month, et cetera. But the opportunity for that advertising to be seen much more widely by people who have not encountered the advertising on the ground, and that leads to all kinds of interesting questions about what is the true reach of an out-of-home campaign and like I say, that’s very unique to our industry, given its greater level of creativity that’s at our disposal now, given the greater proliferation of high impact digital out-of-home sites, and given the proliferation of a greater level of technology, which enables us to bring these campaigns to life in new and exciting ways.

There’s a lot going on there, and so wrapping all of that together, because of this idea, this concept of sharing the out-of-phone campaign on the social media channel, fundamentally, there is a strong relationship between the two. Again, this is something that we’ve wanted to explore for some time, and we felt that neuroscience, given that it elicits precisely how people think and feel about something that they’re exposed to, versus another sort of research technique, like a survey or a focus group, we felt that neuroscience is the perfect way in which to measure the impact of this type of concept that I’m describing.

There’s also this interesting phenomenon that’s bubbled up in the past couple of years where you have brands commissioning motion graphic designers to create a digital out-of-home ad, usually some sort of anamorphic illusion of some kind on a building where there isn’t actually a billboard, but they design it in such a way that it makes you think that there is a billboard there and those seem to get one hell of a lot of social media shares, even though they’re not actually physically booking a digital out-of-home campaign. 

Steve Bernard: Yeah, that’s absolutely true, and again, it’s this idea that as an industry in the out-of-home space, we have a unique opportunity to capture the imagination of the audiences that encounter the various creative executions that we deliver.

And it’s no surprise when you look at how welcomed and trusted different media channels are, out-of-home quite often appears at the top of those kinds of lists when they’re ranking different media channels, which as TV and radio and online, et cetera. Out-of-home does really well in terms of being more welcomed and more trusted versus other media channels.

And I think that’s because we have, as I say, just a really strong opportunity to capture the imagination of people as they’re going about their daily business in an unobtrusive way. It’s also the idea that out-of-home generally is one of the most venerable media channels in existence. There were people putting up painted billboards and painted communication on buildings a long long time ago, and that venerability is everlasting. People will always want to see things in the public space, and seeing them in the public space gives an inherent notion of trust. In a way, we would argue that isn’t necessarily the case with one-to-one communications and certainly not online communication, desktop ads, et cetera. We know that brands who are appearing in the public space are trusted because they’re in the public space because it is seen as a public medium.

So yeah, we have a lot of opportunities to capture the imagination in welcome unobtrusive ways, and as I say, there’s now an opportunity to take all of the benefits of using out-of-home in the physical space, moving those benefits into the online space.

Were the rationale and the budgetary argument for doing this kind of research different a decade ago than it would be now?

I assume that a decade ago, digital out-of-home media companies had to work a lot harder to sell the medium itself, there was still a degree of skepticism, and a lot of it was just being sold on gross audience impressions and not a hell of a lot else, versus today where there is all this level of sophistication.

Steve Bernard: I think that’s an evolving story. Fundamentally, the medium is still traded very heavily on reach, how many people any given campaign reaches, the frequency of encounters, and ultimately the number of impacts or impressions that a campaign is delivered, and that’s chiefly how it’s valued really. 

I think one of the great things about this study and any series of studies that Ocean has done with neuro insight over the last decade is that with each of these studies, we are communicating to the wider industry the value of neuroscience., which has a very unique value. Now the company we work with on these, Neuro-Insight, they’re a global neuroscience business. Still, they started their life in Australia, and it’s very interesting that in Australia because this is not the case in the UK, in Australia, they incorporate what they call a neuro impact factor into their audience currency. So how they value outflow medium in Australia factors in these types of techniques, so it’s not just a case of looking at reach and frequency and impact over there, there is implicitly this role of neuroscience coming to the fore, and the data that you see for different out-of-home formats and environments over there, and this is something that here in the UK, we’re yet to do with our own out-of-home audience currency, which is called root.

But the long-term ambition would be for this type of methodology, this kind of study to at some point be incorporated into the out currency because, as I say, the out-of-home currency is very robust in that there, there’s an awful lot of heft that goes into its methodology and an awful lot of inputs, data inputs there. A variety of sources. As I said earlier, there is clearly a different role played by sites such as the Piccadilly Lights or premium digital formats generally versus more conventional out-of-home formats, which are traded really on reach. There’s a fundamental difference in these different parts of the industry.

An advertiser would be able to buy a thousand bus shelter posters, for example, or 2000 billboards on the side of the roads, up and down in the UK, and the value of that is in the reach, in reaching literally millions of people in any given period of time. Where this kind of study differs and focuses on is the unique sort of relationship that a relatively small number but high-impact sites have with an audience, and these kind of sites, these unique sites enjoy strong reach. Still, really their difference with more conventional standard out-of-home performance is that there are relatively few of them. Therefore the impact, if I can use quotations of how it’s making an audience think and feel is very unique compared to more conventional out-of-home formats, which are traded purely on reach.

They’re not differentiated from each other at all. So a bus shelter is a bus shelter. The same in London as it is in Manchester or Birmingham or et cetera. This is very much about showing the value of these more unique sites, more premium unique sites. 

Do you have to invest the time with media planners and with brands to explain this methodology and. what’s coming out of it, or do they inherently understand it? 

Steve Bernard: No. It’s very much the former. We spend a lot of time explaining how we put these studies together. They’re complex studies. There are lots of different elements within neuroscience here in the UK. It’s growing. It’s a developing research study. One we’ve pioneered at Ocean Outdoor within the out-of-home context, but we do have to spend a lot of time explaining the methodology, there is always a great deal of interest when we go out to present these agencies or out-of-home buying specialists, et cetera, or when we go to clients directly here in the UK because it’s quite a unique method because it doesn’t have, at this point, a more widespread adoption, I guess you’d say.

So that means its uniqueness means there is an awful lot of interest to hear what we have to say. But it is always an interesting experience, kind of communicating the different elements of the methodology of neuroscience. I mean with the social media study, the vital ingredient, as we’ve called it, is us looking at the priming role of digital out-of-home on social media channels. There are an awful lot of moving parts to this. All that always relies on that always requires a lot of expectation. Fundamentally what we’re measuring, the outputs are cognitive functions, as I’ve mentioned earlier. These cognitive functions are a mixture of engagement and approach towards a brand, memory, emotion, attention, et cetera and it’s these kinds of outputs that we show uplifts for when we’re presenting results. But again, it requires constant explanation because these are not elements you could describe them as, which are talked about a lot in research. A lot of the time, when we’re communicating, out-of-home research, it’s very much in looking at the effect of a campaign on brand awareness, or brand consideration, that kind of thing, and those kinds of terms are much more widely understood on the part of the advertising industry. But these kinds of outputs, like I say, cognitive functions, attention approach, engagement, et cetera, require a lot more explanation. 

Is it a differentiator? In other words, would you have a circumstance where a media company, not Ocean, but a competitor Decaux or whoever is seeing planners, and would they actually say, okay, where’s your neuro research, or what does your neuro research say? And they would say, well, we don’t have any. 

Steve Bernard: So neuroscience study within the out-of-home context in the UK is still relatively rare. It’s something, of course, as I’ve said, that Ocean has pioneered because it’s particularly about measuring sites, which fundamentally it’s harder for the out-of-home currency to measure. So the value of neuroscience to us at Ocean is that we need unique methods to measure the effectiveness of what we would call unique properties. 

Our competitors would be less likely to involve themselves in this type of study purely because our competitors here in the UK have a much wider portfolio in terms of volume, right? So in some cases, thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of different out-of-home formats because they’re selling scale, reach. 

Fundamentally, they’re selling size, and they’re selling the idea that reaching so many people in any given period of time has an inherent value, which, of course, it does. But as I say, neuroscience is a complex methodology. Still, one which is particularly useful when measuring unique properties and Ocean Outdoor of any outdoor media owner here in the UK has the unique properties, high impact, and famous premium locations, which makes this the perfect sort of methodology to use to measure their effectiveness.

You’ve done five of these studies over the pace of 10 years, is there a cadence to it? Are you doing one every two years, or are you done now? 

Steve Bernard: That was a really interesting question. Each of the neuroscience studies has focused on the priming effects of digital out-of-home on another type of advertising format, from Neuroscience One, which looked at the priming role of premium digital out-of-home on wider outer home campaigns, and Neuroscience Two looked at the television, and we’ve over the years looked at things like mobile and the effects of priming digital at home on mobile. 

I think it’s hard to say, but there’s been one every, as you say, every two or three years when the time is right. We felt that with this study which began its life last year, we felt that because social media channels were playing much a much more significant role within the advertising industry generally, and not just in the UK obviously but globally, we felt that there was a particular value in looking at the relationship between our own medium and these platforms. Where do we take this next? That’s a really interesting question.

This study has already garnered a lot of interest here in the UK amongst agencies and clients. It’s also something we have communicated to our other Ocean Outdoor locations. We have offices in Sweden and the Netherlands and across Scandinavia, and there’s a lot of interest there. My colleagues and I have been presenting this study at events in Europe. So because of the level of interest that this is generating again, not just here but internationally, I think there will be a lot of ideas that come from this, focusing on areas that we want to explore further. Things that we weren’t able to pick up necessarily in the study that we launched last year, but looking at more specific elements within them. So it’s hard to say exactly where we’ll take this next, but I think there will be a lot of ideas being discussed with us as we take this more widely 

For people who have been listening to this and thinking this sounds interesting, I’d love to see the data or see the findings or whatever. Is that accessible, or is that something that you only share with your customers? 

Steve Bernard: So it’s something that we will always share with our customers first.

It allows us to have quite in-depth discussions with them about their media planning generally. So that’s the first aim. We always ensure that the findings are displayed on the Ocean Outdoor website. So if you go on the Ocean Outdoor website now, you will see the findings from the previous four studies and they’re readily accessible, and this study, of course, in due course, will be communicated on the website. It’s something that we’re sharing a lot on our social media channels, as you might imagine on LinkedIn, Twitter, et cetera. 

We’re always happy to talk to people face to face or on an online forum about the study in more detail. In terms of the data itself, we’ve found some really interesting things in this study, as I said, these are two platforms, digital out-of-home, and social media, which, in the perception of advertising planners, exist on different sides of the advertising spectrum. But we’ve proved with this study that there is a significant priming effect of digital from digital at home on what advertisers are already doing on social media. For example, we’ve seen significant effects on dwell time. So that’s the time people spend with an advertiser’s brand post. That increased by 32% when the campaigns were primed by digital out-of-home.

Where we’ve seen a really really interesting finding is what happens when the digital out-of-home content itself becomes a social media post. So rather than an advertiser doing a conventional brand post, they can display the out-of-home campaign on their social channels. We saw, again, a 54% increase in dwell time. So again, that’s time spent with that social communication cause of the primary effects of that socially amplified content we’ve seen increases in emotional intensity, and we’ve seen increases in a specific cognitive function called approach, which is ultimately or essentially people becoming more positive towards a brand when they see the campaign begin on digital out-of-home, then on social media.

So what we’re really saying is that digital out-of-home is making campaigns online more approachable, making the brands more approachable. They’re pressing the emotional buttons, which emotion is key in turning attention into long-term memory. We’re enabling more time to be spent on social media communication. That’s a key role of the priming effect and, most fundamentally, at this point. Finally, it is the fact that if you see the campaign, so let’s say you’ve got an advertiser who uses out-of-home and puts that on their social channel, there is a tangible benefit from doing that for that brand versus if that brand was to just do a conventional brand post on Instagram or TikTok without the participant having seen the campaign in the physical location.

A lot of what I’ve described here is about the priming effect. But if you take away that priming effect if you just look at an audience who hasn’t encountered the digital focus screen and you just compare how they felt about seeing it, seeing that phone campaign, on their social feed in sit versus if they just saw that brand, that same brand doing a standup brand post. There is a tangible benefit for that brand in terms of approach, a 21% increase in approach and a 3% increase in memory. That’s really exciting because that suggests a much wider audience out there for campaigns that go viral, and that’s the raw power we have as a medium, we can make social content more appealing to that audience.

We can do that for a brand. We’re not just giving a brand the great benefits of the physical location, but we are also making a social media campaign for that brand more positive. I’m a part of the audience. It’s really exciting, and lots of different layers to this study. So like I say, the results will be fully available for people on our website, but we would also welcome the opportunity to discuss it further at any given time.

All right. Thank you very much for spending all this time with me. That was terrific. 

Steve Bernard: Thank you very much.

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