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Inside Outfront Media’s $1bn plan to digitize NYC transit ad space

One of the new digital displays Outfront Media is placing throughout New York

Manhattan's population increases from around 1.6m people to 3.1m people every work day thanks to the massive amount of commuters traveling to the borough, according to 2010 census data.

The New York City government says the average commute into New York is just over 40 minutes, about 14 minutes longer than the national average.

Here’s what all that looks like as of mid-2018, courtesy of data scientist Justin Fung.

“The commutes are bad, the trains are late, they don't have train times, there are random accidents,” said Outfront Media chief commercial officer Andy Sriubas.

Sriubas is hoping Outfront’s recent billion dollar contract win with New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will not only help share important information to improve the passenger experience, but also prove to be a boon for advertisers in the out-of-home space.

Outfront won a 15-year, roughly $1bn contract in September 2017 to install digital screens in city subway cars, subway stations, Metro-North Railroad cars, Long Island Rail Road cars, and city buses. Outfront already has digital screens in New York's Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal and is planning to add more in each transit hub.

Outfront and the MTA will partner to install the new screens over the first seven years of the deal, while the remaining eight will be spent on updating and replacing screens as necessary.

Installations of these screens, called Liveboards, began in 2018. So far, Outfront has fit various MTA lines with more than 2,000 screens. Through the first quarter of 2018, Outfront has upgraded 84 subway stations.

As part of the deal, 15 MTA employees moved to the Outfront offices to streamline communication.

What it looks like

Outfront partnered with engineering company Videri and manufacturing company Wistron to create the new array of Liveboards.

Currently, the most common screen is the 6xt Liveboard on subway station walls. Sriubas said they’re purposely built for transit advertising, as they’re completely sealed to keep out the brake dust and condensation that often ruin digital screens in subway stations.

Eventually, the most common screen type should be square screens, 32in by 32in, in subway cars with about four squares in every car. Subways will also have 48-inch-long banner-like ads running along the top of cars. Outfront is currently testing these displays on seven of the 7-line trains.

The biggest screens, at either 65in or 55in, will sit above ground over subway entrances. Sriubas said these ultra-bright, weather-resistant screens are the most expensive of the bunch.

Sriubas said a major challenge is installing modern displays in a notoriously outdated subway system.

“[The subways] don't necessarily have all the wiring for power, they don't necessarily have all the connectivity, they don't necessarily have all the allocations for brackets, so all of that has to be redone.... It is a challenge,” said Sriubas.

Although Outfront and the MTA will be adding digital screens to city buses, they won’t yet be open to advertising because Outfront is focusing on other projects.

The two won’t be phasing out static ads on subway station walls, because they’re still commercially viable, Sriubas said.

“It's a different price point, and it's maximizing the revenue for agencies,” he said.

What it means for advertisers

Overall, Sriubas believes this upgrade has changed the way Outfront bids for contracts with advertisers. He sees the network of displays as “one big smart interface” of varying screen types and locations that can capture an increasingly granular audience.

“It used to be posters on walls. We didn't really participate. It was just free money to [the MTA]. We gave a revenue share and paid a guarantee,” said Sriubas.

“Now with digital screens that have all the functionality your phone has hanging on a wall, we can push anything to it. It becomes a toolset for the MTA, for the state, for us to not only monetize the wall space and the audiences there, but to also push messages.”

Through a partnership with Ground Truth, Outfront can track someone’s location via cellular data and match that to nearby, visible ads. This help Outfront measure attribution and build audiences that advertisers can buy against.

When it comes to messaging on Liveboards, Outfront can now shuffle among ads, transit updates, and local content, such as sports and news.

Sriubas said this mix of content will help “earn the attention” of passersby, and that displaying general information won’t come at the cost of advertisers.

“I can say to an advertiser, ‘Do you want mornings? Do you want afternoons? How much of the time do you want?’ You still can generate an impression,” said Sriubas.

“If I'm sitting there... I see the ad once. I don't have to see it constantly for five minutes. I can show you seven or eight ads, and you become ‘impressioned' multiple times.”

Sriubas added that Outfront will be phasing out touchscreen displays, a once-novel idea that’s now been replaced by smartphones and other personal devices.

“From a business standpoint, we're a one-to-many medium,” said Sriubas. “The moment you walk up to the screen, touch it, and turn it into a personal experience, you're taking away the opportunity for everyone else to have that impression.”

Outfront has similar mass transit contracts in Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, and Washington DC; Sriubas said there are more to come. He said the goal is to install around 50,000 Liveboards up across all markets.

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