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Picture This: Gas Station TV

Jun 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer

Digital signage fuels a new revenue model for advertising.


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Gas Station TV, installed in gas stations throughout the United States, uses a local Scala InfoChannel system to run unique advertising that drives the company’s revenue.

Airport and sports arena installations may be the poster children for digital signage, but they don't really represent the future of the burgeoning industry sector. After all, there are only so many cities with airports and major sports complexes large enough for major installations. A broader, lower-profile penetration is needed to reach a critical mass and signal to the potential client base that digital signage can pay off.

And what could be more broadly based than digital signage at gas stations? Gas Station TV (GSTV), for instance, installs digital signage monitors above gas pumps in major cities around the United States, with the promise of delivering a captive targeted audience with nothing to do for roughly four to five minutes while they fill their tanks but watch the display. By offering those viewers a combination of programming content and messaging, the company suggests that advertisers and gas stations can both generate more business.

GSTV is little more than a year old, but at press time, the company already had about 1,000 screens operating at 150 to 200 filling stations in Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston, as well as a couple of prototype stations in the company's native Detroit. By the end of the summer, GSTV expects to be up and running at gas stations in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia, with more than 6,000 screens by year's end.

But, wait a minute — does this development mean that gas station clerks are going to be crafting messages to pitch free donuts or discount Slurpees in their spare time? That is certainly one way to control digital signage messaging, and that sort of local, hands-on approach might be essential in places such as restaurants that wish to promote evening specials based on what's available, but it would probably be impractical given the staffing demands at most filling stations.

Instead, think of GSTV as a cable TV network that delivers programming and advertising over a broadband network on a specific schedule throughout the day. As is the case with a TV network, advertising drives GSTV's revenue, which includes a mix of both national and local market advertisers inserted into programming. Some of GSTV's early advertisers include Fortune 100 companies such as Wal-Mart, Dodge, Jeep, Chevrolet, Progressive Insurance, and 1-800-Flowers, plus a variety of local restaurants, media outlets, and shopping establishments.

GSTV content includes national programming licensed from ABC and ESPN, as well as local weather, traffic, event calendars, and news stories from local media partners. Advertising is interspersed between content segments, just as it would be on a cable TV channel — albeit at a faster pace to leverage the four to five minutes each motorist actually spends at the pump. And it's all assembled at Gas Station TV's headquarters in Michigan using a Scala InfoChannel system. Video content files are uploaded each day to a local computer, and then played according to a playlist and married locally with unique messaging that can be programmed to change throughout the day.

Naturally, the Scala system can create, manage, and monitor individual playlists for each market or each independent station, thereby varying local content, advertising, and station-specific messaging as needed. Individual stations can theoretically offer custom promotions or promote local restaurants by working with GSTV's Scala operators, and without leaving individual clerks or night staff responsible for changing messages on the fly. Still, that's a big step up from the modest LCD text that currently runs at many pumps continuously for about 60 to 90 days at a time.

Indeed, the gas stations themselves have little to lose, other than the closet space needed to house a local computer and Scala player. That's because, somewhat surprisingly, GSTV doesn't charge the gas stations for the equipment. Working with local contractors, GSTV installs the equipment and maintains ownership of the physical LCD displays at the pumps, the networked computer driving the displays, and the Avocent wireless extenders that deliver content to the displays without the need for awkward — and potentially hazardous — cables around the pumps.

ADVERTISERS AND EYEBALLS

No doubt, the aggressive policy of installing equipment at no charge is geared toward gaining a large number of screens — and eyeballs — in a relatively short period of time. More eyeballs attract more potential advertisers, which has already allowed GSTV to demand ad rates that are comparable to many typical cable TV stations.

Yet, GSTV — indeed digital signage — may already have a huge advantage over traditional television and television advertising because of its inherent nature of targeting viewers that already have specific characteristics. It's no secret that in the age of TiVo and other digital video recorders, fewer viewers than ever are actually watching the expensive ads that play on broadcast television. TV advertising is a broken — or at least breaking — model for reaching customers, and major corporate marketing departments around the country are trying to find more effective ways to reach their target demographic.

Gas Station TV is offering those advertisers four to five minutes of virtually uninterrupted eye time from people that are mostly between the ages of 18 to 54, own a car, need to travel, are already spending money, and typically are returning customers. It's the kind of focused demographic that TV stations used to offer regularly before TiVo.

It's also the kind of demographic that ought to ignite the digital signage market, or at least open the eyes of visionary installers looking to expand their digital signage businesses. We typically think of digital signage in terms of the cost of installing equipment and the challenge of producing continually changing content to fill the screens. Those digital signage poster children have it easy because their job is simply to disseminate information more efficiently than before.

But maybe those high-profile airport and arena installations are underselling themselves and, by extension, the digital signage sector. Information dissemination is critical at places such as airports, but digital signage may have a lot more to offer in terms of revenue models. Maybe it's not so much about the costs of installation, but the opportunity to communicate to a targeted audience.

By its nature, whether digital signage is at a terminal, shopping mall, restaurant, business lobby, college campus, or gas station, whoever put it there probably has a pretty good idea of who is likely to view its content. And while nobody really wants to be inundated by more advertising at every turn, that is the reality of the culture in which we live. If it has to happen, at least it ought to be to the benefit of our industry.



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