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Jody Smith of Broadsign: unlocking new communication potential in the era of smart cities

Smart cities have long been a concept reserved for sci-fi films, but with recent technological advancements, they’re quickly becoming a reality. Media owners have begun to make city-wide audiences available and more addressable using smart city technology in less intrusive ways than the retina scanning technology that served up personalized ads in sci-fi thriller Minority Report.

For instance, sensor technology built into digital posters is used to more accurately estimate the number of shoppers in the vicinity at a given time of day, while traffic monitoring provides insight into traffic patterns that can be used to adjust playback duration on billboard content.

Taking cues from the ad industry, urban planners are exploring how similar data and technology can be implemented to improve urban life. Across the globe, cities are getting smarter. A recent report projects the smart cities industry to exceed $1.2 billion by 2022, a figure that will continue to trend upward as new advances in big data, AI, IoT, 5G and sensor arrays make smart cities more viable. But what makes a city intelligent, and what role will advertising play in the continued smart city evolution? How will smart cities change the way brands communicate with audiences?

A smart city uses real-time data and technology to improve the urban experience while keeping the populace informed via channels such as road signage, shopping kiosks, connected vehicles, and mobile devices. New York City, London, Philadelphia and Newark have already begun implementing smart city elements.

Intersection’s interactive Link kiosks (below), spread throughout city sidewalks, provide residents and travelers with free Wi-Fi, access to municipal services, transit routes, directions and more. Another great example is JCDecaux’s sustainable smart bus shelters in Paris, which provide real-time traffic information and USB charging ports.

A key function of any smart city is informing the public, which requires a means to communicate everything from AMBER Alerts to natural disaster warnings and transit outages/updates. Digital out-of-home displays typically used for advertising, along with mobile devices, are quickly becoming the conduit through which smart cities communicate these messages to the public. In the near future, we’ll likely see the number of “smart” kiosks grow, as well as more traditional outdoor displays and street furniture become digitized.

Building, powering and maintaining these communication outposts, however, requires extensive financial backing, and cities are beginning to explore various means to fund these projects. To date, public-private partnerships have proven one of the more favorable options. A number of private sector businesses have been working with local governments to provide resources for communicating with citizens, such as Intersection’s LinkNYC kiosks or Sidewalk Labs’ investment in the Sidewalk Toronto project.

For private companies to sustain these projects, monetization is key, and advertising is proving a viable revenue stream. LinkNYC is funded in part by ad revenue and on track to generate more than $500 million for the city over the course of 12 years, and Kansas City, MO has already started to see ad revenue roll in from 25 smart kiosks backed by Cisco and Sprint. As a result, the audience that advertisers want to reach will likely play a key role in determining the location of displays and sensor technology.

Smart cities arrive at a prime time for the ad industry, in an age of ad blockers and DVR, and one where consumers are increasingly fatigued by what they deem an onslaught of irrelevant mobile and online ads. They open up potential for brands and advertisers to rethink how they connect with consumers, and more accurately target the right audiences at the right time with meaningful content that proves useful to locals and travelers as they navigate their days.

Using geolocation, traffic and Wi-Fi data from smart city technology, brands can deliver more personalized, omni-channel campaigns with location-based messaging – whether on a mobile device, nearby digital billboard or kiosk, a connected car, or a combination thereof. For instance, a passenger stepping off a city bus around lunch time might interact with an ad that provides discount for a local restaurant a few blocks away as they check the transit schedule.

Smart cities are a win-win for advertisers and the public. By enabling the development and delivery of more targeted, relevant messages, they allow brands to leave a lasting impression with audiences, which could result in greater brand loyalty and influence buying behaviors. At the same time, local residents and travelers benefit from advertisements that cater more specifically to their needs and interests, as well as the information that ad-funded smart city technology provides.

There’s no doubt that cities around the world are rapidly embracing smart technology to improve urban life. At the simplest level, today I can pay for parking without any change or a meter in most cities, and in others I can find a free parking spot on an app and reserve it. Factor in self-driving cars, and eventually we’ll have our own personal valets. Smart cities are quickly simplifying our day-to-day, and once commonplace, the old way of doing things will seem as foreign as using a paper map today versus a GPS.

As they continue to evolve, advertising will be a key piece of the puzzle, as both a monetization source and influence on the messages we see every day on the street, in transit, via the internet and on our mobile devices. The data that smart cities generate, handled responsibly, introduces a host of new opportunities for advertisers to measure and reach audiences in new ways, giving the industry a chance to reshape consumer perception of and interaction with advertising overall.

Jody Smith is product manager at global digital signage provider Broadsign.

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