The Digital Signage Insider

Can you count on having a captive audience?

Published on: 0000-00-00

In last week's article about "the captive audience conundrum," we started exploring whether it was safe, productive or even appropriate to call an in-store audience "captive". That is, assuming that shopper demographics, psychographics, psychological need states and shopping contexts are all conducive to considering a given shopper group to be an audience in the first place, is it ever OK to treat them as a group trapped in the current retail environment, if only for some short period of time? Whether one answers 'yes' or 'no' to this question can significantly influence the direction that in-store marketing practices take, particularly with content designed for rich media channels like in-store audio and video networks.

When I think about all the different venues where you can find digital signage these days -- stores, malls, airports, and so on -- it seems that there are some places where it may be more appropriate to take the captive audience position than others. With this in mind, I've put together the following list based on my understanding of how each kind of venue works to determine the "captivity level" of a given potential audience. Admittedly, this kind of analysis heads into uncharted waters -- at least in the digital signage space, as far as I'm aware. Consequently, all I can offer here is my opinion based on observation and anecdotal evidence, which is hardly the kind of stuff that real decisions should be based on. Still, some people may find this primer useful as a starting point for their own examinations.

Transit and transportation venues

To start with, places like airports and train or bus stations can have very heterogeneous populations whose audience cohesiveness may vary with the time of the day and the day of the week. For example, while the group of people walking through New York's Penn Station is relatively similar in terms of psychological context and need state at 8:30 am on weekday mornings, it's extremely heterogeneous at 7 pm on a Friday evening. I'd thus argue that it may be appropriate to dub these groups an audience some of the time, but not all of the time. When looking at audience captivity, airports and other transit terminals have a limited monopoly on their services within a given area, so consumers have little choice in using them to go to and from their destinations. Consequently, while media projects in these venues still need to optimize for audience heterogeneity and context, they don't need to worry that their audience will simply start going to a competitor's venue in order to escape. By the same token of course, if customers feel the need to escape, something is clearly wrong with the way the venue is treating them. A good rule of thumb when developing out-of-home advertising content is to assume that the audience is never captive. If they don't like what they're watching/listening to, it's best to assume that they can get up and walk away, or find other ways to ignore your message (like focusing on their iPod, BlackBerry or laptop). This approach helps align the interests of advertisers, content producers, and audience members alike, since producing more visual clutter doesn't benefit anyone in the long run.

Hospitality and health care venues

In the hospitality industry, most of the new media projects I've seen have been barker channels, lobby signage and wayfinding applications in hotels. None of these are likely to cause much grief for patrons since they're largely avoidable. While demographics in hotels can vary widely, the nice thing is that patron need states are going to be relatively homogeneous, since most people who stay in hotels are visitors from out of town, and will thus be primed to receive information about local offerings and events. Hospitals are similar in terms of the use of digital media, as well as the relative cohesiveness of patron need states. Hospital patients and their families, visitors, etc. are in a new and unusual environment, and are primed to receive information about products and services that they might not have felt the need for before (although each viewer's interests may vary based on the condition being treated and other factors). So while there will of course be content differences between hospital and hospitality networks, I'd argue that the degree to which their patrons might be considered an audience is about the same. As for audience captivity, I wouldn't consider either of these audience to be particularly captive, since it is easy to avoid most digital media network implementations. The one exception would probably be emergency room waiting areas in hospitals. That's one area of the venue where patrons need to remain in relatively the same place for long periods of time, and typically any distraction is a welcome one.


I've actually been in diners and bars on more than one occasion when patrons would either move to a different area or even leave the venue altogether to get away from what they perceived to be annoying digital advertising. That's a pretty clear indication to me that the signage purveyors in those particular venues haven't quite mastered the art of monetizing their screens in a way that is useful, not harmful, to customers. Much like retail shoppers, customers in a restaurant can vary from largely homogeneous (like in some very high-end establishments), to very heterogeneous (at your typical "middle-of-the-road" diners, bistros, etc.). In addition, there are numerous options within any restaurant niche, so these businesses work very hard for customer loyalty. That puts them quite low on my captivity meter. As for whether restaurant patrons are even an audience or not, I think certain categories of restaurant like QSRs and fast-casual venues may have more audience-like patrons, who have more homogeneous need states and in-store consumption patterns. The audiences in fancier or more formal "white tablecloth" restaurants start to become quite diverse in terms of psychographics and demographics, as well as shopping context and mode. It's pretty hard to optimize content for a group of patrons who might be dining out for their 40th wedding anniversary, a child's birthday, or a first date all at the same time.

Retailers and shopping malls

Last week's article looked at some of the factors that need to be considered when judging whether a particular group of retail shoppers can be considered an audience. With regard to audience captivity, I think Supervalu's Jeff Weidauer hit the nail on its head when he said we should never consider retail shoppers to be a captive audience. Like restaurants, retailers face constant competition in every category, and consequently customer loyalty, good PR and promoting repeat business are all extremely important. Retailers are constantly working to make their stores more friendly and easier to shop, so any digital signage content perceived to be irritating or detrimental to shoppers is going to get pulled -- fast (hopefully). The one obvious exception for retail captive audiences is at the checkout lanes, where both context and need state suddenly become homogeneous. After all, everybody wants to spend as little time in line as possible, pay for their goods, and get on with their lives. It doesn't really matter whether somebody is at a Best Buy for a $5 mouse pad or a $5,000 laptop: the checkout lanes create a temporary zone of equality. Of course, it's still a very bad idea to aggravate customers with low-quality checkout channel content, but in the course of content creation, I think it's fair to consider shoppers in checkout lanes as a captive audience.

These are only a few of the many different types of venues where digital signs are being placed today. While these examples look at the generic or prototypical location for each category, I'm certain that there will be exceptions to every guideline. But getting back to our original question, why is it important to know whether to treat your viewers like an audience of reasonably similar individuals? I'd say that there are two main reasons: first and foremost, you never want to annoy your viewers, and assuming that they're all like-minded or pursuing the same goal in-store is a great way to fall into that trap. Second, when you create a piece of content for an "audience," you will probably do things differently with regard to the audio and visual cues than if the content were created with a more generic body of random shoppers in mind. In other words, content can be optimized to be shown in front of an audience as opposed to a random group of people that happen to be in the same place. While content producers have become quite good at optimizing for different demographics and merging venue design cues into custom-produced spots, I still haven't seen many ads that take customers' mental contexts and the purposes of their trips into account. Considering how competitive many out-of-home media networks are becoming, this kind of optimization has the potential to elevate ho-hum networks to industry standouts. At the same time, such an approach may improve the store experience and lead to other benefits for network operators, venue owners and third-party marketers alike.

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