One of the things I have noticed in recent months is the number of empty billboards that adorn Mumbai. In fact, I would say that more than half the billboards lie vacant today. When I say vacant, I don’t exactly mean blank. We obviously have the phone numbers painted in bold or the occasional god man or god woman staring down solemnly and showering blessings upon the neighbourhood. But apart from that, the billboard business is in a sorry state of affairs. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the era of billboards seems to be on the way out.

While there is no doubt that digital media is responsible for the impending demise of billboards, I personally feel that this medium of advertising has always been overrated. Why? Simply because the costs charged for advertising on billboards on a monthly basis run into a few lakhs per billboard if not more for good locations. And if that’s not all, the efficacy of billboards is highly debatable. In Mumbai, for instance, there are two prime audiences for billboards – passengers in vehicles and pedestrians. If we consider cars, I doubt whether passengers stick their necks out and notice the billboards. The same goes for buses. Also, a lot of these billboards are not placed comfortably within the line of sight.

When it comes to pedestrians, we know Mumbai has tons of them. But how many have you noticed actually standing and paying attention to anything? Life has become so busy that everyone is on the move. On top of that, billboards at best raise awareness, but does the above audience even fall in the target zone? The numerous bus stops, buildings and pole boards that block billboards at times also don’t make it any easier. Hence, the role of billboards in marketing is somewhat questionable from an ROI perspective in today’s times. There are some exceptions obviously. For instance, marketing for movies or for businesses in the vicinity could be considered as plausible.

The biggest blow to billboards has been obviously dealt by the advent of digital media. There are two aspects that make this a very attractive proposition. First, the costs are very low and can be controlled. Second, the reach is vast and can go beyond the constraints posed by physical locations. On top of that, the target audience can be reached systematically as opposed to billboards where there are absolutely no guarantees. While I have taken the example of Mumbai, I am sure that the same applies to the other metros across India. At this point, smaller towns make more sense as digital media penetration is not as high, but then neither is the traffic in general.