Some writers dream of penning scripts for Super Bowl ads. Some writers still salivate for a hearty sales brochure. Not me. Give me a 48′ x 14′ vinyl canvas, an audience traveling at 70 mph and you’ll have yourself one giddy wordsmith.
No other advertising medium, to my knowledge, is as challenging for a copywriter as a billboard, because let’s face it, as writers, we like to write – a lot. That last sentence had four, count ’em, four commas. That will never happen in a billboard.
Rise to the Challenge (4 words)
Billboards are big, but cars are fast. A typical Interstate billboard is 48 feet wide by 14 feet high. That’s an enormous sign and it has to be when you consider that the Interstate speed limit in North Dakota is 75 miles per hour. Heck, there’s even an Interstate speed minimum of 45 miles per hour just to keep things interesting.
Most text books say a billboard should contain no more than seven to 10 words. For perspective, on a so-called “micro-blog” like Twitter you could fit three billboard messages into a single post. Throw in a logo and a call to action and that 672 square feet starts to feel a little claustrophobic.
Seize Billboard Success with These Tips (6 words)
Mince Your Message (3 words)
Think in words. Write out exactly what you want your billboard to say and then start hacking. Most of the time, my billboards start at 15-30 words. That’s okay. Get your idea out first before grabbing your machette to slash the overgrowth. Here’s a bonus tip: When I write a billboard, I type the message as large as I can on my computer screen. Then, I get up and walk by it. If I can’t read it clearly by the time I pass by, I know the message is too long.
1,000 Wasted Words (3 words)
Images are great. They can quickly support your limited copy space. They can grab a driver’s attention. They can add the memorable hook. But they can also distract from your message. As I drive through the Fargo-Moorhead area, I’m saddened (yeah, so I get sad, wanna fight about it?) by the amount of good advertising messages smothered by images that fail to support solid copy. This is my second word of advice. Mince your words to maximize your white space. Get rid of images that don’t pull their weight.
Re-Think Words. Re-Think Images. (6 words)
Ever heard the term, “write once, edit twice?” If you said no, that’s because I made it up. If you said yes, well, that’s a pretty good idiom isn’t it? Once you have the tightest copy possible and have removed all frivolous images, you can start to concentrate your message even more. See if your image can support the copy to the point where you can shave off words or use this opportunity to put your image to the test and decide if you still need it.
Ask for One Thing (4 words)
Too many billboards succumb to “call-to-action overload.” Most companies have several points of contact: a Web addresses, contact person, phone numbers, exit numbers, street addresses or social media sites. Just to type out the words “phone number, website, ramp exit, contact person and street address” puts you at the 10 word maximum. Instead of contact overload, choose one way a driver should contact your business. If your billboard is in close proximity to your business, direct traffic (literally) to your business. If not, choose the form of contact that’s easiest to remember. Often times, a Web address has the most recall.
Explore the Studio Space (4 words)
To stand out at high-speeds, the billboard medium offers some cool tricks. One of the most common is what’s called an extension. In it’s simplest terms, a billboard extension is a shape that sticks out of the billboard’s traditional, rectangular shape. Billboard extensions are a great way to increase impact because they drown out the monotony of seeing rectangle after rectangle on the road. The downside to an extension is the production cost. But if impact matters, billboard extensions are a great way to give your spot a little more oomph. It should be said that more real estate doesn’t equal more room for words. Instead, use the impact of the visual shape to enhance the overall visual message.
Big Words. Small Message. Major Impact. (6 words)
Billboards are a worthwhile challenge. They require a keen eye for frugality and can put any brand message to the test. But if you embrace the challenge, you’ll be surprised how simple and effective this age-old medium can be.