Billboard Mastery Podcast: Episode 11

Understanding Visibility

Billboards are all about being seen – that’s one of their most important traits. Yet most people don’t understand the science behind the visibility of a sign, and how to approach deciding whether it has enough of it to be viable. In this Billboard Mastery podcase, we’re going to review the science of visibility and how you can be an active participant in making it better.

Episode 11: Understanding Visibility Transcript

A sign is of absolutely no value if you can't see it, but how do you define a sign that can be seen from one that can't be seen quite enough? This is Frank Rolfe of the Billboard Mastery podcast. We're talking about unlocking the secrets of visibility, really understanding visibility regarding billboards and what is acceptable and what is not. Now, when I first got in the billboard business, I didn't myself understand what it meant to build a sign that had an acceptable amount of view. I would look at a sign and say, "Look at that billboard. I can see it from a mile away. It's just a little dot on the horizon. Isn't that a great sign?" Then as I approached it, suddenly it either went at the top of my windshield because the sign was too tall or it might've vanished behind some trees or other clutter.

What I learned from that is it doesn't really do you any good to see the sign from a long distance, it only matters once you can actually read the ad message. The general theory on this is that for sign to have good visibility, you have to have 400 feet of clear visibility right as you come up on the sign. As long as you can see the sign for about 400 to 500 feet away, that's the point which you can actually read the ad.

Test it yourself. Your odometer, one click of your odometer is 500 feet roughly, 528 feet. Look at a billboard as you're going down the highway and see how many clicks of your odometer you're away from it before you can actually read the message. The answer is typically about 4 to 500 feet distant. If that sign has clear visibility, if you can read that ad message with no blockage between you and that message on those last 4 to 500 feet, then that sign has what is effectively good visibility. Even if you can't see it from a mile away, even if you can't see it from 2000 feet away, it doesn't matter. You can't read the message that whole time anyway.

Now you might say, "Well, now I could read that sign there." Okay, what's the message on that sign? Just a giant McDonald's logo with an arrow. Again, that's not your typical sign. Your typical sign is going to have many more words than that. Probably at least 10 words. Probably words that have a height of the character, I don't know, maybe as little as a foot and a half, 18 inches in height. You can't see that from 2,000 feet away. Look at your average site and see how far it takes you before you can read it. You're going to find it's typically about 4 to 500 feet.

That being the case, how can I get a handle on whether my sign can be seen 4 to 500 feet back when the sign hasn't been built yet? That's why it's so very essential that you do. What's called flagging of the sign. Don't know why they call it flagging, except it looks kind of like a flag pole. There's several ways you can do flagging.

One is you can buy a collapsible fiberglass extension pole. It's built for the survey industry. It goes up to 45 feet in the air. You can take that pole, go to where your sign goes. I typically would put the pole on the nearest edge to the road based on your setback. You pull up each piece of pipe and you twist it. It locks into position. I'd take that thing up about 45 feet in the air and now I can select what that 45 foot measurement. If my sign is a 14 by 48, then that's going to show me what it would look like if it was 60 feet high, or if the sign is going to be about 45, 50 feet high, I'll count that pole as the top of the sign. That lasts five feet is not going to be that essential.

Now I can have someone hold that pole, I can get in my car and drive it just as though the sign was already there. I can take photographs and then I can go ahead and print the photos and I can draw on the rectangular shape of the sign, starting at the edge of that pole and I have a wonderfully precise idea of can you see it or can you not? Now, if you really want to get fancy, another way to flag a sign is to use what's called a sky hook crane. You take the big ball, where there's the hook of the skyhook crane, that would be the bottom of the ad face. Then you take a tape measure and attach that to the clip on the bottom of that and then you raise it to the precise height the sign will be above ground. You now have an even more accurate way. The flagging pole kind of blows in the breeze. This doesn't blow it all. It'll be able to tell you even a more precise idea of what you're looking like.

Either method is going to help you a lot because it takes the subjective idea of what a sign looks like in a fantasy world that doesn't even exist yet and it tells you now more concretely, can you see it or not? When you do it, you're going to find, often, that you got to change the height. You maybe you need to raise the thing up five feet to get it above some other obstruction. It's going to save you a lot of unhappiness once the sign is built. Flagging the sign is one way to check your visibility, a very important way to check your visibility.

Another option is just to remove whatever obstructions there are. Done that a million times. Let's assume that there's a big old tree right in front of the sign visually as you're going down the highway. Well, I could not build the location or better yet, let me go to that neighbor who has the big old tree on their property and ask them if I can trim that tree back, cut it down, if I can pay them in order to do that. Or you might enter into some kind of vegetation agreement where basically you agree to pay them a monthly amount, giving you the full right to trim back that tree on a regular recurring basis. Maybe the problem is an obstruction of an old sign that is for a business that isn't even there anymore. Again, you can contact the owner of the business and see if you can just go ahead and tear the old sign down. Done that million times or maybe I can get that premise sign lowered or moved to a different location so it longer blocks me. Well, that's also very possible.

Sometimes once you flag the side and you've identified the obstruction, maybe your best course of action is simply to remove the obstruction. That would make complete sense, I think, to almost anybody, but sometimes you can't move the obstruction. Sometimes you obstruction is impossible to move. Maybe it's a building, something that's very elaborate. Maybe they won't work with you even when you ask them. Does that mean you have to abandon the location? No. Sometimes you can work around that.

I always harken back in my mind to a billboard I had out in Watauga, Texas. Now, I had a permit to build the sign, but the problem was I had to clear the roof of a church and I couldn't. I couldn't get the sign over the roof of the church for the entire length of the read that I needed to make sure that I had a clear read, but it was such a great location. Almost no billboards on that road. I really wanted to make it happen. What did I do? Well, I just decided the ad face would not be your regular rectangle, would instead be an L-shaped formtion. You see, you can see about the entire sign from about the middle to the left. The church didn't block that portion. Then you could see from about the middle up on that right-hand side. Picture that for a moment. It's an L-shaped ad. I then basically made that my ad.

I found an advertiser, someone who was a custom home builder, and I made up an ad that was L-shaped. Sure, it was unusual, but they didn't really mind that much because they really wanted to get traffic on that street. I sold them on the fact that since it was an unusual shape, it would garner maybe some additional attention and for all I know, it probably did. That was a case where I couldn't remove the obstruction so I embraced it. I worked around it. Sometimes you have to be creative with those obstructions to fix them.

Now, have I ever built a sign that I couldn't fix the obstruction and didn't have 400 feet of clear read? The answer is yes, I've done that. Been there, done that. I, one time, had a sign that was in a great location, but it has such a short read it was almost impossible. How did that work? Well, I priced it insanely cheap. I was able to build the sign cheap and I priced the ad very cheap. I would tell people it has a really, really short read, but it's so cheap. I also found that I could still make that sign effective by using really bright colors and really large words. As you came out from behind that row of trees, it grabbed your attention and you looked over at it. That was super important because now the advertiser still felt like they were getting a good value for their money because even though the read was short, it still got you to look over at the side and it still got the ad message out there effectively.

Another time, I had a side that was only effective in the winter. There was trees obstructions all during the years when the tree is green. When all the trees' leaves fell off, right around a six month period where you could read the ad pretty good. When all the leaves fell off, suddenly it went from being behind cover of a big green screen to something that you could readily see. I could only rent the sign half of the year, but you know what? I can't rent a sign for half a year so I still rented it for a year like normal. I just didn't charge them during the months where the tree was in front. They didn't much care. They renewed on the sign over and over again because it was such a great ad message during the winter. To be honest with you, for a lot of businesses, winter's the key thing. Christmas season, boy, that's normally when retailers sell the most, right?

The bottom line is be creative with obstructions, understand visibility, be the master of visibility and don't be afraid to be a little creative in getting there. This is Frank Rolfe with the Billboard Mastery podcast. Hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.