Billboards are a boring staple of advertising but an initiative by billboard giant Clear Channel Outdoors America (CCO) - Get Report  may help change the perception that they're quaint and ineffective in a world of whiz-bang digital marketing technology.

Clear Channel Outdoor Radar will help advertisers track key information about consumers. That includes where they are driving and visits to retailers (that is, which billboards they are likely to see and how effective they might be). Perhaps most importantly, the program may help brands and their agencies to correlate a driver's route to sales. 

Clear Channel launched Radar Feb. 29 and will initially target 11 major markets, including Los Angeles and New York. The company will widen its focus throughout the U.S. over the rest of 2016. Clear Channel Radar is partnering with three companies that offer services related to tracking individuals' locations and buying babits. The company can map a consumer's travel and shopping patterns against the location of billboards. For example, the Radar system can theoretically help a brand determine if someone has bought an item after passing a billboard that advertised it. 

But the technology is already raising issues of privacy. Privacy advocates have compared Radar to Big Brother, the fictional watchdog from George Orwall's novel 1984. The advocates have said that an individual should have a right to privacy in certain public areas. The same argument prompted some municipalities to eliminate cameras that catch drivers who've run red lights or are speeding. 

Clear Channel said that it is doing nothing beyond what mobile advertisers have been doing for years to pinpoint consumer behavior. A company spokesperson toldNational Public Radio that the company would only view aggregated data to determine trends, not collect information about individuals. Mobile advertisers and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been using data about consumer behavior to help create more effective marketing campaigns. 

But that trend has not applied much to so-called Out-of-Home advertising, which covers billboards and smaller displays in public areas. Clear Channel, a public subsidiary of iHeart Media, is the oldest outdoor advertising company in the U.S. and remains among its largest. Its holdings including not only billboards but mall, airport and transit advertising of various sizes. In an interview with Media Village, Clear Channel Senior Vice President of Research and Insights Andy Stevens said that he saw Radar as a way of translating digital insights to the "out of home" space.

AT&T Data Patterns, a unit of mobile carrier AT&T, gathers location data from subscribers. Place IQ and Placed. PlaceIQ uses location data from apps to help understand consumer behavior while Placed pays consumers to track their movements. Placed uses this data to link exposure to ads to store visits. The three companies insist that the data they collect is anonymous and and aggregated and that they respect consumers' privacy. 

The Radar program will allow companies to see trends, including the number of people who pass billboards, their average age and gender. That will enable brands and their agencies to pinpoint their campaigns so that they are more engaging. The use of technology offers follows a pattern of out of home advertisers looking for ways to help customers understand consumers and reach them. In recent years, a number of them have mounted cameras to observe passersby. But the Clear Channel program is meant to provide more in-depth analysis. 

A Radar test program in Orlando, Fla. with the philanthropic shoe manufacturer TOMS showed promise. It found that individuals who 
were exposed to the TOMS' Radar campaign were 25% more aware of TOMS' social mission. They were 122% more likely to speak about the TOM's brand with friends and 44% more likely to purchase TOMS' shoes or other products. 

Clear Channel has struggled to find ways of growing its business at a time when an increasing share of advertising is moving online. The company's share price has dropped 60% in the past year. In the past quarterly earnings statement, revenues fell 3.2% and the company sold off some of its assets to a competitor, Lamar Advertising.

Clear Channel is banking that out of home advertising is still relevant, and there is evidence to support this. Arbitron's 2013 outdoor advertising study reports that people spend an average of 20 hours a week on the road. 

The study found that:

  • 46% of drivers look at billboards all the time or most of the time
  • one in four people who viewed a billboard in the past month visited the ad's associated website

In addition, new developments in billboard technology are allowing advertisers to change ads frequently or swap them out for others. But that depends on understanding ads' effectiveness.

TOMS VP Business Development Jordan Glassberg said that the Radar campaign helped his company see what was working in greater detail. 

"Using state of the art digital measurement, Clear Channel was not only able to show that OOH ad recall was among the highest of any media channel, but also proved that the OOH drove significant increases in awareness of TOMS' social mission, which was the primary campaign goal," Glassberg said. "For us, the supporting data reinforced the power of our creative on the outdoor canvas and helped validate our media strategy." 

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.