Dead Time Lives Again: Digital Signage on Public Transport

A Necessary Evil

The dreaded commute. Most of us do it every day, and complaining about it is a national pastime in Britain. Commuting is known to have a raft of negative physical and psychological effects, with the impact increasing as journeys lengthen. Longer commutes lead to lower overall wellbeing, increased stress and boredom, and even higher divorce rates.

Brits face the longest commutes in Europe, with Londoners spending an average of 54 minutes and two-fifths of workers in the West Midlands travelling for two hours or more each day. According to census data, an enigmatic group of 100 people a week even commute from the Orkney Islands to London, a distance of 530 miles as the crow flies.

Transforming Dead Time

Most journeys in major cities will involve a stint, or several, on public transport – whether that on the metro, buses or trams. The thousands of articles providing listicles about making the most of your commute, commuting “mindfully” and the routines of the more successful, show an inherent anxiety around the wasted or seemingly dead time of public transport. But is there something to be gained from this liminal time, and can there be psychological benefits to the time spent in the “in-between”? Being in transit, but at the same time passive, can open up unassessed seams in our thoughts. Perhaps you have experienced the pensiveness of a long train ride, the sudden resolution that comes staring out of a rain-soaked bus window, or an epiphany when sitting alone on the underground.

Dead Time Lives Again: Digital Signage on Public Transport

Poems on the Underground campaign by TfL

Travelling, but at the same time remaining physically passive, can leave us more receptive to outside stimulus as well as our own contemplations. It is the perfect time to provoke or inform through lengthier ads that might be passed by in other out-of-home locations. For example, the Poems on the Underground campaign by Transport for London has sought to offer moments of transcendence on the Tube for the last thirty years by reprinting celebrated poetry.

New technologies can also offer moments of levity and entertainment on public transport. For instance, commuters were surprised by adverts projected on the Beijing Metro’s subway walls, which appeared to project moving images as they travelled by.

Dead Time Lives Again: Digital Signage on Public Transport

Beijing Metro “Moving Ads”

Advertising Opportunities

Public transport networks are an amazing setting for digital signage, particularly as this is the only one in which people report feeling positive about ads, in stark contrast to online. People actually enjoy out-of-home adverts on the tube and bus networks more than anywhere else. This is perhaps a matter of any stimulation or entertainment being appreciated in otherwise “dead time”.

The public transport network also provides a huge amount of data on when and how people make their commuting journeys, allowing campaigns to be targeted and implemented strategically. So we have a relatively captive and unprecedentedly receptive audience, and we have a wealth of data to understand their habits.

But how can marketers make the most of this opportunity? Digital signage in  particular offers benefits in terms of engagement, dynamism and refinement. Once the right software network has been set up, it can allow for a “test and learn” approach to maximising the effect of ads, for example timing them to play anew after each train departs, ensuring the content is always fresh.

Other than targeting, content should be designed around the unique psychological impact of the commute – its potential for stress and boredom, but also deeper engagement and contemplation. Rather than simply grabbing attention and communicating with maximum efficiency, content can seek to entertain commuters more holistically, make them think and offer more complexity and depth. This is an opportunity to take a universally maligned daily necessity, and add an element of excitement, contemplation or education.

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